One night during last week’s nor’easter, I took our dog Sophie out to do her evening business. I was underdressed and dancing in the chill October air, waiting while she sniffed around the yard. She went out of sight for a moment, and I was startled when I heard her suddenly erupt in a frenzy of barks and howls. I rushed around the corner to see what was attacking her and found her face to face with our bevy of newly carved jack-o’-lanterns. They gazed emptily back into her stream of frightened outrage. As I held the door open to let her back inside and away from the eerie intruders, I found myself transfixed by the appearance of these enormous gourds, so smooth and orange, so odd.

There is probably one hollowed out and rotting on your doorstep as you read this. Or perhaps you are looking forward to eating yours in a pie come Thanksgiving. Maybe you’ve been to see the regatta in Damariscotta, where full-grown men will venture to float inside one down the river. One way or another, you’ve seen them. You’ve carved them. You’ve eaten them. But what are these brightly colored spooks that rise up from the ground each autumn? Their story runs deeper than their roots.

Unlike the apple — another favorite fall fruit — the pumpkin is indigenous to the Americas. They have been grown here since at least 3500 BC. Indigenous Mexicans grew them for food, cutting them into long strips and grilling them over the fire. Surplus pumpkins were cut into even thinner strips and then dried and used to weave mats. Christopher Columbus brought pumpkin seeds back to Spain with him after his first landing in the Americas, introducing them to the old world.

To this day, pumpkins are an important food source around the globe. But unique cultural meanings have also evolved around them.

The jack-o’-lantern is a product of Irish myth. A blacksmith named Jack was known for his prodigious drinking and mischief making, but he was also clever. When death came for him, he played a trick on the devil and bought himself more time. But the trick was on him. The devil resented him, and punished Jack with an eternity of wandering in the night. To light his way, the devil gave Jack a burning coal and a hollowed-out turnip to use as a lantern. Thus, we get Jack o’ the Lantern. And yes, it was a turnip.

Around the Celtic festival of Samhain, the original Halloween, Irish peasants would leave out hollow turnips with a candle inside to scare away evil spirits and light the way for their beloved dead. Irish immigrants to the U.S. in the 19th century found pumpkins much more convenient for carving than turnips. The practice stuck.

The word “pumpkin” has a very specific meaning in the U.S., but in other parts of the English-speaking world it can refer to any variety of winter squash. Pumpkins as we think of them are just one cultivar within the greater family of Curcubitas, or gourds. They are not a distinct species, but a highly selected form more like a breed of dogs. Other members of the family include everything from Blue Hubbards and decorative gourds to both summer and winter squash.

Where, then, does the word ‘pumpkin’ come from? Well, it’s debatable. Traditionally, it was credited to Jacques Cartier, the explorer of the St. Lawrence River, who wrote of them as ‘pompions’ or large melons. ‘Pompion’ was eventually misspoken by English colonists long enough that we got the word ‘pumpkin.’ More recent etymologies recognize that the Wampanoag language had a word for them too, ‘pohpukun,’ which would have been heard by the settlers at Plymouth and translates to “grows forth round.” Whichever side of the debate you land on, you’ve got some new words that are fun to say. The Wampanoag also likely gave us our word for squash from their “askootasquash,” which is also fun to say.

Pumpkins are valued and loved for their sheer size. According to History.com, the world’s largest pumpkin was grown in Holland in 2016 and weighed in at 2,624 pounds. The U.S. record was set in New Hampshire at 2,528 pounds in 2018. According to the Maine Pumpkin Growers Association, the state record goes to Edwin Pierpont, of Jefferson, whose 2019 crop included a whopper at 1,832 pounds. There’s just something about a fruit you can crawl inside that captures the imagination. But as much fun as the big ones are, they are not much good for eating. Typically, the larger the pumpkin, the less sweet the flesh. When shopping for baking pumpkins, the smaller the better.

It may be that the cultural character of the pumpkin has sadly overshadowed its value as a food, at least here in America. We have grown used to thinking of pumpkins only as fall decorations or vessels with which to navigate the Damariscotta River. And while they certainly are both of those things, they are also an excellent source of healthy nutrition. Pumpkins are rich in Vitamin A and B, as well as protein, potassium, and iron. An article in the University of Missouri’s journal, Integrated Pest Management, describes a USDA study indicating that “diets high in pumpkin as a fiber source tended to curb the appetite. The subjects in this study also absorbed less fat and calories from their food.” It seems that eating more pumpkins could make us skinnier and healthier. Which doesn’t mean you should eat more canned pumpkin, because that is usually just squash with added sugar.

Most of the world’s pumpkins are now grown in China, but they still hold a special place in our American hearts. Let us now elevate them to a similar place in our diets. Sophie and I are still in awe of these weird and wonderful gourds, but now we know their backstory.

W. W. Matteson is a writer who lives in Hope, where he weaves tales about Maine’s coast and mountains.

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