Origins And Evolution
Pumpkins are believed to have originated in Central America roughly 7,500 years ago. But they were much different than the sweet, orange variety that we’re familiar with seeing every fall. When they first developed, they were small and hard, with a bitter flavor.
Native Americans began growing and harvesting pumpkins long before the arrival of European settlers, making them one of the first crops grown for human consumption in North America. The thick, solid flesh of the fruit made it an ideal food to store for cold weather and times of scarcity.
It’s believed that pumpkin was enjoyed at the first Thanksgiving meal celebrated by the Pilgrims and Native Americans in 1621. After being introduced to the new food, the Pilgrims developed their own recipes for preparing them as well. They even created a pumpkin pie recipe, although it was fairly different from modern iterations of the dessert. Early settlers made their version of the pie by hollowing out a pumpkin, filling the shell with milk, honey, and spices, and baking it.
The Pumpkin Capital Of The World
Pumpkins are a fairly simple crop to grow. In fact, they’re grown on every continent on Earth, with the exception of Antarctica. Even though they originated in the Americas, the largest producer today is China, which produces about 7.8 million tons every year. After China, India, Russia, Ukraine, and the United States, round out the top five counties for pumpkin production.
Every state in the U.S. produces pumpkins, but the total output is heavily concentrated in a few states. In 2017, 40% of those grown in the U.S. came from six states — Illinois, California, Indiana, Michigan, Texas, and Virginia. Illinois led the pack overall, harvesting about 12,300 acres annually.
Illinois is so proud of its output that Morton, Illinois has even coined itself the “Pumpkin Capital of the World.” Specifically, they claim this title because 85% of the world’s canned pumpkin is packed at the Nestles/Libby’s plant located in the village. Fittingly, Morton hosts an annual Pumpkin Festival that features pumpkin decorating, recipe contests, pie-eating competitions, and more.
Popular Pumpkin Uses
In recent years, the arrival of fall has become synonymous with the much-anticipated seasonal return of the Pumpkin Spice Latte, or “PSL.” The PSL made its debut on the Starbucks menu back in 2003. Since then, it’s gone on to become the most popular seasonal Starbucks beverage of all time, with more than 424 million sold to date in the U.S. alone.
If you’re not a huge fan of the flavor of pumpkin, you can get your seasonal fix in the form of decor instead. Halloweentime means an influx of jack-o’-lanterns, carved to celebrate the season. The practice of decorating jack-o’-lanterns traces back to Ireland, where large turnips and potatoes were commonly used for carving. Irish immigrants brought the tradition with them to America, and given the widespread availability of pumpkins, the choice of canvas naturally evolved.
The tradition stems from an Irish myth about a man nicknamed “Stingy Jack.” According to legend, Jack played a trick on the Devil, trapping him in the form of a coin and only releasing him after the Devil agreed not to claim his soul. When Jack died, God wouldn’t allow him into heaven and the Devil kept his word not to take his soul, leaving him to roam the Earth with only a burning coal to light the way. The Irish called the ghostly figure “Jack of the Lantern,” which was shortened to “jack-o’-lantern.” The scary faces carved into the turnips, potatoes, and eventually pumpkins, are intended to scare off Stingy Jack and other wandering evil spirits.