Is That Really Pumpkin in my Pumpkin Pie?

Autumn has returned, and with it come the rituals and traditions of the season. In North America, a key part of that tradition is pumpkin pie. But accompanying that joyful custom, there is a dark, nagging question that returns each year to haunt the diligent cooks who prepare this delicacy: “Does the canned pumpkin I’m using actually contain pumpkin, or is it really just squash?” Tormented by the thought that their lovingly crafted desserts might not be genuine, these people seek answers in the one place that we all rely upon to answer such burning questions — the internet.

Unfortunately, most of the answers swirling around the web are somewhat inaccurate, and quite a few of them are almost entirely wrong. But now, with this essay at your fingertips, you finally have the opportunity to be enlightened regarding the facts of this crucial issue.

As is frequently the case when seeking a nuanced answer to an oft-repeated question, it is essential to recognize and examine the premises of the question. In this case, regarding canned pumpkin, there are two key premises underlying the question:

Premise #1: Pumpkins and squashes are mutually exclusive sets. In other words, pumpkins and squashes are two different things. An object can be one or the other, but it cannot be both. (This premise is completely false.)

Premise #2: “Pumpkin” and “squash” are both clearly defined concepts. Therefore there must be a set of clear rules — somewhere — that will allow us to determine if a vegetable fits into one group or the other. (This premise is only partly true. The word “squash” is reasonably well defined, but the definition of the word “pumpkin” is rather fuzzy.)

Because the first premise is false, and the second premise is only partially true, it impossible (or at least inadvisable) to provide a simple one-word answer to our question. But we will indeed answer the question, and in doing so we will take a journey through a thicket of related scientific and cultural questions — each of which will take us a step closer to the answer we seek.

First, we need to start with a bit of taxonomy. All pumpkins and squashes are members of the genus Cucurbita. A “genus” is a collection of closely related species. For example: wolves and coyotes are different species, but they are both members of the genus Canis. A set of closely related “genera” (the plural for genus) is called a “family”. For example, foxes are in a different genus than wolves and coyotes, but they are in the same family — Canidae. The genus Curcurbita (pumpkins and squashes) is a member of the family Cucurbitaceae (the melon family), along with watermelons, cantaloupes, and cucumbers (among other things).

All species of Cucurbita are native to the Americas, but there is an ongoing dispute as to how many species the genus contains. In one taxonomic scheme, there are 13 species in the genus. However, there is a considerable variability in many of these species, which has led to the naming of various subspecies. Some botanists believe that many of these subspecies are actually distinct species, and under their alternative scheme there are 27 to 30 species in the genus. This kind of dispute, which is fairly common in the botanical world, reflects a tug-of-war between the “lumpers” and the “splitters” — botanists who like to lump the natural variations into fewer species, and others who prefer to split the various types into more species.

For our discussion of pumpkins and squashes, only five species actually matter, because only five species have been domesticated to serve as food crops. All five species were domesticated long ago, by Native Americans living in various parts of North and South America. Although there is no written record to describe the history of this domestication process, many of the details can be reconstructed through archeology and genetics. From these five original domesticated species, we now have dozens of varieties of pumpkins and squashes. The tricky part is to match up all of these varieties to the five species they came from.

By far the most commercially important of the five species is Cucurbita pepo. Popular cultivars (domesticated varieties) of this species include zucchini, yellow summer squash (both straight-neck and crookneck), patty-pan squash, acorn squash, and jack-o-lantern pumpkin. Other cultivars of this species include spaghetti squash, small sugar pumpkin, scallop squash, “vegetable marrow” (eaten in the UK), and certain ornamental gourds (popular in the autumn). This species originally grew wild across large parts of North America, and was first domesticated about 10,000 years ago in southern Mexico. A few thousand years later, another variety of the same species was independently domesticated in the upper Mississippi River valley. By 4000 years ago, the species was being grown as a food plant by Native Americans all over Mexico and throughout large parts of what is now the United States. By the time of Columbus, it was grown as far north as Canada, and had become a key part of the triad of North American staple crops — corn, beans, and squash. Because of this long period of domestication, covering a large geographic area, there were already many varieties of Cucurbita pepo before the New World was “discovered” by Europeans.

Europeans were fascinated by the many unfamiliar species of food crops that were being grown across the Americas. They brought back samples and began growing them in Europe — not just squash, corn, and beans, but also potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and many other plants that had been domesticated by Native Americans. As these crops spread across Europe, new varieties continue to emerge, selected according to local conditions and tastes. For example, a variety of Cucurbita pepo that became popular in Italy was given the Italian name “zucchini”, which means “little gourd”. This variety was brought back to the U.S. by Italian immigrants, who also brought their name for it. The French called the same variety of squash “courgette”, which is the name that crossed the English Channel. Therefore the British use the word “courgette” to refer to the same variety of summer squash that Americans call “zucchini”.

The early European settlers in New England, who were introduced to squash by the local Native Americans, did not call it zucchini or courgette. They called it “squantersquash”, which was an approximation of what they heard the natives calling it. But this long name was rather awkward to the settlers, so they quickly shortened the word to “squash”. These early settlers observed that the local Indians grew many different varieties of squash, consisting of many different shapes and colors, including both summer squash and winter squash.

The main difference between a summer squash and a winter squash is whether it is picked while still immature and tender, or instead is allowed to fully ripen before being picked. All varieties of Cucurbita, if allowed to mature, will develop hard, woody seeds. Most varieties will also develop a tough skin or rind. But a summer squash — because of its immature state — has tender skin and soft seeds, allowing us to eat the entire fruit. (From a botanical standpoint, the part we eat is the fruit of the plant, because it contains the seeds.) All of the most popular summer squashes in North America and Europe (zucchini, yellow summer squash, and patty-pan) are varieties of Cucurbita pepo. But if you allowed any of these summer squashes to mature, then it would develop a tough shell and woody seeds — similar to that of an acorn squash or a jack-o-lantern pumpkin, which are also varieties of Cucurbita pepo.

Three varieties of Cucurbita pepo

So far we have covered only one species of Cucurbita, and already there are complications regarding the question of “squash” versus “pumpkin”. This one species includes not only several popular types of summer squash, but also several types of winter squash (such as acorn squash), several types of pumpkin (such as jack-o-lantern pumpkin and small sugar pumpkin), and some colorful ornamental gourds.

The second most commercially important species of Cucurbita is C. moschata. This species, native to Central and South America, has been cultivated by Native Americans for at least 5000 years. It is best known in the U.S. for the butternut squash, but it also includes a wide range of other cultivars, which can vary enormously as to shape and color. Varieties of this species are now grown in many parts of the world, and are popular in the Caribbean and in several Asian countries. Most varieties of C. moschata are grown as winter squashes — but a few varieties, seldom seen in the U.S., are grown as summer squashes.

Of particular relevance to the theme of this article, all canned pumpkin is made from varieties of Cucurbita moschata. Libby’s, the most famous brand of canned pumpkin (owned by Nestlé), employs a variety called Dickinson Field Pumpkin. Two other similar varieties — Kentucky Field Pumpkin and “Large Cheese” — are also used for canned pumpkin. Several characteristics make C. moschata a good choice for pumpkin pie — a good flavor, relatively low water content, and a lack of stringiness. Because butternut squash has characteristics similar to the varieties used for canned pumpkin (and is also the same species), it is often recommended as a good substitute for canned pumpkin. You should definitely not use a large jack-o-lantern pumpkin in pumpkin pie, because the flesh is too stringy, too watery, and not the right flavor. (However, the Small Sugar Pumpkin, a variety of Cucurbita pepo, apparently makes perfectly acceptable pumpkin pie.)

Now that we have examined a second species of Cuburbita, the distinction between pumpkin and squash has grown even murkier than before. The pumpkins we use for jack-o-lanterns are poor choices for making pumpkin pie, but the butternut — which we usually call a squash — is an excellent choice for pie. Furthermore, all of the “field pumpkins” that are used for canned pumpkin are more closely related to butternuts than to jack-o-lanterns, yet these varieties are called pumpkins.

The third most important species of Cucurbita is C. maxima, originally domesticated in South America. At the time of the Conquest, its range was still limited to South America, but now it is grown around the world. The better-known cultivars include Hubbard squash, Banana squash, Kabocha squash, and Turban squash. While some varieties are grown primarily in the tropics, other varieties do well in cooler climates as far north as New England. Several varieties of Cucurbita maxima can grow quite large, which is why it was named “maxima”. All “giant pumpkins” (more than 100 pounds) are varieties of this species. Some of the largest examples can weigh more than a ton. Therefore, if you want to grow a prize-winning giant pumpkin, then you need to plant seeds of C. maxima, not C. moschata or C. pepo — even though most of what we usually call pumpkin belongs to the latter two species.

This third species continues to muddy the water as to the distinction between squash and pumpkin. In fact, in this species, the distinction boils down to intent. If you grow Cucurbita maxima to eat it, then then you’ll probably call it a squash. But if you grow it to compete for size, then you’ll definitely call it a pumpkin.

The other two domesticated species of Cucurbita are relatively minor in importance, and also add little to our question of the distinction between pumpkin and squash. Cucurbita argyrosperma (formerly called C. mixta), is primarily cultivated for its delicious seeds — although the flowers, shoots, and fruits can all be eaten. This species originated in Mexico and in nearby parts of Guatemala and the U.S., and it continues to be especially popular in Mexico. Likewise, Cucurbita ficifolia is also primarily grown for its edible seeds, although other parts of the plant can also be eaten.

We have seen that the English word “squash” originated from a much longer word spoken by the Native Americans in New England. Different tribes in the area had slightly different versions of the word, and they undoubtedly also had terms for describing the different varieties of squash that they grew. For example, the Narragansett word “askútasquash” literally meant “green things that may be eaten raw” — a reference to summer squash, which might actually be the color green, or “green” in the sense of being harvested while still immature.

In contrast, the word “pumpkin” originated in Europe. The word started out as “pepon”, from the Latin word for melon. In French it evolved into “pompom” and then “pompion”, used to describe the winter squashes introduced from the New World. And then, in English, the word evolved to become our familiar word “pumpkin”. In short, the word “pumpkin” at one time referred to any variety of winter squash. In some parts of the English-speaking world, such as Australia, this is still true.

Today the word “squash” can refer to any botanical fruit harvested from any domesticated species of Cucurbita — regardless of the size, shape, or color; regardless of whether it is harvested as a summer squash (immature) or a winter squash (mature); and regardless of how the fruit is ultimately used. Therefore all pumpkins are types of squash. In the U.S., we no longer use the word “pumpkin” to refer to all varieties of winter squash, but instead apply the word to any winter squash that meets any one of the following three criteria:

1) Any winter squash that is bright orange and approximately spherical, conforming to our current cultural stereotype of how a pumpkin should look. (Many of these pumpkins, but not all, belong to the species Cucurbita pepo.)

2) Any winter squash that is especially well suited for making pumpkin pie, or for the preparation of canned pumpkin. (Most of these pumpkins, but not all, belong to the species Cucurbita moschata.)

3) Any winter squash that is capable of growing to enormous size, generally greater than 100 pounds. (All of these pumpkins belong to the species Cucurbita maxima.)

And there we have it. So now we can answer all parts and variations of our original question. “Is that really pumpkin in my canned pumpkin?” The answer is yes. “Is that actually squash in my canned pumpkin?” The answer is yes. “Can it really be both at the same time?” The answer is yes.

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