How the pumpkin become the jack-o’-lantern

Chef Thomas Jonet, Leader Columnist

Leader Photo by Greg Mellis Chef Tom Jonet’s Pilgrim Pumpkin Custard.

It is to fall, what the robin is to spring. The first sight of the bright orange “winter squash,” aka the pumpkin, is one of the unmistakable harbingers of autumn along with the changing colors of the leaves.

Pumpkin, from the Greek word pepon, meaning “large melon,” is believed to have originated in the ancient Americas. The oldest archaeological evidence found in Mexico was dated between 7000 and 5500 BC. The name evolved from the Greek pepon, to the French pompion and finally to the American interpretation, the pumpkin. Commonly referred to around the world as “winter squash,” there is actually no botanical or scientific meaning of the word pumpkin.

The variety that ancient Native Americans used was not the big round jack-o’-lantern type, but rather a crooked neck, late-harvest squash. Long before maize (corn), it was cultivated along rivers and creeks with sunflowers and beans. It was the original “three sisters” of Native American cultures, now known as corn, beans and squash.

Early natives used the squash in many ways. Strips were roasted over a fire, dried or boiled. Dried strips were woven into mats, ground into flour or used in pemmican. Seeds were used as a medicine and were stored in the dried, hollowed-out squash shells. It was a very important staple to help survive the long, cold winters.

Native Americans introduced the Pilgrims to the pumpkin. In fact, it was documented as being served at the second Thanksgiving. It quickly became an integral part of the

Pilgrims’ survival over the first few winters. Contrary to popular belief, there was no pumpkin pie at those early Thanksgiving celebrations. Pilgrims cut the top off the pumpkin and scooped out the seeds. They filled the squash with cream, honey, eggs and spices, then buried it in hot coals.

I can just imagine how amazing that custard tasted. No doubt the forefather of the famous pie, it probably went well with the pumpkin persimmon beer that was the early brew in New England.

So how did the pumpkin become a jack-o’-lantern? Well, it all began with an Irish myth about a man named Stingy Jack who invited the devil to have a drink with him. Stingy
Jack, being aptly named, didn’t want to pay for the drinks, so he convinced the devil to change himself into a coin that he could use to pay. Once the devil changed into a coin, old Jack didn’t pay for the drinks, but rather placed the coin in his pocket alongside a silver cross that trapped the devil from changing back into himself.

Eventually, after a series of tricks and double-crosses, Stingy Jack let the devil go with the agreement that when he died, he could not claim Jack’s soul. So when Jack did pass away, as the story goes, God did not want this unsavory character in heaven. The devil was still smarting from all Jack’s trickery, but kept his word and refused to allow him into hell. Instead he cast him out into the dark of night with only a hot coal to light his way. Stingy Jack carved out a turnip and placed the hot coal inside to make a lantern.

Legend has it he still wanders the earth to this day. The Irish began calling this ghostly creature “Jack of the Lantern” and, finally, Jack o’ Lantern.

People all over the British Isles began carving everything from potatoes to beets and displaying them in their windows during harvest time. Once the practice found its way to the New Country, they discovered the Connecticut field variety of pumpkin with its round shape made the perfect jack-o’-lantern.


Brown​ ​Sugar 3/4​ ​cup

Eggs 3​ ​large

Molasses 2​ tablespoons

Salt pinch

Cinnamon 1/8​ ​teaspoon

Nutmeg 1/8​ ​teaspoon

Allspice 1/8​ ​teaspoon

Heavy​ ​cream 2/3 ​cup

Pumpkin,​ ​solid​ ​pack​ ​can 1​ ​3/4​ ​cup

Cream​ ​together​ ​the​ ​brown​ ​sugar​ ​and​ ​eggs​ ​until​ ​fluffy.​ ​Stir​ ​in​ ​cream,​ ​spices
and​ ​molasses.​ ​Mix​ ​well.​ ​Blend​ ​in​ ​pumpkin​ ​and​ ​mix​ ​until​ ​smooth.​ ​Fill
custard​ ​cups​ ​3/4​ ​full.​ ​Place​ ​in​ ​cake​ ​pan,​ ​and​ ​pour​ ​in​ ​boiling​ ​water​ ​around​ ​the
cups​ ​halfway​ ​up​ ​the​ ​sides.​ ​Preheat​ ​oven​ ​to​ ​375​ ​degrees,​ ​and​ ​bake​ ​30​ ​to​ ​35
minutes​ ​until​ ​custard​ ​is​ ​set.​ ​Remove​ ​from​ ​the​ ​pan​ ​and​ ​cool.​ ​This​ ​should​ ​be
pretty​ ​close​ ​to​ ​the​ ​Pilgrim​ ​custard​ ​without​ ​burying​ ​the​ ​pumpkin​ ​in​ ​hot