For those of you who thought pumpkin was a vegetable, think again. It’s a fruit. And for me, that’s a game changer when it comes to baking pies for Thanksgiving.
Like many, I can trace my first pie eating experience all the way back to my childhood. Back then, we spent the holiday with another family who, like us, was a transplant to Delaware. For decades, we alternated between houses, trading the bulk of the Thanksgiving cooking year after year.
At first glance, this seemed like the ideal solution — prepare the entire feast one year and relax the next. The problem was that my mother really hated cooking. And so the years that fell at our home were always fraught with tension. That is, until we got around to making pies.
Mom may not have been a happy cook, but she was a gifted mathematician. And she viewed baking as a science. As a result, our kitchen became her Thanksgiving laboratory, producing pies of the utmost precision. These included such traditional favorites as apple, pecan and mincemeat.
Unfortunately for her, we children saved our accolades for the other family’s pumpkin.
Dark brown and spicy, our neighbor’s pie tasted exactly like a giant gingerbread cookie. We gobbled it down with gusto. Shaking her head disapprovingly, my mother would whisper that it wasn’t pumpkin pie at all, but a failed experiment that met none of its objectives. And from that point on, I always thought of pumpkin as the sham vegetable in the group.
It wasn’t until later that I discovered pumpkin pie is traditionally orange, not brown. Moreover, pumpkin isn’t a vegetable at all, but a fruit. But by then I had already begun my lifelong obsession.
WHAT MAKES A PUMPKIN A FRUIT
Pumpkins are part of the Cucurbitaceae family, a large group of plants that encompasses over 900 species. Technically, they’re a cultivar of squash. But often you’ll hear people refer to them as gourds, which are a cultivar of squash, too.
In the United States, any round, orange squash is likely to be called a pumpkin. And, according to the Missouri Botanical Garden (my go-to source for plant reference) there is no botanical difference. Pumpkins and gourds are both squash. And all of them are fruits.
Squash, gourds and pumpkins are all fruits
Fruits, you say. But how can that be? Well in the botanical world, a fruit is the edible, seed-bearing structure of a flowering plant. That is to say, once fertilized, the female parts of a flower become seeds and the ovary becomes the fruit.
Plants use fruits as a means to disseminate their seeds. Although wind helps disperse some of them, many plants must rely on birds and other animals to distribute their seeds through their feces. As a result, these fruits employ such strategies as bright color, plump flesh and increased sugar to enhance their visibility.
They may not be sweet, but squash (and by association, pumpkin) still fit the textbook definition of fruit. Other surprising fruits include tomatoes, beans and green peppers although most people would refer to them as vegetables.
VEGETABLE IS A VAGUE TERM, ANYWAY
A deeper dive reveals that the term ‘vegetable’ has no meaning botanically. According to Live Science, most plants that we refer to as vegetables are actually parts of a plant, like leaves, stems, tubers, bulbs and roots. These plants include lettuce, spinach and kale (leaves), rhubarb (stem), artichokes, garlic and onions (bulbs) and potatoes, turnips and carrots (roots).
Surprisingly, bean and peas are not vegetables. They are a type of fruit called a ‘legume.’ For example, peas are the seeds and the pod is the fruit.
The pea pod is the fruit
Confused? Not to worry, berries are indeed fruits. Like pumpkins, they are fleshy fruits derived from a single flower with one ovary that contains several seeds. According to botanists, this makes tomatoes, eggplants, grapes and chili peppers berries, too.
Eggplants are berries
What aren’t berries, technically speaking, are strawberries, blackberries, mulberries and raspberries. These are known as aggregate fruits, composed of mini fruitlets from many ovaries fused into a single structure. Their seeds aren’t contained in the fleshy pulp, but on the outside in the fruits’ receptacles.
Strawberry seeds are on the outside of the fruit
PUMPKIN PIE RECAP
So back to the pies and Thanksgiving. Here are the fruits: Apple (obvious), pecan (the seed of a drupe fruit), mincemeat (a combination of several fruits) and pumpkin.
And here are the vegetables: Sweet Potato Pie
Our neighbor has long since passed away and with her the recipe for her dark brown, cookie-like confection. Still, I feel a familiar joy spring up each year when the first orange-colored tarts begin appearing in the bakeshop. One bite and I am transported back to my youth and my first taste of ‘vegetable’ pie. I’m still searching for her recipe.