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Pumpkins are a beloved symbol of fall, the decoration of choice on Halloween, and the star of countless pumpkin pies — wait, 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. We know, big news. BIG. But before you quash pumpkin for being squash, read on. Pumpkin’s secret identity is actually not the dealbreaker it might seem.
OK, so all pumpkins are squash, but not all squash are pumpkins.
The FDA declines to draw a hard line between the terms “pumpkin” and “squash” for labeling purposes, but there are some distinctive differences between the two.
Compared to other members of the gourd family, pumpkins — the standard orange sort we tend to picture at the 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, 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 Dickinson squash. This strain closely resembles butternut, and was specially developed for Libby’s. It accounts for 85% of all canned pumpkin sold in the United States.
With other brands, regardless of whether the label says “100% pumpkin” — and even if the ingredients mention only 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 sneaky.
So 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. 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), 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.
Once European colonists came to America, they began growing pumpkins as a staple food crop too.
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, American farmers have prioritized bigger, sturdier pumpkins better suited for carving than cooking, so the standard pumpkin has become the large, smooth, orange one that comes to mind when we think “pumpkin patch.”
Today, pumpkins are grown on every continent except Antarctica, with India and China being some of the top producers. In the U.S., the Midwest claims the highest number of crops. Specifically, an area within 50 miles of Morton, IL produces most all of the pumpkins consumed in North America.
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.
But 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.
It appears that some Native Americans also made pumpkin porridge. In 1749, a Swedish botanist 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 the French cookbook Le Vrai Cuisiner Francois in 1651.
But it’s not until 1796, in American Cookery, 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 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.
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.
In the 19th century, industrialization made almost everything easier, including dessert. Small, regional companies canned local pumpkin, 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.
In 1929, Libby’s acquired Morton’s vegetable processing plant, and by 1940 their famous pumpkin pie recipe first began appearing on their cans.
Of course, these days, there’s also canned pumpkin pie filling (sometimes labeled “pumpkin pie mix”), which differs in that 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.
It may be a shocker to discover that the “pumpkin” in your autumn bread or Thanksgiving dessert is secretly squash… but when you’re digging into a velvety slice of pie (topped with a mountain of whipped cream), there’s probably no need to go out of your gourd over the difference.