FROM HALLOWEEN’S CLASSIC jack-o’-lanterns to the bowl of little orange gourds that always decorated my grandmother’s table (from Columbus Day to Thanksgiving), nothing says autumn like pumpkins.
The pumpkin is believed to have originated in Central America, and dates to roughly 5,500 BC. It was one of the first crops grown for human consumption — they store well and are loaded with nutrients, especially vitamins A and C. The seeds are great for you, too.
Early colonists ate so much pumpkin that Boston was jokingly called “Pumpkinshire,” and it’s even referenced in New England’s Annoyances, a satirical song from colonial times:
Instead of pottage and puddings and custards and pies,
Our pumpkins and parsnips are common supplies;
We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon;
If it was not for pumpkins we should be undone.
For the more festive side of things, jack-o’-lanterns can be traced back to the 1800s-era Celtic festival, Samhain (meaning summer’s end). Originally, turnips were carved and lit by burning lumps of coal, and then set out to frighten away evil spirits. Fortunately, in the United States, the tradition substituted pumpkins for turnips (a much easier carving vessel).
Pumpkin pie also has a colonial origin. Settlers sliced off the pumpkin top, removed the seeds, filled the fruit with milk, spices, and honey, and then baked it in the ashes of a dying fire.
Greig Farm in Red Hook grows over 22 varieties of pumpkins and gourds, and offers PYO fun from September through November. Since young kids don’t have the upper body strength to carry a 30-pound pumpkin, owner Norman Greig suggests a three-to five-pound pumpkin to paint and carve. If you’re thinking of growing your own, there are a lot of new mildew- and virus-resistant varieties. Greig recommends Super Herc for carving and Sugar Pumpkin for pies.
As a rule, pumpkins become less durable after cold nights. Other interesting varieties include One Too Many (it resembles a bloodshot eye… how on brand) and Cinderella, a French variety that inspired the Disney illustrators to create Cinderella’s coach.