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Pumpkins are a beloved symbol of fall, the decoration of choice on Halloween, the star of countless Thanksgiving pies—actually, that last one is a lie, unless you make your own pumpkin puree and use that in your dessert. If you’re buying a can of pumpkin off the shelf, you should know that it’s not made from the same orange jack-o’-lantern pumpkins you carve, or even their daintier, sweeter cousins, sugar pumpkins (also known as pie pumpkins).
In fact, canned pumpkin is actually squash.
Well, all pumpkins are squash, but not all squash are pumpkins.
The FDA declines to draw a hard line between the terms for labeling purposes, but compared to other members of the gourd family, pumpkins—by which we mean the standard sort we tend to picture at the very mention of the word—have a lot more water in their flesh, more stringy fibers, and less natural sweetness, making them sadly inferior for baking. The smaller sugar pumpkins have denser, meatier, more colorful, and sweeter flesh, so if you do want to make your pie or other pumpkin recipes completely from scratch, use those.
If you’re buying the canned stuff, though, you’re probably getting something like Dickinson squash (a strain closely resembling butternut, and specially developed for Libby’s, which accounts for 85 percent of all canned pumpkin sold in the United States). With other brands, regardless if the label says “100% pumpkin”—and even if the ingredients list only mentions the p-word—you could be getting any of a number of winter squashes, or a blend of multiple varieties. It’s not a bad thing, although it is perhaps a little tricky.
Let’s call it a technicality and move on.
Or rather, let’s move backwards. How did pumpkin even become such a beloved fall stalwart, and when did gourds show up in pies (let alone in cans) in the first place? Let’s begin with a little botanical background.
Pumpkins and squash are believed to be native to Central America, based on seeds discovered at archaeological sites in Mexico dating back thousands of years. The very first wild pumpkins were probably extremely bitter and small, but once they began to be cultivated for their flesh, they grew sweeter and more palatable. Native North Americans often grew them as part of the “Three Sisters” (maize, beans, and squash), as you may vaguely recall from elementary school history lessons, and they were an important staple food for surviving the winters.
European explorers as far back as the 1530s brought pumpkin seeds home with them, which explains why French and English cookbooks circa the 1600s contain some pumpkin recipes. (Side note: The original English term was pumpion, from the French pompom, which derived from the Greek pepon, meaning “large melon”—to which pumpkins and squash are botanically related.)
Once European colonists came to America, they began growing pumpkins as a staple food crop too.
As is the case now, these heirloom pumpkins and squash were of various shapes, sizes, and colors, but they all tasted pretty much the same: mildly sweet, starchy, and a little earthy. In the 19th century, the pumpkin’s importance as a human food crop waned dramatically, and it took a while for their ornamental value to become what it is today.
Since the 1970s in particular, American farmers have prioritized bigger, sturdier pumpkins better suited for carving than cooking, and so the standard pumpkin has become the large, smooth, orange one that comes automatically to mind when we think pumpkin patch. However, they’re also eminently recognizable in this earlier illustration from 1937, depicting city dwellers bringing pumpkins back home from the farm, so it’s been a fun fall activity for a long while:
Today, pumpkins are grown everywhere in the world except Antarctica, with India and China being some of the top producers. In the U.S., when it comes to the kind of pumpkins (or squash) we purchase in cans, the Midwest claims the highest number of crops—specifically, an area within 50 miles of Morton, Ill. produces most all of the pumpkins that are consumed in North America.
Native Americans ate pumpkins roasted, boiled, and dried into jerky, and consumed their seeds and flowers as well. The shells could be dried and used as bowls to store and serve food and water; no part went to waste.
Early American colonists began to use pumpkins in much the same ways: in stews, soups, and baked into pseudo-puddings. This poem or folk song from the 1630s gives a good idea of their importance:
Stead of pottage and puddings and custards and pies
Our pumpkins and parsnips are common supplies,
We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon,
If it were not for pumpkins we should be undoon.
They made pumpkin beer or ale, too, even if it was initially out of
desperation for anything alcoholic necessity. Ingenuity, by any other name…
Pumpkins were also used as livestock feed, and are still fed to animals, from chickens to dogs, as a nutritional supplement today.
As we know it, pumpkin pie is a fairly recent invention, the most important distinguishing factor being the crust. There was definitely no such thing at the first Thanksgiving in 1621, since there were no ovens suitable for baking in America at the time, let alone the wheat or enough sugar required to make a proper pie. However, there may have been another sweet dish made with pumpkin at that celebration: milk, honey, and spices poured into hollowed-out pumpkin shells, which were roasted whole in hot ashes until blackened, soft, and steamy, whereupon the mixture inside was scooped out with the flesh, like a kind of custard.
It appears that some Native Americans also made pumpkin porridge; a Swedish botanist in 1749 recorded that “[s]ome mix flour with the pumpkins when making porridge…They often make pudding or even pie or a kind of tart out of them.” And well before that, a very pie-like “pumpkin tourte” appeared in “Le Vrai Cuisiner Francois” in 1651.
But it’s not until 1796, in the first official American cookbook, that we see something more akin to what we eat today, creamier and with familiar spices: the two pumpkin pudding recipes in “American Cookery” call for the pumpkin to be stewed until soft, then combined with eggs, sugar, mace, nutmeg, ginger, and cream, and baked for about an hour in a crust (or “paste”).
Pumpkin pie was political, too; New England abolitionists sometimes mentioned the dessert in anti-slavery novels and poems, and when Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, some Confederates mocked pumpkin pie along with the people who enjoyed it. (Incidentally, this does not have anything to do with the enduring notion that the thoroughly Southern pecan pie is the diametrically opposed “other” choice on Thanksgiving, although that dessert has an interesting history too. Sweet potato pie, on the other hand, does have a race-related American history well worth reading about.)
Once the Civil War ended and Thanksgiving became more widely celebrated across America, pumpkin pie’s popularity spread too, helped in part by its inclusion in ever more cookbooks, newspapers, and women’s magazines. These early recipes simply called for stewing and straining your own pumpkin, before canned convenience was commonplace.
In the 19th century, industrialization made almost everything easier, including dessert. Small, regional companies canned local pumpkin (and some still do, or at least some older, lesser-known brands like One-Pie endure), but it should come as no surprise that Libby’s—which had been operating as a meat-canning company in Chicago since the 1800s—was the first mass-marketer of canned pumpkin.
They may have begun selling pumpkin puree as far back as 1929, when they acquired Morton’s vegetable processing plant (and the reason Morton, Ill. is now the top grower of canned pumpkin/squash is because they’re owned by Libby’s/Nestle), but it was a sure thing by 1940, which is when their famous pumpkin pie recipe first began appearing on their cans.
Of course, there’s also canned pumpkin pie filling (sometimes labeled “pumpkin pie mix”), which differs in that pumpkin pie spices, sugar, salt, and water are added to the pure pumpkin (or squash, if you still want to split hairs).
Unless a recipe specifically calls for pumpkin pie filling, always grab the plain canned pumpkin, or “100 percent pure” pumpkin puree, instead. And feel free to give it a knowing look when you do.