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Long before tax-dodging espresso purveyors were foisting their dull caffeinated “creations” onto us, the humble but mighty pumpkin was an essential staple of Native Americans’ diets – more than 7,000 years ago.

Thank God for Pumpkins

For each issue of OXcountry, our food fanatic-in-residence Jack Rayner explores the history, properties and culinary possibilities of an underappreciated vegetable or ingredient
"The modern pumpkin pie didn’t arrive until the 1800s"

Darker evenings have arrived, and so has the official sign that Our Beloved Corporate Coffee Overlords have decreed now signifies the arrival of autumn: pumpkin spice latte.

But long before tax-dodging espresso purveyors were foisting their dull caffeinated “creations” onto us, the humble but mighty pumpkin was an essential staple of Native Americans’ diets – more than 7,000 years ago.

The earliest remains of a domestically grown pumpkin were discovered in the Oaxaca Highlands in Mexico, where the plant is thought to be native to. Native American farmers planted pumpkins as part of the “three sisters” system which included corn, beans and squash. This system was a remarkably sophisticated method of nourishing three food crops using each other’s properties: corn provides a pole for bean vines to climb, beans fix nitrogen on their roots which improves soil quality for the corn, and squash plants shade emerging weeds and deter moisture evaporation from the soil.

Not only do the three plants help each other to grow, but they also form a remarkably balanced diet when consumed together: pumpkins provide vitamins, corn provides carbohydrates, and beans provide protein. The Native Americans developed this system hundreds of years before anyone had discovered ‘soil nitrogen’ or ‘vitamins’, which makes their ingenuity all the more remarkable.

One of the earliest pumpkin recipes actually committed to paper came from seventeeth-century English traveller John Josselyn in his highly regarded and snappily titled book New England’s Rarities, discovered in Birds, Beasts, Fishes, Serpents and Plants of that Country. His recipe calls for two or three gallons of fresh “pompions” (as they were called in that era), along with butter, vinegar and spices – a basic dish but certainly a filling and nourishing one. Sweet pumpkin recipes like the modern pumpkin pie didn’t arrive until the 1800s – the first of these simply consisted of an empty pumpkin shell that had been filled with spiced milk and roasted.

The tradition of Hallowe’en lanterns actually predates pumpkins themselves. The original ‘jack-o’-lanterns’ were made by the Irish using turnips and potatoes, set on windowsills to deter evil spirits from entering the home. Only when Irish settlers came to America in the 19th century did the preferred plant become a pumpkin, presumably because pumpkins are far easier to carve.

This autumn, why not forgo the pumpkin spice lattes and indulge yourself in this very simple but utterly delicious pumpkin soup for a warming winter treat:

Pumpkin soup recipe (makes enough for six bowls)

Ingredients:

Olive oil

1kg deseeded pumpkin

2 onions

1 litre of vegetable stock

150ml of double cream

Pumpkin seeds, to garnish

Method:

Heat a little olive oil in a saucepan and soften the 2 onions, finely chopped. Add the pumpkin and continue cooking until the mixture softens.

Add the vegetable stock and season. Simmer for 10 minutes before adding the double cream. Blend half of the mixture and reintroduce to the pan.

Leave the soup on low heat. In a separate pan, heat a little olive oil and toast the pumpkin seeds for a few minutes. Serve the soup, top with toasted pumpkin seeds and drizzle with olive oil.

- Jack Rayner

 

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