"What moistens the lip, and what brightens the eye, what calls back the past like the rich Pumpkin Pie?"
By the time John Greenleaf Whittier wrote his poem "The Pumpkin" in 1850, the pumpkin and its delicious derivatives were fall favorites around the world.
The iconic globe is believed to have grown 7,000 years ago in Central America and Mexico. The plant, a member of the Curcubitaceae family of squash, is also native to North America and was eaten by native tribes centuries before the Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock. In fact, the pumpkin had already made it to England, France and the rest of Europe via earlier explorers, and the first appearance of a pumpkin pie recipe appeared in a French cookbook in 1653, as "Tourte de Pompion." Shakespeare makes reference to a "pumpion" in The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Pumpkins, a traditional harbinger of fall, have been around since at least 5500 BC, originating in Central America. Now they are grown on every continent except Antarctica.
Pumpkin pie is a favorite holiday dessert, but pumpkin, like other squashes, can be equally as tasty as side dishes, with pasta, in soups or blended with other ingredients for a nutritional boost and added texture.
The word "pumpkin" originated from the Greek word "pepon" meaning melon. It became "pompion" in French, then "pumpion" in English and finally "pumpkin" in America.
Most of the parts of the pumpkin plant are edible-the seeds, blossoms, leaves and the fruit-and, by the way, it is a fruit rather than a vegetable. Native Americans also dried strips of pumpkin skin to weave into rugs. The most popular Halloween pumpkin is the "jack-o-lantern:" orange, rounded and bred for optimal carving. This time of year, around Thanksgiving, smaller pumpkins are used for cooking. Generally jack-o-lanterns have stringier flesh and are not as flavorful.
Pumpkin pies are usually made from Sugar Pie, Cinderella or Cheese pumpkins. Sugar Pies especially have thin skins and drier, sweet flesh that makes it stable and tasty. The Cinderella is a French heirloom variety that is reminiscent of Cinderella's carriage for the ball-round and decoratively plump-and is also good for baking. It is speculated that the Pilgrims used this type of pumpkin for their second Thanksgiving feast.
Though not exactly "guilt free," pumpkin pie isn't the worst choice for dessert around the holidays, and pumpkin seeds have many health benefits as well. One cup of boiled, drained pumpkin without salt contains only 49 calories, but also 2 grams of protein, 3 grams of fiber, 12 grams of carbohydrates, 37 milligrams of calcium, 564 milligrams of potassium, 22 milligrams of magnesium, 50 milligrams of selenium and additionally zinc, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, folate, iron and niacin.
This time of year, though, calories are measured in pie slices and www.fatsecret.com has the details for an apple/pumpkin face-off. According to the site, one slice equals one-eighth of a 9 inch pie, and the news isn't good for apple pie lovers. One slice of average apple pie contains 411 calories, 19.38 grams of fat, 57.5 grams of carbohydrates and 3.72 grams of protein. One slice of pumpkin weighs in at 323 calories, 14.63 grams of fat, 42.04 grams of carbs and 6.01 grams of protein. While it may not be enough difference to reach for a second helping of pumpkin, and both get over 40 percent and 50 percent of their calories from fat and carbohydrates, the pumpkin does have triple the protein calories of the apple pie and saves just under 90 calories overall. This, however, is not ala mode.
What does eating pumpkin do for the body? The bright orange color signifies the high carotenoid content (i.e. Beta-carotene,) which fights free radicals, which in turn fights premature aging and cardiovascular diseases. Carotenoids also protect the eye and its surrounding tissue. In addition, pumpkins have been used as natural anti-inflammatory agents, especially for arthritis and joint inflammation.
Pumpkin flesh and seeds are a good source of Vitamin A, which also promotes eye and immune system health. Aside from combating free radicals and boosting the immune system, Vitamin C found in pumpkin helps build collagen for cell and skin health.
Two other key nutrients are potassium and zinc. Potassium is good for the cardiovascular system and can reduce hypertension. Zinc is good for the immune system, bone density and reproductive health.
Pumpkin is an excellent source of dietary fiber for gastrointestinal health, lowering cholesterol and lowering blood sugar, and it's a natural diuretic as well that will flush the body of toxins and excess waste.
Pumpkin pie may have protein, but one-quarter cup of pumpkin seeds, or pepitas, contains 9 grams of protein and 180 calories. Because of the high content of phytosterols (plant-based fatty acids) in the seed oils, they can help reduce cholesterol levels as the body replaces cholesterol with phytosterols. These essential fatty-acids also help the body fight arthritis and high blood pressure. Phytosterols have also been known to help lower the risk of prostate cancer by shrinking the prostate.
As if all of these benefits weren't enough, pumpkin flesh contains L-tryptophan, an amino acid with anti-depressant properties. The feeling of well-being may cause one to reach for a second slice of pie, but another slice of turkey, which contains more of this essential regulator, is probably a better choice all around.
Finally, pumpkin dishes are not limited to pie and seeds. Pumpkin pie filling developed when Europeans and the Pilgrims filled de-seeded pumpkins with apples, spices, sugar, eggs and milk and baked them. Now consumers and cooks can dish up pumpkin soup, ravioli, cake, cheesecake, ice cream, mousse, muffins and gratin without even trying. Mixing diced pumpkin into vegetable dishes, pastas and soups is an easy way to add a new taste and health benefits to an old dish. The traditional pumpkin pie repertoire has also expanded with additions of walnuts, maple, orange, apple butter, gingersnaps, mincemeat, pralines and chocolate to name a few flavors.
In traditional or nouvelle cuisine, seeing and serving the pumpkin brings to mind and body the good things about this season: abundance, lights in darkness, health and family gatherings. And it started well before Whittier penned his poem.