What do you think of when you hear the word “fall”? We’re going to go out on a limb and guess that among the things you thought of were pumpkins, which are a variety of winter squash. They have become an ever-present part of autumnal celebrations in America, found in pies, your favorite lattes, roadside stands, and U-pick patches all over the country. Pumpkins, along with many other types of squash such as decorative gourds, butternut, and acorn squash, have been a part of American traditions for so long that some people think that early colonists brought the seeds with them when they first arrived- however, that is not the case at all.
So if European colonists didn’t begin the cultivation of pumpkins and squash, how did they become such an important part of our fall celebrations? The answer is quite interesting. But first, let’s talk about what we know on how pumpkins came to be.
The Genetic History of Squash
Pumpkins and winter squash are a distinctly American crop. The ancestral species of all modern squash have been present in North and South America since the dawn of the Holocene Epoch, about 11,700 years ago. The wild vines produced small, incredibly bitter fruit whose flesh may have even been toxic to humans! However, the seeds were edible, had a high oil content, and were incredibly nutrient-dense. It is speculated that the beginnings of domestication centered around producing squash for its use as a container (think gourd cups, etc.) and for its seeds. Once the potential of a food source was realized, selection and breeding began in earnest. The oldest domesticated species is C. pepo, cultivated in Mesoamerica as early as 10,000 years ago, even before corn and beans. This species is incredibly diverse- ranging from tender summer squash such as zucchini and yellow crookneck to acorn squash and pumpkins. There is archeological evidence of pumpkin seeds belonging to C. pepo dating back 7,000 years in Mexico! However, what we refer to as “pumpkins” can also belong to C. moschata and C. maxima. The jack ‘o lantern pumpkins you see at stores belong to C. pepo, which are considered “true” pumpkins, remaining mostly unchanged for hundreds of years. The culinary pumpkins typically belong to both C. moschata (Dickinson pie pumpkins and butternut squash in particular) and C. maxima (Hubbard squash and Atlantic Giant- think blue ribbon prize winners as big as a car!)
As you may have gathered, there is an incredible variety of winter squash and pumpkins. But where did they all come from?
The forebears of all our modern varieties were bred by Indigenous people of North and South America. As the seeds spread worldwide thanks to newly established trade routes, continued breeding and selection occurred leading to the variety available today. But without that intentional selection and cultivation of ancient squash by Indigenous people, not only would we not have the wonderful variety of squash we enjoy today, it’s possible that America as we know it wouldn’t exist!
(photo of c. pepo, c. moschata, c. maxima)
How Pumpkins (and Squash) Became Popular
Alright, you’re probably wondering how America might not exist without winter squash. It seems like a stretch, but hear me out. In 1620, the colonists at Plymouth Rock experienced a brutal winter. Disease swept through the settlement, likely made worse by lack of proper nutrition, and almost half of the colonists perished. The Wampanoag tribe had offered them, among other things, winter squash as food stores for the winter. However, it was considered unpalatable by the colonists, who through no fault of their own had no experience preparing it and had quite possibly never seen it before in their lives. By the “First Thanksgiving” in 1621, their tune had changed. The Wampanoag had taught the remaining colonists how to prepare and cook winter squash and pumpkins and illustrated the crucial importance of it as a nutrient-dense food source in the harsh New England winters. In fact, the word “squash” is simply an anglicization of the Wampanoag/ Algonquian word “askutasquash,” which means “eaten raw or cooked.” According to letters and journals from the early colonists, pumpkins were possibly prepared at the first Thanksgiving by hollowing them, filling them with milk, honey, and spices, and roasting them whole on hot coals. This technique was taught to them by the Wampanoag, since they had run out of wheat flour and butter for a pie crust by the fall of 1621. Once the colonists discovered the ease of cultivation, incredible storability, and versatility of winter squash, it became a regular part of their seasonal plantings. Its popularity soared among other settlements and led to the widespread cultivation of squash and pumpkins by European settlers, increasing the health and food security of the colonies- thereby helping the settlements support more people more sustainably. See what I was saying about how America might not exist without squash?
Why You Should Care
The adoption and acceptance of Indigenous foods by early colonists was absolutely instrumental to the success of European settlement in the New World, a fact often overlooked, or worse, purposefully ignored. Even today, many people don’t know the true history of our foods and the fact that we owe much of our modern diets to Indigenous people all over the world. As farmers, we see the evidence every day- many of the seeds we plant are the direct result of thousands of years of careful Indigenous stewardship. We try not to forget them, or the fact that we are growing on land that was once theirs- a humbling prospect. And while we may be separated by time, we are not separated by intent, and that is how we choose to honor their gifts, by growing food with respect for the Earth, protecting our ecology, feeding others, and remembering them. We hope that you, too, may contemplate and learn about the forgotten influences of our own traditions and seek to further your understanding of Indigenous foodways and the ways they continue to shape our lives.
Agriculture Operations Manager
I’m Farmer Jeff, a crud-covered, pasture-prancing, soil-sniffing farm nerd with a penchant for spicy foods and social justice. After work, you can most likely find me playing music or creek stomping!
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