By Vicky Babcock
Google “pumpkin” and you will find everything from riots in (Keene) New Hampshire to Ichabod Crane’s unfortunate encounter with the headless horseman, to pumpkin scones. We have pumpkin festivals, pumpkin carving contests, smashing pumpkins, pumpkin tossing, pumpkin baking and biggest pumpkin contests.
A true Native American, the pumpkin has been embraced by our cultures as both an important food source for people and livestock, and an excellent medium for carving. Something about these colorful canvasses really stirs the creative juices in artists of all ages! Throw in a candle and you have a lovely Jack-o-lantern. With its growing season complete from early to mid October, is it any wonder that this vibrantly colored fruit has become synonymous with Halloween? Yet pumpkins have a relatively short history with the holiday known as Halloween, which is believed to have evolved from the ancient festival of Samhain. It has its origins in European culture. Samhain was the Celtic harvest festival, a time to stock up supplies for the winter. The ancient Gaels believed the final day in October to be a time when the two worlds (the living and the dead) overlapped allowing the dead to return to Earth and cause havoc among the living. Offerings from the harvest were left outside their doors to appease the spirits in an effort to prevent them from bringing sickness and blight to the crops. Door to door begging, or “souling,” (a precursor to our modern day trick-or-treat) came much later and was associated with All Souls Day.
Our native pumpkin entered into the holiday when Irish immigrants brought the tradition of the Jack-o-lantern—originally a carved turnip or gourd—to the U.S. during the 1700s. Turnips had their drawbacks; they were relatively small and dense, with no pre-formed cavity in which to place a lit coal. With its broad base and large capacity, the pumpkin quickly became the preferred medium for the practice. Today, a large percentage of fresh bought pumpkins lends itself to this Halloween tradition, decorating our porches and giving young artists a chance to stretch their creative wings. Once used as a welcoming light for the spirits of our loved ones and to ward off any malevolent spirits, the Jack-o-Lantern has become a Halloween fantasy, a joyful pastime and a profitable market for farmers of the crop. Unfortunately, few of us these days consume pumpkin that does not come out of a can.
Unfortunate, because pumpkin, one of the winter squashes, is an excellent source of dietary nutrition. Pumpkins are rich in beta-carotene, an important antioxidant, which the body uses to convert to vitamin A. Foods rich in beta-carotene have been linked to lower risk of certain cancers and offer protection against heart disease as well as an aid in the degenerative aspects of aging. Pumpkin is high in potassium and dietary fiber as well, necessary nutrients for the heart and digestive tract respectively. A cup of cooked pumpkin contains about 49 calories, a dieter’s dream!
So, as you carve your pumpkins this year, consider using the cut outs (minus the rind) in soups, stews or rice dishes. Or try some pumpkin chili. Any way you slice it, it comes out deliciously nutritious.
Like pumpkins—and despite its ancestry—Halloween is a true American treat. With the mix of cultures that make up today’s Halloween, what greater place to celebrate than the Great Melting Pot of the world? Have a safe and happy Halloween. And happy “souling.”
1 ½ pounds lean ground beef
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, diced
2 large carrots, washed and diced (ends removed)
2 cups fresh pumpkin, peeled and diced
1 jar salsa—medium heat
1 15-oz can diced tomatoes
2 cans black beans, rinsed and drained
Chili powder (to taste)
In a large skillet, brown beef. Drain most of the oils and remove beef to a Dutch oven. In saucepan in remaining oil, cook and stir onion, garlic, carrots and pumpkin for about two minutes, until onion is tender. Drain the rest of the oil and add to the beef. Add remaining ingredients except for the chili powder. Cook and stir until boiling. Reduce heat and add chili powder to taste. This will gain some heat as it cooks, so start lightly. Cook over med to low heat about 30 minutes or until pumpkin is tender and flavors have mixed. Add additional chili powder about 15 minutes into the cooking process if you wish.
Serve with grated cheese, crushed corn chips (I like Frito’s™ Chili Cheese) and sour cream if desired. Other additions include chopped fresh onions or chopped bell peppers. This is even better the next day.
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