Whether they're carved into jack-o'-lanterns or baked into pies, pumpkins are inescapable this time of year. Native to the New World, these special strains of squash are even more American than apple pie.
The pumpkins that the Indians were growing when the first white settlers came to these shores became a staple for the newcomers, who learned to dry them, bake them and cook them in stews. The use of pumpkins as Halloween lanterns dates back to the 1840s, when a wave of Irish immigration to this country brought the custom of carving a face in a turnip to create a lantern for All Hallow's Eve. Sensible immigrants, with pumpkins newly to hand, no doubt realized that it was a lot easier to hollow out a pumpkin than a turnip, and an American tradition was born.
Pumpkins have inspired the creation of other traditions of more recent vintage, from a "Punkin Chunkin" contest in Lewes, Delaware, to the crowning of King Pumpkin at the Ohio Pumpkin Festival in Barnesville, Ohio. In this celebration of the orange American vegetable, author Sue Hubbell takes us on a tour of pumpkin territory, scouting out pumpkin farms and pumpkin festivals (not to mention pumpkin jokes), and navigating the etymology and tangled taxonomy of that peculiar cucurbit, the pumpkin.