SHREVEPORT, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – If you want a new take on old flavors for your Thanksgiving table, pumpkin recipes from ancient Rome and ancient Egypt are delicious, fun to make, and were once used to prevent pregnancy.
Yep. That’s right—to prevent pregnancy.
Pumpkin recipes from modern India and modern Native Americans are also interesting ways to bring extra spice and sass to your holiday table.
But this article isn’t just about recipes. It’s also the story of how ancient pumpkin seeds helped scientists learn the approximate date humans began cultivating crops in North America.
Jump into this deep dive with KTAL if you’re ready to explore history in search of ancient pumpkin seeds, recipes that once changed societies, and new ways to cook old fruits.
Momma, where do pumpkins come from?
Pumpkins are ancient and are quite possibly the reason that North Americans decided to stick seeds in the ground for the first time about 10,000 years ago.
It turns out that the oldest pumpkin seeds ever discovered were found by a fella named Kent Flannery in 1964. Flannery was obsessively searching for evidence that would pinpoint the approximate time humans in North America began changing from a hunter-gatherer society into an agricultural society.
(Don’t judge Flannery—each of us has at least one weird obsession.)
Here’s how it happened: it was 1964 and Flannery was rooting around in Mexico’s Oaxaca Valley when he found a cave called Guila Naquitz. Inside the cave, he discovered seeds he suspected were ancient. Flannery tested the charcoal from the same layer where the seeds were found, and carbon dating proved the seeds were between 8,000 and 10,000 years old.
It should be stated that those ancient pumpkins didn’t look much like the spooky jack-o-lanterns we carve on Halloween or the gorgeous, rounded, orange varieties of pumpkins that we use for decoration and deliciousness during Thanksgiving. But by golly, ancient pumpkins are awesome, too.
A food revolution between Old and New Worlds
It’s more than 11,000 years after people left pumpkin seeds in a Mexican cave. Now we’re in the late 1400s, and Christopher Columbus has “discovered” America in much the same way that your little sister “discovered” your toys and took them to her room when y’all were kids.
That’s a different story, though.
Sticking to the traditional view of modern civilization, we’ll say that Columbus discovered pumpkins and took the seeds back to Europe. But remember that Columbus wasn’t sailing across the ocean blue in 1492 to look for gold and silver. He was looking for a shorter route to get to spices.
The oldest pumpkin seeds are 10,000 years old and prove that pumpkins are native to North America, but after Columbus “discovered” the New World in the late 1400s he took pumpkin seeds back to the Old World. By the early 1500s, the Old World was experiencing a food revolution as a result of the Columbian Exchange.
But there are ancient pumpkin recipes from Egypt and Rome—so how does that work?
Pumpkins have families, too
Pumpkins are from a family of flowering plants in North America that goes by the name of Cucurbitaleaes. Pumpkins have a lot of cousins, too, like squashes, melons, gourds, zucchini, and cucumbers, which are all Cucurbitaleaes. They originate from fast-growing vines with unisex, five-petal flowers that are either yellow or white.
In ancient Rome there were Cucurbitaleaes, too–fruits like white cucumbers, melons, and cucurbita–an edible gourd. They also had a gourd-like fruit that curled around itself like a snake.
There were members of the pumpkin family in ancient Rome, but pumpkins were native only to the New World. Distant cousins of the pumpkin are the reason we find ancient pumpkin recipes in the writings of Marcus Gavius Apicus, a foodie from ancient Rome. Apicus had access to a squash that evolved in North Africa–the calabash, which is also known as the bottle gourd.
Meanwhile, in the New World, Cucurbita pepo was growing and eventually became cultivated by humans. So many subdivisions have occurred in the New World that there are now three subspecies.
There are some interesting variations, too, such as Cucurbita Melopepo var texana, a variety native to Texas. Cucurbita melapepo var. ozarkana which evolved in the Mississippi valley and the Ozark Plateau in places now called Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Alabama, Missouri, Kentucky, and Illinois. Ozarkana can be found near stream banks, gravel bars, in bottomland forests, along fencerows, in railroad rights-of-way, along roadsides, and it can spring up from disturbed ground.
Squashes and gourds were in the Americas before humans arrived, and nobody knows who the first person was who decided to pick one up and eat it. But the seeds were slowly spread across what is present-day Mexico to present-day Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, and more. New cultivars formed as the seeds spread into new types of environments, forming an ancient family tree that scientists are still trying to understand.
Ancient and modern pumpkin recipes
Now we’re in Rome, less than 100 years after the death of Jesus of Nazareth. Chefs were busy making a Roman pumpkin dish for the wealthy and elite members of society. We know the dishes that were being made from a squash similar to, and related to pumpkin because of Apicius’ work.
We don’t have exact measurements of Apicius’ recipes. But we do know what ingredients were used to make pumpkin dishes for the upper class. And they aren’t so very different from dishes we’d order in the higher-end American restaurants of today.
Alexandria was once the largest city in the ancient world. Under Roman rule, it became the intellectual center of the Roman empire. And just like some dishes are distinctively attributed to a certain region today, the same thing happened back then–and there was a way to cook pumpkin that was specific to the city of Alexandria, Egypt.
To make Alexandrine-Style Pumpkin, boil pumpkin pieces and press the water out of the pieces. Place them in a baking dish and sprinkle with salt, ground pepper, cumin, coriander seeds, green mint, and a little laser root.
Here’s the thing about laser root—you’re not going to find it at any grocery store, not even the ones that smell like incense.
Laser (laserpicium) (Silphium) was such an amazing plant that it became the main crop of Cyrenaica by the 630s B.C. They even put an image of the plant on their coins!
Laser was used as a seasoning, a perfume, an antiseptic, an analgesic, and was (drumroll, please) such a popular form of birth control that the plant was overeaten and went extinct.
Some believe laser might have been a hybrid of fennel. But whatever it was, the poor plant was picked slap to death because it flourished in the wild and couldn’t be cultivated by man.
Back to the recipe:
After you’ve added your salt, ground pepper, cumin, coriander seeds, green mint, and your imaginary laser root into a bowl, season everything with vinegar. In a separate bowl add in date wine, pignolia nuts that have been ground with honey, more vinegar, and broth to taste, and pour the mixture over the pumpkin. Sprinkle with more ground pepper before serving.
Replacing the laser root called for in the ancient recipe with modern birth control is not recommended. Maybe add a few tablespoons of sugar instead?
Pumpkin and chicken
Another ancient Roman pumpkin recipe involved stewing pumpkin pieces with a hen and garnishing with oil and vinegar, hard-skinned peaches, truffles, pepper, caraway, cumin, laser root (sorry), and green herbs such as mint, celery, coriander, pennyroyal, and cress.
Sounds pretty good, huh?
And just in case you’re wondering what pennyroyal is, know that modern science says don’t use it because it’s toxic. But it was used to treat the common cold and pneumonia, as an insect repellant, and it was used to help women start their periods when they were “late.”
I’d recommend leaving the pennyroyal out of the recipe.
This Native American pumpkin recipe calls for peeling and dicing one small pumpkin or a large butternut squash. Then you add chopped green onion, chopped red bell peppers, and diced red onion into a pan with melted butter and oil. Sauté until fragrant. Add pumpkin pieces and continue to sauté while adding salt, ground pepper, and cinnamon. Add water and boil, then reduce heat until pumpkin is cooked. Add brown sugar until you have a light syrup around the softened pumpkin. Cool and eat.
Creamy pumpkin curry
If you’re not in the mood for Roman or Native American cooking, perhaps turning to chefs in India might be an interesting twist for the holidays.
To make creamy pumpkin curry, which is absolutely delicious, add chopped onion, chopped carrot, chopped bell pepper, minced ginger, and minced garlic into a large pan with coconut oil. Sauté for five minutes on medium heat, then add cumin, turmeric, curry, pepper, salt, and smoked paprika. Stir and bring the mix to a simmer. Reduce heat and add yellow curry. Simmer until the veggies are tender. Add pumpkin puree and stir while the mixture thickens. Pour over precooked rice and sprinkle with cilantro.
(Aren’t you glad this article wasn’t about pumpkin spice!)