Pumpkin Lore / Examining Fall's Most Famous Fruit

For many people, pumpkins represent little more than Halloween decorations and Thanksgiving desserts. For others, they represent a bountiful source of culinary inspiration, the key ingredient in everything from bread to soup. Still others use them to showcase boggling gardening feats, harvesting specimens of enormous dimension.

Above all, the pumpkin is one of the most visible signs of fall's arrival. Images of the round, orange fruit are as much a symbol of the season as the changing color of autumn leaves.

The pumpkin patch. The jack-o'-lantern. The pumpkin pie.

Fall is here.

Peter, Peter, Pumpkin-Eater,

Had a wife and couldn't keep her.

He put her in a pumpkin shell,

And there he kept her very well.

--Nursery rhyme

Pumpkin Profile

Although sometimes described as squash because of their botanical classification, pumpkins are actually part of the gourd family Cucurbitaceae . The common pumpkin is Cucurbita pepo . It grows on vines and bushes, and is rich in beta-carotene, vitamins A and C, potassium and iron.

Size: Most weigh between 15 and 30 pounds, although they can grow to hundreds of pounds.

Coloring: The common pumpkin is orange. Other species are white and yellow.

Crop: California is the No. 2 pumpkin-producing state in the nation, with more than 4,000 acres devoted to the fruit. Illinois is No. 1 with more than 6,000 acres.

History: They are believed to have originated in the tropical regions of North America, where several varieties of gourds, squash and pumpkins were raised by Native Americans. Seeds from related plants as much as 9,000 years old have been found in Mexico's highlands.

Pumpkin Products

While many people buy pumpkins each year for Halloween decorations, which are discarded the next morning, there are hundreds of recipes available to turn the fruit into such edibles as breads, pancakes and soups. "If you use different kinds of seasonings, you can do all kinds of things," says Terry Pimsleur, president of the International Pumpkin Assn.

Still, the most popular form is the pumpkin pie--a staple of millions of Thanksgiving meals in the United States. According to the IPA:

* About 88 million pumpkin pies are served each Thanksgiving in the United States.

* Each year, 145,000 tons of pumpkin are processed for canning in the United States.

What calls back the past, like the rich pumpkin pie?

--John Greenleaf Whittier, "The Pumpkin" (1844)

The Jack-o'-Lantern

Centuries ago in England and Ireland, candles were placed inside hollowed-out beets, potatoes and turnips. These were used as lanterns on All Hallows Eve, the annual night on which elves, fairies and witches were believed to roam the land. When the festival's customs were brought to America, pumpkins became the vessel of choice.

Today, jack-o'-lanterns are typically carved with elaborate facial designs and placed outside homes as candle-lit decorations on Halloween. The term jack-o'-lantern was originally given to the ghostly light, also known as will-o'-the-wisp, caused by the combustion of methane gas over swamps and marshes at night.

Plump Pumpkins

A decade ago, the world's largest pumpkin topped the scales at 500 pounds.

That was then; this is now.

At its annual World Pumpkin Weigh-Off in San Francisco earlier this month, the IPA awarded its top prize to Nathan and Paula Zehr of Lowville, N. Y., for their 799-pound entry. The couple won $3,000 and a trip to next year's Japan Pumpkin Festival. Other winners in the world competition included:

* 774 pounds; John Perkins, Wiltshire, England

* 696 pounds; Joel Holland, Puyallup, Wash.

The current Guinness record for the world's largest pumpkin belongs to a 827-pound giant grown by Holland in 1992. Canadian Herman Bax produced a reportedly 990-pound pumpkin earlier this year, but it has yet to be verified by the Guinness staff.

City of Pumpkins

Locally, some believe that the city of Calabasas was named for the Spanish word for pumpkins or gourds, calabazas , acknowledging the importance of the gourd in the culture of Native Americans who populated the area before the arrival of Spanish explorers in the late 18th Century. (But others say the city name was derived from that of a Chumash village.)

Last weekend, the city held its third annual pumpkin festival, drawing an estimated 20,000 visitors. This year's event featured a pumpkin weigh-off, pumpkin bowling and a pumpkin cook-off. But despite the hoopla, Calabasas admits that no pumpkins are grown in the city.

Sources: Encyclopedia Americana, World Book Encyclopedia, International Pumpkin Assn., 1994 Guinness Book of Records

Researched and written by DAVID BRADY / Los Angeles Times

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