Autumn and winter are a time for hearty vegetables, mostly roots and tubers. It is also a great time for winter squash and pumpkins. Squash and pumpkin are among the myriad delightful foods indigenous to the Americas that became part of the Columbian Exchange.
The word “squash” comes from the Natick and Narraganset Indian word askútasquash,, which meant “the green things that may be eaten raw.” I’m just betting they were speaking of summer squash. The word pumpkin comes from pumpion, a corruption of the French pompon, or melon. Well, the pumpkin is a fruit and a distant relative of the melon, but it isn’t a melon, it’s a squash. While the difference between most pumpkins and most winter squashes seems pretty obvious to most of us, the debate still goes on in some quarters as to what is a gourd, and is a gourd a squash, and which squashes are actually pumpkins—because they’re all related, and in some differences, the lines blur. Pumpkins are even sometimes described as gourd-like squashes. But for most common usage, and for what is most generally available in stores and farmers’ markets, we know what the difference is. (That said, for many applications, winter squash and pumpkin are fairly interchangeable.)
Pumpkins and winter squash are members of the genus Cucurbita, and have in common firm, generally sweet flesh and hard rinds. Of the so-called “Indian triad” of maize, beans, and squash, it was probably squash that was cultivated first. At archeological sites in Mexico dated as early as 9000 B.C., seeds of several cultivated varieties of squash have been found. By the time Europeans reached the New World, squash and pumpkin were being consumed by indigenous peoples pretty much throughout North and South America.
In the United States, we tend to think of pumpkin as pie, or maybe as soup, and winter squash as something you might have at thanksgiving (though butternut squash soup has become popular in the last few years). However, we are not world-class consumers. Worldwide, pumpkins and winter squash are a favorite in stews. They are also a common vegetable in many countries. On my first trip to Australia, I had pumpkin/squash with almost every hot meal I ate.
Pumpkins and winter squash are worth adding to the menu, since they are sweet, delicious, relatively inexpensive, and good for you. All pumpkins and winter squashes contain vitamin A, with the deep-colored varieties offering the most beta carotene, vitamin C and some of the B vitamins, and they are excellent sources of fiber.