David Robson: All about pumpkins
Illinois produces close to 90 percent of all pumpkins, followed by Ohio, Pennsylvania and California. However, most of these pumpkins are used for pumpkin pie filling.
Most people wouldn’t recognize a processing pumpkin if it splattered at their feet. (They might say, “Hey, that looks like splattered pumpkin pie filling.”)
A typical processing pumpkin is long and white-skinned. It looks more like banana on steroids. There might be green stripes on the outside.
What you won’t find with processing pumpkins is a round, orange fruit. Processing pumpkins, like some of the winter squashes, are mainly flesh instead of a large, hollow cavity.
One of the largest pumpkin processing plants is in Morton, Ill., where semi after semi dump pumpkins to be peeled, de-seeded and processed into 16-ounce cans. Leftovers from the processing are composted or used to feed livestock.
The pumpkin, a native of Central America but in a form that few of us would recognize today, was once used for removing freckles and curing snakebites. More than likely, the orange flesh would mask the freckles, giving the person a jaundiced appearance that would probably cause more concern than freckles.
Pumpkins are a fruit — in the way tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, eggplant and green beans are fruit. Technically, a pumpkin is a ripened ovary with seeds surrounded by a fleshy shell. But if you say pumpkins are fruit, you must say lettuce and cabbages are leaves, celery is a stem, and cauliflower and broccoli are flower buds, and not vegetables.
These days, people try to outdo each other by raising the heaviest pumpkin, which means a pumpkin that’s hard to sit on your front stoop with a candle in it. You probably would need a construction work light just to fill it up.
To raise some of the large pumpkins, which are a different variety from the traditional “Connecticut Field” type, growers remove most of the developing pumpkins, fertilize and water the remaining one or two fruit to within an inch of their lives, and pray no insects or diseases discover the plant.
Last year’s mammoth weighed more than 1,500 pounds, taking in 3,000 to 4,000 gallons of water during the growing season (which wasn’t far out of line with 2009’s rainfall).
Giant pumpkins can be orange or a creamy yellow with some orange tints. Most are solid in order to weigh that much, and usually filled with more than 500 seeds. Those seeds are carefully guarded, as they can be future winners.
There are big bucks in the heaviest pumpkin contest. The Illinois State Fair has a heaviest pumpkin class but offers the winner only $9 — paltry compared to the national level, where the winning pumpkin may earn more than $20,000.
Native Americans used the pumpkin in several fashions. Some cut the pumpkins into strips, dried them and used them as mats. Others cut the strips and roasted them over fire, creating a pumpkin-like jerky. Of course, the seeds were roasted and eaten, but it’s doubtful they were roasted in butter and salted.
Native Americans also used the pumpkin as an ingredient in their rendition of piecrusts, which were more bread-like than pie-like and probably didn’t even look like our pies with their scalloped edges and dollops of whipped cream.
The name pumpkin probably comes from the Greek word for a large melon, "pepon." The French changed it to “pompon”; the English changed it to “pumpion.” Check out the reference in Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor.”
Of course, there are other literary references — “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” “Cinderella” and “Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater.”
Then there was the 90s alternative rock band Smashing Pumpkins, though there don’t seem to be any references to them actually destroying pumpkins.
The world record for “pumpkin chuckin’,” which involves using a medieval-type catapult, is more than 1,900 feet. Pumpkin cannons can hurl a pumpkin more than a half-mile but aren’t terribly accurate. Because no two pumpkins are alike, it’s difficult to fine-tune such an instrument.
Still, seeing pumpkins hurtling through the air is smile-inducing. But you don’t want to be near the pumpkin when it hits the ground.
David Robson is a horticulture educator for the University of Illinois Extension. For more gardening information or for your local extension unit office, go towww.extension.uiuc.edu/mg.