November 21, 2018

Pie Wars - Pumpkin or Squash?

Tomato tomahto? With squash and pumpkin, it's much worse than that timeless debate. Without even daring to step into the omnipresent 'Pumpkin Spice' arena (I wouldnt dare), this post does demonstrate how we humans sometime just get carryied away with perception and marketing.

My point here is this: There is no such thing as pumpkin pie.
It's all Squash.

Seems like even brand marketers can't make up their mind. Or they feel that this option is the safest route.

Sort of, because there is something called pumpkin pie actually made from orange pumpkins. I see it all the time on some food blogs and on Instagram. An eager and overly-ambitious food blogger will usually show us how. Well meaning, yes, but unless they are using a modern sugar pumpkin which can pass as a marginally suitable filling, you just can't use any old orange pumpkin left over from Halloween. If you do, you will end up with a watery mess with little taste.

This confusion does start with the history of the word 'Pumpkin'. While old, it is just an alteration of an even older name for many squashes from around the 1500's when many simply called these clunky, bulbous fruits 'pumpion', or 'pompone', depending on what country you lived and farmed in. The Middle French name for a squash with this shape was even 'Pompon'. It is beleived that American colonists brought these names over and some stuck. As for 'pumpkin pie' .while it too is nearly as old (1600's), what we thought then was 'pumpkin' (or even 'pie' for that matter) is quite different than what we associate both with today. Even as late as the 1800's, 'Pumkin Pie' wasnt a pastry-sort-of-thing, but a custard often cooked inside of an actual pumpkin (or actually, a squash - you'll see.).

The good news is that there are plenty of fine new and heirloom winter storage squashes available today to use, and many might still be in your autumn displays.

At the original Thanksgiving, winter squash looked something more like this, and it was probably baked in a Dutch oven or whole with the cavity filled with a custard-like mixture.

Much of this might already be familiar to you. Countless historical articles appear every autumn in cooking magazines hinting to parts of this lore. We've read that 'Punkin' is a vulgar slang for a 'person with their hair cut short all around, (as in 'punkin-head' - and yes, this does sound like a premise for a Hollywood movie) (I think it was.), but the while the story on how we arrived today with these very two, different  words for winter squashes (particularly 'pumpkin' for the large, round orange-shaped one) is still confusing. Especially since marketers have run off with not only 'Pumpkin Pie', used in Holiday Lyrics and now that the spices have even become trendy.

Have you ever tried to make a pumpkin pie from an orange Halloween pumpkin?

If you have, then you may have discovered that the result wasn't exactly what you might have expected. Often, it's a big mistake (or at least one that your great, great, great, great grandmother wouldn't approve of). A sugar pumpkin perhaps might work, but in no way should any of us use an orange pumpkin to cook with.

Chefs know (and you'll see the canned 'pumpkin' companies know too) that the best (and most authentic) pumpkin pie comes from any number of hard-shelled winter squashes and not a watery-ol Halloween-type pumpkin. How do I know this? First of all, thanks, mom. I grew up in one of those families who not only grew their own winter storage squashes, but who spent a couple of days preparing them (in the 1970's before we had a food processor) by smashing them on a rock outside, peeling them without losing a finger then roasting them in the oven (or was it steaming them?). My job was usually forcing the now soft flesh through a chinois or Chinese hat shaped sieve with a mallet. Fine for an 8-year-old, but it's not something I am going to do today.

This year I am using up some Red Hubbard along with a few Warted Green Hubbard squashes. Peeling and cutting these beasts is a task best saved for those with protective gear and muscles. This one is small enough to cut inside, but usually I throw them off the deck onto the stone walk to split first.

Eventually, a meat grinder was employed as if we were making sausage, and then finally the first Cuisinart - thank God. Our Squash of choice was either Waltham Butternut (Cucurbita pepo) or Blue Hubbard. There are finer cooking squashes of course, and today, even more heirlooms are available, but when it comes to pumpkin, one learns quickly if making from scratch, that the results will only be watery and tasteless, not to mention colorless.

Sure, there are a few new sugar pumpkin varieties which by name alone tells us that they might be a bit better for pie, (they aren't), but regardless of what some hip cooking blogs might be telling you, peeling a pumpkin and making your own pie will be disappointing. You might as well steam and mash up an old, giant zucchini or an Acorn squash to get the same results.

OK, let's be honest. If you are like me, you've had to zip out to the supermarket one more time before Turkey Day only to find those who rarely cook - literally freaking out about having to make a pie from 'scratch' (meaning 1. buy a premade crust from Pillsbury. 2. Buy a can of pumpkin pie filling. 3. Dump, spice up, and cook.). Hey, I've done this too, and as my assistant at work pointed out one day - "your family didn't even know the difference, did they?".

The thing id - They didn't notice. Apparently only I seem to have the ability to distinguish the flavor and texture of a rare heirloom warted squash from that of a mush dumped from a can of 'Libby's'. Still, I guarantee that you can taste the difference, if not see it. Plant people have that gift.

But here's the thing...'Libby's' knows something much of us don't. That can of "pumpkin' is actually a winter squash - one that Libby's bred and continued to use today in all of its commercial pie filling. The squash they grow is called 'Dickinson's Pumpkin' (it's a beige or tan, a Butternut-colored winter squash that botanically is of a different genus than orange pumpkins that we are familiar with). Read more about it here The Great Pumpkin Pie Conspiracy in the Atlantic.

Have you ever noticed that there are not photos of real pumpkins or squash on the labels of pumpkin pie filling? There's a reason why producers turn to illustrations of pumpkins or just a slice of pie. It's because of the legal department.

What's interesting to me is that on the label of most every pumpkin pie filling is either a photo of a pie, or an illustration of a Halloween pumpkin, and never an image of a squash. Sure, squash itself has a bad name and many associate icky, pasty tasting gunk rather than sweet, orange, cinnamon-flavored desert - but why no photos of orange pumpkins then on the can? Every other canned vegetable has a beautiful photo of the appropriate vegetable on it?

The answer is legal. Packaging requirements established and controlled by the USDA  and FDA have very strict rules. While their description of what exactly can be considered 'pumpkin-pie filling'is vague, it does restrict it to being any hard-skinned winter squash, any golden-fleshed sweet squash such a

Libby's is considered by many to have the finest quality of all the canned pumpkin or squash pie fillings. After all, the kind of invented it!

We can buy seeds today of 'Dickenson's Squash or Pumpkin from many heirloom seed sources, but Butternut equals it for density, sugar, and flavor, not to mention color. It may be the easiest and will make a very fine pumpkin pie. It's my go-to most of the time, but I still try a few other winter squashes as each is so very different.

Around here in Massachusetts, we live in the land of winter squashes. The Blue Hubbard was developed here 250 years ago, and Waltham, of Waltham Butternut Fame, was a field station outside of Boston where the variety was developed. Not to mention that the Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock happens to be an hour away.

To understand all of this a bit better, it helps to know that most of the fruits we call squash fall into three distinct species, botanically speaking. don't worry, this will make complete sense.  Our hard-skinned winter squashes come from two species. Most are grouped into Cucurbita moschata like the Hubbards, the Kabocha or Lakota squashes, the Turban types, Buttercups and many of the weird-yet-beautiful warted heirlooms. Most of these make a fine pie filling. Fewer come from Curcurbita moschata but many of the finest eating squashes including the beloved Butternut group, those Fairy Tale pumpkins often sold as Cinderella squashes, and surprisingly 'Dickenson Pumpkin', the tan commercial variety used in canned filling.

The last group - Cucurbita pepo includes not only Zucchini but also summer squash and other summer-types like patty pan, We know that when we leave a zucchini in the garden that the skin gets hard, but it is still thin. The orange Halloween and sugar pumpkins are also C. pepo, as are Acorn squashes. These usually need added sugar to make them more edible and are usually more watery when cooked.


  1. In the one-before-last paragraph you mention 3 distinct species, but you only mention C.pepo, and C. moschata, what is the 3rd one?

    1. Oh geesh! Good catch! C. maxima, of course. I could have pushed it and said four (C. argyrosperma - the Cushaw) but that might just be confusing! Thanks!


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