Pumpkins are an odd phenomenon in our society. Although nearly every other squash and gourd in their family is considered ugly and relegated to seasonal side dishes, during the month of October, the lowly pumpkin becomes the star of the show.
As one of the iconic symbols of autumn in this country and especially in New England, where it fits in perfectly with the famous hues of our fall foliage, the pumpkin is quite beloved. But has anyone ever stopped to wonder why?
Many believe that the pumpkin’s popularity lies in its best-known fall usage, the jack-o-lantern, which can trace its origins to an ancient Irish tradition of carving lanterns out of vegetables. When the tradition was imported to North America, it was associated with the harvest, not Halloween in particular; but as time went on, the ghoulish gourd carvings that we all know and love became a staple of All-Hallows Eve.
Pumpkin picking, although less popular than apple picking, has always been a rural tradition in the Northeastern part of the United States. While it is true that the practice has declined in popularity since the days of Charlie Brown and The Great Pumpkin, it has experienced a resurgence in recent years and is fairly easy to find orchards in Western Massachusetts. McCray’s Farm in South Hadley, for example, offers hayrides to and from their pumpkin patches, and is open daily throughout the season.
Carving faces and planting candles in the big orange squash may be its most popular and iconic use, but it is far from being the only one. Throughout the U.S., a peculiar tradition has arisen which combines farming with engineering and has created an entirely new application for the classic gourd. Dubbed “Punkin’ chunkin’” by its participants, the sport of pumpkin launching involves the construction of various mechanisms – ranging from simple slingshots to wooden trebuchets to massive pneumatic cannons – were designed to launch the orange veggies as far as humanly possible. Even the pumpkins themselves are specially designed, with many championship “chunkers” claiming to breed the most durable and aerodynamic squash on the market. The world record for chunkin’ distance is recorded at nearly 1,500 yards.
Pumpkins, due to their thick flesh and unique autumnal flavor, have found their way into a variety of different culinary traditions, not just in North America but throughout the world. Soups, pies and cakes are the standard fall favorites, but new concoctions such as pumpkin ice cream, muffins, chips and even beer have hit the market in recent years to great success. Dogfish Head Brewers in particular has a spicy and delicious Pumpkin Ale which is sure to satisfy anyone with a craving for hops and squash.
Pumpkin seeds have a culinary tradition of their own, as they can be spiced and roasted as an autumn substitute for salty sunflower seeds. In addition, their oil is of a particularly potent variety, and is widely used in Central and Eastern European cooking as a flavoring additive.
For those who are interested in doing a little bit of baking themselves, pumpkin pie can be difficult to master but impressive for big events. For something a little bit simpler but every bit as good, try the following recipe for a delicious pastry with just the right amount of pumpkin:
Mrs. Sheridan’s World-Famous Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Bread
Makes Two Large Loaves
2 cups pumpkin
1 cups oil
2/3 cups cold water
Combine the following:
3 1/4 cups flour
3 cups sugar
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
Add to pumpkin mixture and mix.
Add one cup of chocolate chips and mix by hand.
Bake in an oven at 350 degrees for 1 hour in greased pans.
Cool and wrap in waxed paper and foil.
So next time you see the giant orange gourd on a doorstep or in a store, remember that it is more than a jack-o-lantern waiting to happen. Pumpkins can be tasty treats, spicy ales or deadly projectiles. They are a symbol of the season, and they are everywhere.
Andrew Sheridan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org