The word pumpkin originated from the Greek word Pepõn which means large melon. The word gradually morphed by the French, English and then Americans into the word "pumpkin." Pumpkins and squash are believed to have originated in the ancient Americas. These early pumpkins were not the traditional round orange upright Jack-O-Lantern fruit we think of today when you hear the word pumpkin. They were a crooked neck variety which stored well. Archeologists have determined that variations of squash and pumpkins were cultivated along river and creek banks along with sunflowers and beans. This took place long before the emergence of maize (corn). After maize was introduced, ancient farmers learned to grow squash with maize and beans using the "Three Sisters" tradition.
The Three Sisters are squash, corn and beans which grow and thrive together. Corn serves as the natural trellis for the beans to grow on. The beans roots set nitrogen in the soil to nourish the corn. The bean vines help to stabilize the corn stalks on windy days. The squash plants shelter the shallow roots of the corn and shade the ground to discourage weeds and preserve moisture. Truly a symbiotic relationship. I have read where it was a common practice to bury a small fish alongside the seeds at planting to nourish the "Three Sisters."
The early Native American farmers were practicing an early form of sustainable agriculture. How cool is that?!? We can learn many lessons today from them.
They dried the shells and used them as bowls and containers to store grain, beans and seeds. I have read where they pounded and dried the pumpkin flesh into strips, and wove the strips into mats which they used for trading purposes.
It is said that Columbus carried pumpkin seeds back with him to Europe. There they were used to feed pigs, but not as a human food source.
Indians introduced pumpkins and squashes to the Pilgrims. Pumpkins were an important food source for the pilgrims, as they stored well, which meant they would have a nutritious food source during the winter months. It is documented that pumpkins were served at the second Thanksgiving celebration.
When mentally picturing an early Thanksgiving, we usually think of a Pilgrim woman in a bleached starched white apron holding a pumpkin pie with a perfectly fluted crust . The truth is in fact, quite the opposite. The Pilgrims cut the top off of a pumpkin, scooped the seeds out, and filled the cavity with cream, honey, eggs and spices. They placed the top back on and carefully buried it in the hot ashes of a cooking fire. When finished cooking, they lifted this blackened item from the earth with no pastry shell whatsoever. They scooped the contents out along with the cooked flesh of the shell like a custard.
Without pumpkins many of the early settlers might have died from starvation.
The Pilgrims were also known to make pumpkin beer. They fermented a combination of persimmons, hops, maple sugar and pumpkin to make this early colonial brew.
In early colonies, pumpkin shells were used as a template for haircuts to ensure a round and uniform finished cut. As a result of this practice, New Englanders were sometimes nicknamed "pumpkinheads".
There are many theories as to the origins of Jack-o-lanterns and Halloween. Early Jack-o-lanterns were carved from turnips and potatoes by the Irish and Scottish and carried in Celtic celebrations. The English used beets. Lumps of coal were lit on fire and placed inside the hollow root vegetables. When European settlers arrived in America, they found that our American pumpkin varieties were well suited to being carved as a "Jack's" lanterns.
In America a traditional Jack-o-lantern refers to a variety of pumpkin grown for its suitability for carving. They are fairly large in size, have upright strong walls, and most importantly a large hollow cavity.
In the late 1800s there was a movement to turn Halloween into a celebration emphasizing community and neighborhood activities and parties. This is the Halloween we know and celebrate today.
These early Native Americans roasted pumpkin strips over campfires and used them as a food source, long before the arrival of European explorers. Pumpkins helped The Native Americans make it through long cold winters. They used the sweet flesh in numerous ways: roasted, baked, parched, boiled and dried. They ate pumpkin seeds and also used them as a medicine. The blossoms were added to stews. Dried pumpkin could be stored and ground into flour.
Today Jack-o-lanterns are a symbol of harvest celebrations.