But wait! you cry, desperate to know whether, like the Food and Wine author, your “whole life is basically a lie.” “Dickinson pumpkin” has pumpkin in the name. So how is it not a real pumpkin?
It depends who you ask.
In this case, the most relevant definition might come from the FDA, which authorizes food sellers to label as pumpkin any article “prepared from golden-fleshed, sweet squash or mixtures of such squash and field pumpkin.”
“Field pumpkin,” as you might have guessed, is the canonical, jack-o’-lantern type, the embodiment of fall and Halloween and resident of hay-strewn patches across America. It’s actually a subspecies of Cucurbita pepo, along with acorn squash, zucchini, and decorative gourds.
What’s not in the same species as field pumpkin? You guessed it: the dastardly Dickinson.
Okay, but maybe the species the Dickinson does belong to—Cucurbita moschata, to be precise—could also be included under the umbrella term of pumpkin, right? This is where the line between pumpkins and squash starts to break down.
Heirloom Gardener claims that “there is only one species of ‘true’ pumpkin, the Cucurbita pepo.” Encyclopedia Britannica disagrees, saying that pumpkins are the “fruit of certain varieties of squash (namely, Cucurbita pepo and Cucurbita moschata)”—the field-pumpkin species and the Dickinson species. And if you think the Brits just don’t know what they’re talking about, know that Merriam-Webster is on their side.
The Missouri Botanical Garden takes an entirely different tack, saying that “pumpkin” as a category “really has no botanical meaning, as they are actually all squash.” Where, then, do we draw the line? The first jack-o’-lanterns were carved out of potatoes; does that mean we have to start calling potatoes pumpkins too?
Cindy Ott, who wrote Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon, told me that, up until the 19th century, the words pumpkin and squash were used interchangeably. “It’s the same damn vegetable!” she said. The difference is all about symbolism. (Or, in some cases, about color: Pumpkin-growing competitions across the country will only consider specimens that are at least 80 percent orange.)
The whole reason canned pumpkin isn’t field pumpkin is that field pumpkin isn’t good to eat. Colonial Americans ate them only when they couldn’t afford anything else. It’s icky. So when the industrial revolution came along, according to Ott, “the pumpkin stayed behind on the farm.” Unlike squash, which were sold in markets and remained “part of people’s everyday life, just like how we see squash now,” no one tried to sell pumpkins in the city. They were just used as a cheap alternative to animal feed on small family farms. The pumpkin thus became a symbol of agrarian values, a bright-orange beacon of Americana; what we call a pumpkin comes down to what we decide fulfills that ideal.