Spooky Staple Brews Yummy Food

by Alex Cheser
Columnist

What food is most strongly associated with Halloween? Well, other than sugarcane lobbyists pushing the United States Department of Agriculture’s guidelines and consumers to include candy as a food group, I suppose that would be pumpkin.

However, it seems this versatile and very healthy fruit appears more as ornamentation than food until it is pie time at Thanksgiving. Some of my fellow Rosenthal residents were Antsy Agnes’s and had carved pumpkins the first week of October, but this weather morphed their scary expressions to glazed looks and ultimately implosion. I’m not complaining. I like a good jack-o’-lantern, but most of the pumpkin’s history is of the culinary vein and American by nature.

Pumpkin, from the Greek “pepon” for large melon, is a fruit in the Cucurbitacae family along with squash, cucumbers and gherkins and originated in Central America. Worldwide, the term applies to all winter squash, but we know the distinct orange, round Connecticut Field variety. Full of vitamin A, potassium, and beta-carotene, from which the orange hue comes, pumpkins have long been used medicinally. According to the Pumpkin Nook’s website, they were even used as a remedy for snakebites and a cure for freckles. (I guess pumpkins are more likely to have souls, unlike gingers) The University of Illinois Extension’s website reports roughly 80 percent of the United States’ pumpkin supply is available in October and that pumpkins can be grown on all continents except Antarctica (penguins are not trying hard enough). The pumpkin capital of the world is in Morton, Ill., where the Libby Corp. calls home.

So where does all this carving nonsense come in? Halloween itself is based on the old Celtic holiday of Samhain, a pagan celebration of the end of harvest and the supposed most magical day of the year where our world and the spirit realm are closest. In order to welcome the spirits of relatives and ward off evil ones, turnips and small gourds were carved and filled with burning coals. Fast-forward to Irish immigration to America where they figure out that pumpkins are much easier to carve than turnips. It didn’t really catch on until the 1800s, but that’s where the American tradition of jack-o’-lanterns and Halloween derives from. Now, the origin of growing giant pumpkins for county fairs, that is just botany and competitive spirit. The largest pumpkin, by the way, weighed in 1,810 pounds and became Guinness-certified just last week in New Richmond, Wis. Hey, girl, hey.

I much prefer to eat them, though, whether it’s pumpkin pie, pumpkin rolls, pumpkin lattes, you name it. I’m aware that it’s 90 percent water, but with the right seasonal spices it simply becomes irresistible. I’ve even heard good things about Blue Moon’s harvest moon pumpkin ale. The University of Illinois also reports that Native Americans were known for mashing or roasting strips of pumpkin for consumption when they weren’t drying them to make mats. The American tradition of pumpkin pie goes back to our colonists removing the tops from pumpkins, removing the seeds and filling the cavity with milk, spices and honey and then baking it in hot ashes. The flowers and seeds of pumpkins are also edible and apparently recent research actually demonstrates a correlation between the consumption of pumpkin seeds and lower rates of prostrate cancer in men. My harvest season go-to favorites would have to be Paula Deen’s recipe for pumpkin cheesecake or chai-glazed pumpkin muffins, something I fashioned after a trip to Jazzman’s as a prospective student. (Why have you not brought them back, Sodexo?!).

Whether you use them for cranial replacements during your nocturnal rides through Tarry Town or as public transit to Prince Charming’s rave or wait for their anthropomorphic ascent curled up in your blanket, pumpkins are arguably one of the most versatile fruits in American food culture. Make sure you partake in some this season because you will not be sorry.

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