A Cultural History Of Pumpkins And Gourds

It’s fall, which means pumpkins have been shoved into every space they can fit into. How did they become ubiquitous? The history of pumpkins provides clues.
history of pumpkins

Fall is harvest season in the northern hemisphere, and so naturally, fresh fruits and vegetables pop up from the ground and into our stores. It’s the time for apple-picking and corncob-eating, and for the leaves on all the (deciduous) trees to explode in color. Nothing, however, can compete with the sheer concentrated autumn spirit of the pumpkin, along with its friend the gourd.

It seems pretty self-evident as to why the pumpkin became the quintessential fall decoration. The orange color evokes the season perfectly. Plus, you can place them around your home without worrying that they’re going to rot within a week. But there is a lot of culture packed into these crops. The history of pumpkins and gourds stretches back to early human history. Pumpkins are not as basic as they appear.

What Is A Pumpkin?

I know, I know, you probably know what a pumpkin is, but the classification of fruits and vegetables is notoriously tricky. A tomato is a fruit, for example, even though that bristles against our instincts. And pumpkins — also a fruit — are even trickier.

Basically, there’s no botanical agreement on what a pumpkin is exactly. If it’s a round, orange gourd-like thing, it’s probably called a pumpkin in North America. And all gourds and pumpkins are technically types of squash (specifically winter squash), and though there are certainly some varieties of squash more likely to be pumpkins, the boundaries of the definition are loose. To add another layer, some people also use “gourds” to refer to inedible varieties of squash, and the edible ones are “squash.” So yes: confusing.

The word “pumpkin” itself comes from the Greek pepon, meaning “large melon.” The word traveled through French (popon) to England, where it became pumpion before the name pumpkin finally arose in the American colonies. Thus began an arbitrary division between pumpkins and the rest of the gourds, for aesthetic reasons alone. And in some places including Australia, “pumpkin” can refer to any winter squash at all, thus making it interchangeable.

History of Pumpkins — Connecticut Field

Where Are Pumpkins And Gourds From?

Most varieties of pumpkin are believed to be from North America, with evidence of their existence in Mexico going back to at least 5,500 BCE. Gourds go back even further in time, having been traced to Peru in about 11,000 BCE. In fact, gourds may have been one of the very first domesticated crops, having been grown before maize and beans. There are also species of gourd that were found to have been originally cultivated in Asia and Africa even earlier, though there is some disagreement as to which continent gourds first appeared on. Through cultural contact, gourds eventually became used in almost every culture in the entire world.

The most classic kind of pumpkin, however, is indeed North American. It’s the Connecticut Field pumpkin, named after the state where it was cultivated, and it is not far off from a kind of squash grown by Native Americans long before Europeans arrived in the Americas. With its uniform shape, the Connecticut Field pumpkin is ideal for pumpkin carving and decoration. It’s also very close to the New England Pie pumpkin, also called the Sugar Pie pumpkin, which you can probably determine is the one you’ll find in pumpkin pies.

While pumpkins may evoke New England fall, they’re by no means limited to the United States. They have since spread throughout the whole world, and are grown on every continent except Antarctica. In 2012, the biggest producers of squash were China and India, which put out a combined 10.5 million metric tons of the fruit. The United States is the only country in the top five where squash is native, and it puts out a measly 778,000 tons.

What’s A Gourd Good For?

Because many gourds are inedible, you’d think that would limit their use. But the opposite seems to be true. The thick skin has made them one of the most important tools in human history. Before getting into pumpkins specifically, it’s worth seeing the many forms that gourds have taken throughout history.

Perhaps their most popular use is being a water receptacle. Once cut open and emptied out, they’re ready-made containers. Its role of carrying water has also made the gourd an important part of both western and eastern mythology.

Gourds have also played a major role in music all around the world. Africans used gourds to make percussion instruments, Mexicans used them to make maracas and Indians used them to make sitars. At this point, you could make a whole band out of gourd instruments alone.

In the United States today, however, you’re most likely to find gourds just lying around. While they can be used for any number of crafts, from jewelry to furniture, Americans have become attached to the gourds as decoration. There’s no definitive explanation for the phenomenon, but it’s possible the sheer variety of gourds has made them useful for decorating a home. But the rest of the gourds owe much of their allure to the extraordinary popularity of the pumpkin, which is in a league all its own.

The Rise Of The Pumpkin

In 19th century Ireland, there were myths of roving spirits who stalked the land. The Irish wanted to ward away the spirits — or possibly represent the spirits themselves — so they took the fruits of their land and carved them into horrifying faces, and they became known as jack-o’-lanterns. They were commonly carved around Samhain, the time of year when the dead arose from their graves (it just so happened to be close to Christianity’s All Souls’ Day, so eventually the holiday period was all collapsed into Halloween). The fruit that was most popular for these decorations? You got it: the turnip.

Turnip lanterns were the precursor to the more modern jack-o’-lanterns today, and it wasn’t until the tradition jumped over to North America that pumpkins were used. They were an obvious choice, as their thick skin was ideal for carving faces into. With that, pumpkins became the official symbol of Halloween.

If that was all pumpkins were good for, they probably wouldn’t be much more distinguished than your average gourd. Unlike many gourds, though, the pumpkin is edible, and that has helped its popularity grow all the more. It might just be pumpkin pie and its permanent association with Thanksgiving that made pumpkins the celebrity food we know today. Thanks to this, it now dominates not one but two of the most important American holidays (though, for the record, more pumpkins are carved than eaten).

Yet what brought the pumpkin to the very center of fall was the introduction in 2003 of the Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte. Ironically, though, the latte doesn’t actually have any pumpkin in it — it’s just a blend of spices meant to taste like pumpkin pie. The success of the latte has led to the creation of hundreds of pumpkin foods, with grocery stores like Trader Joe’s offering everything from pumpkin chips to pumpkin dog treats. Despite a lack of real pumpkin, the name has given the fruit even more autumnal clout.

Today, the pumpkin is shorthand for fall. Gourds and squash certainly come along for the ride, but they really can’t compete with a fruit that has infested pretty much every tenet of the season. It’s in our food, it’s in our homes, it’s on those seasonal flags some people hang outside their houses. The pumpkin has become everything people like about the fall season rolled into one. That’s a lot of weight to put on a fruit, but don’t worry; it has a thick skin.

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