For a vegetable dusted off and wheeled to the table as seldom as it is, the pumpkin is subject to a whole lot of love.
It’s around for just two months of the year, so it’s possible that its reputation is a case of absence making our hearts grow fonder. But there’s more to it than that. From childhood affection and adult appreciation, through its dazzling health benefits and key role in a pair of our favourite annual events, the pumpkin deserves every bit of praise that lands in its patch.
From a food perspective, its universal popularity is a mystery wrapped inside an enigma. We don’t eat pumpkin often enough for it to be anyone’s favourite vegetable, and it isn’t the central player in too many classic dishes. It’s the culinary equivalent of hearing Coldplay on the radio – a nice surprise when it’s on your plate, but rarely electrifying. But that’s not to say it doesn’t have its pluses. Nutritionally, the pumpkin is stellar.
There’s more potassium in its flesh than in a banana’s. The seeds are one of the few foods whose dietary value actually increases as they mature, which means, if you’re thrifty with your jack-o’-lantern, the spirit of Halloween can be stretched long beyond 31 October.
It can triumph from a flavour point of view, too. For children it is a kind of anti-vegetable, not bogged down by the same healthy-eating associations attached to carrots and peas. Surely no parent has told their child, “No pudding until you eat all your pumpkin”. Not that they would ever need to. Pumpkin bridges the gap between savoury and sweet, making it perfect for children. One minute they’re trying a spoonful of pumpkin purée, the next they’re slurping pumpkin soup and saying, “Please, mum, I want more.”
The same goes for adults, too. While kids look at the world’s largest pumpkin – which weighs in at just over one thousand kilos – with curious awe, we can only imagine the meals so much pumpkin could produce. And what meals they would be.
Plump pumpkin-filled ravioli in sage butter; rustic wedges roasted in no rush with garlic and thyme until soft and sweet. Fiery curries and hearty stews; a salad sprinkled with pumpkin seeds to add the crunch that sees us through lunch.
But the appeal of pumpkin runs much deeper than how it’s eaten. Like Brussels sprouts and cranberries at Christmas, October and November is our time to gorge on all things pumpkin. First comes Halloween, an event whose success lives or dies on the quality of your jack-o’-lantern. Ever since the 19th century, when the practice of observing Halloween by carving faces into pumpkins really gained momentum, people have been taking things to extremes.
The Keene Pumpkin Festival, for example, is visited by thousands, all there to witness the world’s biggest coming together of jack-o’-lanterns. Last year, 30,581 were lit and stacked on top of one another. And as for Thanksgiving, everyone knows it’s really all about the pumpkin pie – at least that’s how the people who baked the world’s largest one, at 1,360 kilos, must feel. Why else would they have waited five hours for it to cook?