Have you seen the somewhat comical posts going around facebook in which the poster feigns horror to find out her canned Libby’s pumpkin is not “actually pumpkin”? If not, you will so let’s go ahead and have “the” talk about squash that all good cooks and gardeners must have at some point in life.
Squash, pumpkins, and some gourds all belong to the same family of plants – Curcurbitaceae. Both are rambling vines which produce large, heavy, usually some shade of orange though some remain green or mottled, fruits. They all have both male and female flowers, and both are necessary for producing fruit. Frankly, the genetic makeup of pumpkins and what we call winter squash is virtually the same.
While we’re compiling this genealogy chart let us not forget that squashes, gourds, and pumpkins are also related to melons and cucumbers, so closely related, in fact, all will “cross” if planted too closely together. When this happens, the seeds will not produce true to the host plant, and instead of a fine sweet melon you may end up with an insipid Franken-melon.
There are large pumpkins used to make jack-o-lanterns or for feeding farm animals and there are others which are much better for pies. Squash pie made from winter squash is quite common.
These plants fall into one of the following categories: Curcurbita maxima, C. moschata, and C. pepo. Maxima usually produces large fruits with round thick stems that are harvested in the fall. Moschata has round stems and is usually harvested as a mature winter squash. Pepo is a summer squash like zucchini or crookneck. Delicious they may be but not necessarily good for making pies or sweetbread.
Now that everything is clear as mud let’s look at that orange stuff in the can. Libby’s says their canned pumpkin is Dickinson squash – it looks like a pumpkin but is a squash as are all pumpkins. It is a moschata type plant that produces tan colored squash that weigh between 10 and 40 lbs. when ripe. They are more oblong than round or squat. The flesh is thick, sweeter than field pumpkin, and dry making it ideal for those famous holiday pies. A curcurbit that is too moist will never produce pie filling as good or as thick as one with drier and sweeter flesh.
For you gardeners, remember chunks of pumpkin can well, and cooked puree freezes well.
Dickinson thrives in hot weather, it keeps for months after harvesting, and moschata are thought to be less bothered by humidity, heat, disease, and those pesky squash borers than maxima or pepo so what’s not to love?
Where this tale gets twisted is researching the origin of Dickinson pumpkins. The internet is full of bloggers and seed companies who claim this fruit dates from between 1795 and 1835, and that it was developed by Elijah Dickinson, but after an exhaustive search I’m unable to find any primary source documentation to support these dates or the first name of the breeder. In fact, the first mention I was able to locate for Dickinson Pumpkin (or Squash) was 1946.
Some notable publications where the elusive Dickinson pumpkin was not found include:
“The Tennessee Farmer”. 1836.
“The American Farmer’s New and Universal Hand-Book”. 1854. Philadelphia.
Burr, Fearing. “Garden Vegetables, and How to Cultivate Them”. 1866. Boston.
“The Farm Journal”. May 1855.
“Southern Planter”. 1843.
“The American Farmer’s New and Universal Handbook”. 1869. Philadelphia.
“Proceedings”. Iowa State Horticultural Society. 1893.
1900 U.S.D.A. Farmer’s Bulletin No. 2086, article on pumpkin varieties.
Until, or unless, someone shares a primary source to support the late 18th and early 19th century origins, I’m going to boldly say the Dickinson became a distinctive variety during the 1940s and 50s. It was most likely simply a local variety grown near the Illinois Dickinson cannery that opened about 1895. It probably took on a whole new level of importance after Libby bought the cannery and began marketing canned pumpkin.
The answer to when is a pumpkin not a pumpkin is, obviously, when it’s a squash! Pumpkin IS a type of squash and botanically speaking they’re the same. Seeds are available for Dickinson and other pie pumpkins for the gardener. They make nice pies as do butternut, Georgia Candy Roaster, sugar pie pumpkin, Cinderella pumpkin, Musquee de Provence and some of their closely related cousins. Choose Libby’s for a quick puree or a sweeter, drier variety of winter squash and bake or stew it down with as little water as possible if you’re nutty enough to enjoy growing your own. Just don’t forget the whipped cream.