The days are getting shorter, the nights are getting cooler, and once again, we can leave our porch doors unlocked without the worry of neighborhood gardeners filling our benches with their over-abundance of summer squash. However, that doesn’t mean that squash season is over. In fact, the change in seasons marks the beginning of a new season of squash, the fall and winter squash season, with the most famous of those squash being the pumpkin.
Why is the pumpkin the poster child of the fall squash? Because it’s October, the month of Halloween, when everyone decorates their homes in fall décor, with pictures of pumpkins, pumpkin balloons, pumpkin flags, assorted pumpkins and the elusive carved pumpkin, known as the Jack-0-Lantern. October is also the peak of harvest season, when pumpkins and other fall squash ripen after the long growing season and many people are putting up food and preparing for the winter months ahead. Pumpkins are planted in springtime, when the ground is warm and free from frost. Raised mounds or hills work well for planting squash to keep the seeds and plants warm and allow for lots (and lots) of room for the squash vines to grow. Each plant needs almost 20 feet of space around it to grow out onto as the summer progresses. Around September and October, the pumpkin squash mature on the vine from a green, watermelon like color to a deep orange, depending on the variety. Pumpkins are left on the vines in the field until they reach the desired orange color, but should be harvested before heavy frosts set in. Pumpkins come in many shapes, sizes and varieties. Cinderella style pumpkins are dark orange and flatter than a standard round pumpkin. The typical field pumpkin ranges in size from 2 lbs. to 25 lbs., unless it’s a jumbo pumpkin that grows up to 100 lbs. or more. White pumpkins range from miniature to typical sizes and the miniature varieties are available in an array of colors, from white to deep orange, almost red.
When picking pumpkins, choose fruits (yes, it’s a fruit, not a vegetable) that are ripe, have no bruises, blemishes or soft spots and are still attached to the vine. Leave about 4 inches of the stem on the pumpkin after picking so the pumpkin keeps longer. If planning to store a pumpkin for the winter, place it in the sun for 10 days to harden the skin and keep in a dry, cool place (about 50 to 60 degrees) for upwards of six months. For long-term storage, never stack pumpkins or allow them to touch each other, as this will shorten their shelf life.
Pumpkins, like many other orange squash varieties, are rich in beta carotene or vitamin A. Vitamin A is an important antioxidant vitamin that helps protect the body against certain cancers, pre-mature aging and promotes healthy eye development. One cup of pumpkin also contains 3 grams of fiber, less than 50 calories and more than 10% of the daily value of potassium, an important mineral for good health. Canned pumpkin has a greater nutritional value than fresh pumpkin, but this is because canned pumpkin is cooked down and more dense than fresh. Pumpkin seeds, that part of the pumpkin most likely to be thrown out, are even more nutritious than the fruit. The dried, whole seeds contain protein, amino acids such as arginine and glutamic acid and omega 6 fatty acids.
Native American cultures have known forever that pumpkins are a great source of nutrients and beneficial to their diets. They would roast them in the fire and eat them, but when the Pilgrims arrived, they added nuts and honey and maple and spices to the inside to create the first generation of pumpkin pies.
It was when the first Irish settlers came to the new land that the pumpkin evolved from a staple food source to a symbol associated with Halloween. Traditionally, in Ireland, children carved turnips or beets into scary faces and placed hot coals in their hollowed out makeshift lantern. These lanterns were placed about their homes to ward off the spirit of a man named Jack who tricked the devil. He was not allowed into heaven or hell, so his spirit wanders the earth with no final resting place. It is on the night of All Hallows Eve, or Halloween, when the dead play mischief with the souls of the living, that these “Jack-O-Lanterns” decorate their dwellings. When the Irish came to America, they discovered the native grown pumpkins, which were much easier to carve into scary faces than hard beets and turnips.
Whether roasting a pumpkin filled with wild rice, mushrooms, cheese and nuts; baking a savory pumpkin pie or sweet bread; creating a colorful soup tureen full of warm pureed soup; or carving an evil witchy grin into the soft flesh of this fall fruit, October is a great month to celebrate the spirit of the pumpkin and the bountiful harvest it represents.
Great places to celebrate the pumpkin in our area: • Great Pumpkin Farm, Clarence NY www.greatpumpkinfarm.com • Pumpkinville, Great Valley NY www.pumpkinville.com • Other pumpkin patches and markets, www.pumpkinpatchesandmore.org
Dodi Kingsfield, Technical Services Supervisor, Freelance Writer and Author. Dodi is employed as a Technical Supervisor for a large food manufacturer in Dunkirk, writes childrens and young adult books and does freelance writing for the web and magazines. Married for more than 20 years and a full-time mother of five, Dodi enjoys yoga, organic gardening and telling tall tales. She can be reached through her e-mail address at email@example.com.