Pumpkin Lore & Pumpkin Cooking
by Rob Sproule
When it comes to holiday customs sometimes I find myself shaking my head and wondering, “now how the heck did we start doing that?” The hallowed Halloween tradition of gutting, carving, and lighting up a large orange squash is a good example.
Today, I’m digging into the spooky history of the Jack-O-Lantern tradition. If you’d rather cook pumpkins than carve them, I’ll tell you which types of pumpkins are best for your fall baking.
The origins of why we carve pumpkins are found in Celtic folklore. The story of Stingy Jack is that of a clever Irish drunkard who stumbled into the Devil in a bar on a fateful October 31 many centuries ago.
After trading his soul for a drink he tricked the Devil out of his prize by trapping him in an apple tree (this is the abridged version). When Jack died years later St. Peter rejected him from heaven and, because the Devil couldn’t claim his soul, he was sent away from Hades. Given only a burning ember in a hollow turnip to light his way, Jack was condemned to wander through an eternity of darkness, his ghastly lantern visible to the living world. The flickering apparition of his ember became a common sight over bogs, swamps, and marshes.
October 31 became an evening when the spirits of the dead walked among the living. The Irish and Scottish began putting carved turnips and potatoes on their doorstop in order to frighten them away, sometimes these totems were accompanied with humble offerings of food.
When people left their houses that night they would trick the spirits by donning masks. Looking like ghosts, the living walked safely among the dead through the haunted night.
Immigrants from the British Isles brought their customs with them when they came to North America. With turnips hard to find they turned to the native pumpkin to carve on Halloween, instead. It’s amazing to think that millions of pumpkins are carved each year because of one thirsty Irishman who played one trick too many.
Eating your Pumpkin
Pumpkins are good for more than just scaring away Stingy Jack. Their flesh, seeds, leaves, and even flowers are rich in fiber, protein, and a variety of other vitamins. They have been a staple of many Native American diets for thousands of years.
There are dozens of varieties of pumpkins and some are better for cooking than others. As a general rule of thumb, smaller pumpkins are sweeter and less stringy than the larger, more common Jack-O-Lantern types.
Among the hundreds of ways you can eat a pumpkin, a list which includes breads, chowders, pancakes, cookies, and cheesecakes, pumpkin pies are probably the most popular.
If you’re baking pies from scratch, look for “˜Sugar Pie’ types. They’re small and sweet with dark orange flesh. Hollow it out and cut it in half to bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Scrape the meat out of the rind and mash it to get your raw material for pumpkin pie and many other recipes.
Pumpkin seeds are an excellent, healthy snack and can be harvested out of any pumpkin. Put the seeds to one side as you make your Jack-O-Lantern. Wash them well and bake them for 20-30 minutes (until golden brown or to taste) at 350 degrees. Either sprinkled with salt or eaten plain, they’re a great alternative to chips and are full of protein, zinc, and magnesium. Pumpkin seeds have also been found to reduce rates of prostate cancer.