Food Facts & Lore

Pepōn, Pumpion, Pumpkins

The summer of 2018 may be remembered as the summer that never ended, except that it did. Temperatures soared here in Vermont and we thought we’d be wearing shorts and tank tops through October. And yet, nature follows its own mysterious schedule and manages to line things up just as they should be, it seems. Some fields already show evidence of the season at hand. The pumpkins are growing, and the kids are thinking about Halloween.

The fairy tale Cinderella introduced the pumpkin carriage into our imaginations and it also introduced the word “pumpkin” into our everyday language, as it provided its first use in print. The original version, written in 1697 by French author Charles Perrault, used the Old French “pumpion,” meaning “large melon.” This, in turn, comes from Ancient Greek, “pepōn.” Incidentally, pumpkins are often mistakenly thought to be a member of the melon family. It is more accurate to say that they are a member of the gourd family, as are other melons.

About 100 years earlier (1584), French explorer Jacques Cartier reported finding “large melons” somewhere along the shores of the Saint Lawrence river, in Canada. What he did not realize, however, is that the impressive orange fruit was not native to the area. Pumpkins are now grown on six continents (Antarctica excluded), but they are native of Mexico and Central America, where they have been harvested and consumed, as well as used in the fabrication of mats and containers, since at least 7000 BCE.

Today, California, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Illinois are the top producers of pumpkins on the United States. We named Illinois last, but in fact it is believed to outrank the other four, supplying over 80% of the pumpkin market worldwide.

We close this informative pumpkin exploration with an unavoidable topic: the Jack O’Lantern. The pumpkin carving tradition was brought to America by Irish immigrants. Of course, there are no pumpkins in Ireland, but they do have turnips and potatoes, which they used to carve into angry faces and display about their dwelling to scare away evil spirits on All Hallow’s Eve. An ember was placed in each one to make it more impressive. The American pumpkin proved to be a far more impressive, and easier to carve alternative.

Pumpkin-flavored products account for an impressive segment of flavored products sales every year, with revenues totaling over $400 million a year and growing. Pumpkin-flavored coffee is an all-time favorite. What’s yours?