Don’t worry, I’m not going to actually list that many ways to use pumpkins. There may not be that many– on the other hand, there may be considerably more, but I fall asleep about time my list gets up into the late teens. This time of year, when supermarket parking lots are overflowing with those big orange orbs and all their pink, white, green, red and brown cousins, and every farmers’ market and farmer’s child has a sign out front advertising bargain prices for them, I wonder just what happens to all of them, once Halloween and Thanksgiving are over and forgotten.
There was once a time when pumpkins were raised for food. The producers of commercially canned and frozen pumpkin are quick to inform us that food pumpkins and jack-o-lantern pumpkins are quite different from each other and we should trust those in the food business to protect and prevent us from confusing the two. This ploy, of course, is intended to scare us away from any notion of raising a pumpkin or two for our own Thanksgiving pies, thus causing the bottom to drop out of the canned pie pumpkin industry.
During my childhood, farmers planted their cornfields in hills rather than in rows, and spaced evenly apart both vertically and horizontally. Before the days of selective herbicides, this was because it was necessary to cultivate the young cornfields, in both directions, a few times during the early growing season in order to stay ahead of the weeds that sprouted up. There were usually three corn plants growing in each hill and, later on, pumpkin seeds were planted among the young corn. The pumpkins were harvested, some for sale, some for livestock feed, and the farmers’ kids and wives commandeered a few of the choicest ones for jack-o-lanterns and cooking.
In the kitchens of rural America, pumpkins were usually baked, or cut up and cooked down to rid them of excess moisture. The cooked and mashed pulp could then be canned for later use, or made into a number of tasty treats– most involving sugar and spices. Plain mashed pumpkin, seasoned with a little butter, salt and pepper was not an uncommon winter vegetable on dinner tables for a good many years. Served very much in the same ways as squash or sweet potatoes, pumpkins could be stored like squash, in basements and root cellars, alongside the apples, onions, potatoes, carrots and other root vegetables that our ancestors depended on to see them through the winter.
Aside from the traditional pumpkin pie, pumpkin can also be incorporated into quick-breads, cakes, cobblers and cookies. A sweet and spicy spread resembling apple butter involved a great deal of splattery cooking-down to rid it of excess moisture. This was a good way to use up some of those stored pumpkins that wouldn’t keep until spring. The best way to deal with the splattering was to cook the pumpkin butter in a large kettle in the oven (during winter, a fire was usually kept burning in the kitchen range for warmth and hot water, so why not cook something at the same time?). PD NOTE: This ending punctuation looks weird. What do you think?
I recall someone telling me, during the 1960s, how to roast the seeds we’d scooped out of those Halloween jack-o-lanterns, as if it were a new discovery. I guess they didn’t know that, for hundreds of years, pumpkin and squash seeds had been soaked in salt water then roasted for eating. Such seeds are high in nutrition and fiber, and provide a tasty, nut-like addition to cooked cereals and cookies. They can also be ground up and added to the dry ingredients for breads, cakes and pastries.
And then, of course, hobbyists are constantly devising ways to use pumpkins in crafts projects. Those charming miniature pumpkins come in several colors, including white and multi-colored ones that are more closely related to gourds than to true pumpkins (they tend to simply dry out over time rather than turn soft and rot as the fleshier pumpkins do) so they make ideal elements for centerpieces and other seasonal displays.
Not only is the world over-populated with pumpkins in infinite variety, some fools have actually gone out of their way to produce fake pumpkins. I see plastic buckets shaped like pumpkins (some with painted jack-o-lantern faces); exquisitely lifelike ceramic versions, some with interior lighting, others deceptively au naturale; light-weight plastic foam and inflated balloon versions; strings of miniature pumpkins that pretend to be Christmas tree lights; orange yard-waste bags with eyes and grins in black. In a world buried up to its ears in pumpkins, I find it odd that anyone would feel a need for fake ones.