Ready for a riddle? What fruit was once thought to be both a great freckle remover and a cure for snake bite? May have helped ward off scurvy among early American settlers and is packed with nutrients that support heart health?
What a shame that, in the UK at least, we only really pay tribute to the pumpkin – don’t all scream at once, a pumpkin has seeds so technically is a fruit – on All Hallows’ Eve and even then our main concern is carving a more impressive jack-o’-lantern than the neighbours.
I don’t remember ever having pumpkin as a child. Let alone any of the squash varieties you can now find readily enough: the small orange queen squash which roasts (and stuffs) really well whole; the onion squash or potimarron; the mottled green, yellow and cream harlequin; and the golden butternut whose sweet flesh makes a silky purée.
The oldest evidence indicates that pumpkins were first grown in central America between 7000 and 5500 BC, with their seeds being brought to Europe by Spanish explorers in the 14th century. The tradition of serving pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving in the US only really became a common addition to the dinner in the 19th century but it’s likely that an earlier version existed where the pumpkin’s shell was filled with milk, honey and spices and baked in hot ashes.
Along similar lines, I love this idea of using your hollowed out pumpkin as a homemade fondue set! And just one other snippet of trivia – 95% of pumpkins processed in the US are grown in Illinois, enough to bake more than 50 million pies annually.
Turnip turns into pumpkin
The carving of Halloween lanterns originated in Ireland but with turnips or potatoes. When nearly two million Irish migrated to the US in the wake of famine in the 19th century, some bright spark spotted the potential in using pumpkins instead.
Linked to the Celtic fire festival of Samhain, glowing jack-o’-lanterns, lit by burning lumps of coal, were put out to welcome dead ancestors and to keep evil spirits at bay. The noun jack-o’-lantern has an even older connotation as a will-o’-the-wisp, a pale ghostly light seen flickering over methane-rich peat bogs and marshes.
In parts of Somerset, a jack-o’-lantern is known as a punkie and in the village of Hinton St George on Punkie Night, the last Thursday in October, a procession of children led by the Punkie King and Queen carry hollowed out mangelwurzels lit with candles. This rare beet also has a starring role in the Irish tale of Stingy Jack whose deal with the Devil backfired, leaving him restlessly roaming the earth with only a hollow mangelwurzel to light his way. Happy Samhain!
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