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Indigenous Peoples Have Celebrated the Pumpkin for Centuries

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I always wanted a pumpkin patch, so this year I planted one far out in the fields. Weeds quickly engulfed the orange fruit and its vines. Somehow, six sweet pumpkins survived.

Although it is thought that the sunset-colored gourd likely originated in Mexico and Central America, fragments of pumpkin stems, seeds and fruits have been recovered from the ruins of cliff dwellers in what is now the southwestern United States. Some pumpkin varieties have been cultivated as long as maize, since approximately 3500 B.C., according to the Agricultural Alternatives publication series developed by the Small-Scale and Part-Time Farming Project at Penn State, with support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The pumpkin is a member of the cucurbitaceae family, which includes such diverse specimens as squash, cantaloupes, cucumbers, watermelons and gourds. While people are accustomed to seeing the ordinary field pumpkin, especially around jack-o-lantern season, many varieties exist. The smaller ones work beautifully in recipes. Sugar pumpkins, usually under four pounds, are the ideal size for cooking. Their skin is smoother and they taste sweeter than the field varieties.
Cook pumpkin in the same way you would winter squash or sweet potatoes. Throw in chunks of pumpkin with tomatoes, celery and onions in soups and stews.

At one of my first outdoor cooking demonstrations, I cleaned out a pumpkin and filled it with meat and vegetables to prepare a delicious stew, reducing it very slowly on the periphery of a wood fire. At some events, I like to scoop out the insides of a large pumpkin, saving the seeds. I use the hollowed pumpkin as a container for cranberry juice or other beverages.

My favorite indulgence is roasted pepitas, which are the seeds. Simply pull the seeds away from the pulp, but don’t wash them. Drizzle a little extra virgin olive oil on a baking sheet and spread out the seeds. Salt to your liking and bake in the oven at 250 degrees for about an hour and a half. Allow them to cool and enjoy. You can also make an interesting snack by mixing roasted pepitas in a bowl with peanuts, raisins and dried apricot pieces.

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Pumpkins have long served as a staple in the diet of American Indians (the Abenaki word for pumpkin or squash is wasawa). Most Indian nations have their own traditional ways to prepare or honor this ubiquitous food: Diné cooks fry it with mutton, while Taos Pueblo cooks make a succotash by cooking unripe pumpkin with corn kernels and onion. In Woodland areas, pumpkin is eaten similarly to winter squash, occasionally cut into rings to dry and be reconstituted when needed.

Although there are plenty of recipes for pumpkin in pies, my favorite is still pumpkin bread, which travels well, too.

Pumpkin Bread
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Use a narrow loaf pan to cook thoroughly and avoid the sticky middle.

½ cup vegetable oil, safflower or corn
1½ cup sugar (or substitute equivalent sweetener)
2 eggs
1 cup puréed, cooked
pumpkin or canned
1¼ cup flour
¾ cup whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon baking powder
? cup water
½ cup raisins
½ cup nuts (walnuts, pecans, pine nuts, or other)
½ teaspoon each: allspice, cinnamon, ground clove, nutmeg

Mix sugar, oil, pumpkin, eggs and water in a large bowl. In another large bowl, mix all the dry ingredients together. Add the wet mix to the dry mixture and stir until well moistened. Pour into greased loaf pan and bake for one hour. Be sure the top has a characteristic crack down the middle which means it is cooked through. Move to a rack to cool.

Dale Carson, Abenaki, is the author of three books: New Native American Cooking, Native New England Cooking and A Dreamcatcher Book. She has written about and demonstrated Native cooking techniques for more than 30 years. Dale has four grown children and lives with her husband in Madison, Connecticut.