From Pumpkin Beer to Pumpkin Pie

Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon

1600 to 1799

American Indians introduced the pumpkin to Europeans who regarded it with the same mix of wonder and disdain that they viewed much of North America. While “squash” is a derivation of the Algonquian askutasquash, the name pumpkin is a derivation of the French pompion, which comes from the Latin pepo, meaning to ripen. Before Europeans encountered American varieties of pumpkins and squashes, a pompion connoted to them a large fruit or melon. This fact helps explains why some illustrations of American pumpkins from the era resemble melons more than they do pumpkins. While the Pilgrims might have eaten pumpkins at their famous 1621 Thanksgiving (though there is no record of them serving it), they probably ate them the day before and the day after, too. Because it was inexpensive to produce, grew like a weed, and was durable and versatile as a foodstuff, colonial Americans made pumpkin daily fare, similar to how Americans eat baked squash today. When they had no apples for pies, barley for beer, or meat for supper, they could substitute the prolific pumpkin. Yet they were happy to switch to European products as soon as they could.

Changing Name and Face of Pumpkins.

Europeans initially referred to squashes and pumpkins as melons or cucumbers, which were familiar to them as African imports and similar in physical properties to the native American crops.

Europeans Compare Pumpkins to Melons

Click image to learn more

Leonhard Fuchs, De Historia Stirpium (Basel, 1542), 698. Courtesy of the Peter H. Raven Library, Missouri Botanical Garden.

Europeans Make Pumpkin a Totem of North America

Click image to learn more

Theodore de Bry, They Reach Port Royal, engraving, illus. in Brevis Narratio, 1591, Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Washington, D.C., LC-USZ62-380.

Americans Make Pumpkin Their Own

Click image to learn more

Simmons, Amelia. American Cookery (1796). New York: Eerdmans, 1965.

Copyright 2020 All Rights Reserved

Site Design by Jess Parvin Designs

Europeans Compare Pumpkins to Melons

This illustration of a generic oval-shaped, ribbed fruit labeled Cucumis turcicus (“Turkish cucumber”) in Leonard Fuchs’ 1542 botanical dictionary De historia Stirpium resembles many forms of squashes and pumpkins originating in the Americas as well as melons native to Africa and Asia.  The ambiguity of the imagery and terminology – pumpkins, squashes, and melons were all called pompions – reflects overlapping definitions and conceptions of newly introduced plants from the Americas and more familiar fruits and vegetables used for generations in Europe.  Even so, while many  considered sweet melons and juicy cucumbers food for fine dining, they viewed pumpkin and squash as food eaten during desperate times.

Europeans Make Pumpkin a Totem of North America

Either in ignorance or denial of American Indians’ extensive alteration of the North American environment, Captain John Smith noted that while other continents were “beautiful by the long labor and diligence of industrious people and Art. This is onely as God made it.” This illustration of the Carolina coast features objects of nature native to the Americas that intrigued Europeans, including the continent’s dense forestland, the plentitude of wild game, such as deer and turkey, and, in the center of the picture frame, the pumpkin. The artist Theodor de Bry’s depiction of a pumpkin mimicked Fuch’s Cucumis turicus illustration, suggesting that de Bry did not base his drawing on firsthand observations but instead on Fuch’s botanical drawing. The pumpkin was the symbol of the land’s lush vegetation and natural resources, though many believed the continent to be “a rude garden,” as another colonial source remarked, nonetheless.

The First Pumpkin Pie

As the first cookbook published in the United States, Amelia Simmons’ 1796 American Cookery was self-consciously an indigenous and patriotic text, although with a New England bias. Unlike all culinary observers before her, Simmons cataloged winter squash as a vegetable dish and pumpkin as a dessert—something special to celebrate as a pleasant reward. Simmons made pumpkin pie instead of squash pie  because pumpkin meant more.  But pumpkin pie was yet to become the special finale of the Thanksgiving meal, however.  See recipes below.