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A Holiday Season Debate: Pumpkin Pie or Squash Pie?

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This season the accusations again reared their ugly heads. Canned pumpkin, it was said, is not really pumpkin. When I heard this scandalous accusation again this past holiday season my blood boiled. It took me back to my high school days when I heard this claim for the first time. Of course, back then I just shrugged and went about my business.

Historically, "Pumpkin" & "Squash" Were the Same Thing

Why were there two such different reactions over time? Mostly because over those thirty years there has been no growth or greater understanding of what pumpkins and squash are and are not! Simply put, historically the use of pumpkin or squash was interchangeable. Pumpkin originally came from a Greek word for melon and squash came from a phrase meaning, “to eat raw.” Both words were used for the exact same fruit and the plants they came from. So if these words were used interchangeably, why are they now used differently? This is a good question, and I have not been able to find historical sources that explain why some varieties are now called squash and some are now called pumpkin. The three major species of cultivated Cucurbita all have varieties that are called pumpkin as well as squash. The pumpkin name is not even just limited to roundish orange fruits. ‘Neck Pumpkin’, the forbearer of the butternut squash, is a very old variety with large crookneck fruit that looks like a butternut on steroids. On the other hand, ‘Gold Nugget’ is a nice little orange squash that is mostly round and very similar to what Americans have grown to expect from their edible gourds.

So What's Really in the Can?

Once we get back to canned pumpkin we find that the variety of pumpkin that Libby’s canned pumpkin uses is ‘Dickinson Field Pumpkin’. This pumpkin is a close relative of both the ‘Waltham Butternut’ squash and the old-fashioned neck pumpkins we already talked about. So with both of these close kin to varieties that use both names do you really think is a big deal if in the end the fruit in the can is called either squash or pumpkin?

Pie Filling Recommendations

I don’t think it is. I am much more concerned that the pumpkin in the can is from a good variety squash that has few strings, good color, good nutrition, and high quality flavor. And I can tell you from a lot of experience with cooking and eating pies from many different types of squash and pumpkins, that the ‘Dickinson Field Pumpkins’ that go into a can of Libby’s are some of the best pie pumpkins that you will ever taste. That is not to say that you cannot match or exceed the quality of a Dickinson with a homegrown pumpkin. There are more than a few varieties that can make and excellent homegrown pie filling. My current favorite for pies is the ‘Waltham Butternut’, although I have had great success with ‘Green Hubbard’, ‘Lumina’, and ‘Pink Banana’ as well.

So this year when you go out to plant some pumpkin for Halloween, don’t forget to plant some good squash for making your own pies. You won’t regret the experimentation and the fun you will have growing your own pie making material.


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