It wouldn’t be fall without the pumpkin. The round, ribbed gourd is central to autumn celebrations – with its orange shell carved into a jack-o’-lantern with seeds set aside for roasting, and the flesh pureed, sweetened, and baked into pie. The pumpkin belongs to popular American food culture but is also eaten the world around.
October is National Pumpkin Month, so let’s share the history of the pumpkin with our children and discover together the many other culinary uses for this nutritious plant.
The pumpkin was possibly the first wild plant brought in to be cultivated and bred for human consumption in the Americas. Archaeologists have discovered the oldest domesticated pumpkin seeds at Guila Naquitz, a cave in the Oaxaca Highlands of Mexico. The seeds date from 10,000 to 8,000 years old. But it took many thousands of years of selective breeding for early ancestors of the common orange field pumpkin to evolve.
Once cultivation altered the pumpkin enough to make it palatable, American Indians used every bit of the plant—seeds, flesh, flowers, and leaves. Pumpkins and squashes of all sorts could be baked or roasted whole in a fire, cut up and boiled, added to soups and stews, or made into porridge and pudding. Strips of pumpkin were dried and woven into mats, and the dried outer shells of pumpkins and squashes found new life as water vessels, bowls, and storage containers.
Pumpkin is an excellent source of vitamin A and a good source of fiber and other essential nutrients. Pumpkins are a member of the Cucurbitaceae family, which also includes squash, cantaloupe, cucumbers, watermelon, and gourds. While botanically they are considered a fruit due to their seeds, they are classified as a Red and Orange Vegetable in MyPlate. It is recommended that young children eat 2 ½ - 3 cups of Red and Orange Vegetables, such as pumpkin, each week.
In addition, a one-ounce portion of hulled pumpkin seeds (or about one small handful) is considered 2-ounce equivalents in the Protein foods group. To avoid choking, children under age 4 should not be offered pumpkin seeds unless they are finely ground into other foods.
All parts of the pumpkin are used all over the world as ingredients in savory and sweet dishes – including pumpkin leaves. Cooked pumpkin leaves and peeled shoots are a staple in many Asian and African countries, and served with rice or porridge. The flavor is said to be a mixture of green beans, asparagus, broccoli and spinach. Use tender, young pumpkin leaves for best results. A trip to an African or Asian market is a great way to find this ingredient. Take your children on an adventure to find different varieties of pumpkin leaves, and practice saying what pumpkin leaves are called in other places, like ugu leaves (Nigeria), muboora (Zimbabwe), and chibwabwa (Zambia). A quick Internet search can give you a lot of recipe ideas, a few are included below.
Canned pumpkin puree is convenient to have on hand for cooking and is a nutritious option. Keep your pantry stocked all year round with a can of pumpkin for use in homemade baked goods, dips, and pudding. The pumpkin pudding recipe below uses only five ingredients.
If you choose to use fresh pumpkin, select small, heavy ones for cooking because they contain more edible flesh. The pumpkins used for carving are not so great for cooking, but the edible seeds (pepitas, in Spanish) are great for roasting. See recipe below.
- Andersen, C. (2011). Home Gardening Series Pumpkins University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture.
- Morante, C. (2014). Did you know you can eat pumpkin leaves?
- Orzolek, M.D., Elkner, T.E., Lamont Jr., W.J., Kime, L.F., et al. (2012). Pumpkin Production Penn State Extension.
- Ott, Cindy (2012). Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon. University of Washington Press, US.
- University of Illinois Extension (2018). Pumpkin History.
- Root to Stem Eating, United States Department of Agriculture
This newsletter has been peer-reviewed and was originally written by Laura DeWitt.