What’s REALLY In That Pumpkin Pie?

So what’s in your pumpkin pie? Somebody at your Thanksgiving gathering this year may be in an argumentative mood and emphatically announce that it really isn’t pumpkins. My aim is to arm you with the facts, so you may confront this nudnik…and see if they, in turn, can handle the truth!

Chances are good, whether your pie is scratch made at home or bought in a store, that what’s in your pie comes from Libby’s, which is these days owned by Nestlé. Libby’s market dominance in pumpkin purée stands somewhere between 85 and 90%. So…just look at the label, right?


Notice that the “mix” is simply the pumpkin purée with added spices and sugar. The only other brand names I can find are these…


One-Pie is the traditional New England favorite, still distributed out of Maine, but today canned in Illinois. And while I personally haven’t jumped on the organic bandwagon, I appreciate the fact that Farmers Market spells out just which spices it uses.

And that’s it…right on the label…pumpkin, plain as day. One-Pie’s “prepared pumpkin” just means it’s cooked and puréed, but so are the others. Ah, but that wasn’t the real point of the argument, because the botanical rule is: All pumpkin is squash, but not all squash is pumpkin. A pumpkin is basically a squash that looks like a pumpkin should look. Thus we find on the net this myth-busting visual…


The claim will be that what’s on the left, butternut squash, is what’s in the can…not what’s on the right, a Jack-o-Lantern style pumpkin. Truth or crap? Let’s get ready to bust the myth-busters!

But before we can do that, a quick refresher course on taxonomy. Genus and species…arbitrary concepts to some extent, but the basic difference is in reproduction…within a species, all individuals can successfully mate…within a genus, only some can. Horses and donkeys are the same genus but different species…their mating can result in a mule…but not completely successfully, as the mule is infertile.

On the other hand, wolves and domestic dogs are the same species…yet their morphological differences make it convenient for them to be placed in difference subspecies…Canus lupus lupus for wolves and Canus lupus familiaris for dogs. And it gets even more complicated, because despite the differences between say Great Danes and Chihuahuas, they are considered the same subspecies, whereas there are different subspecies of wolves, altho they all more closely resemble each other than dogs do…Canus lupus lycaon, Canus lupus rufus, Canus lupus arabs, etc.

Now…virtually all types of squash fall into 2 species…Cucurbita pepo and Cucurbita moschata. And while it is generally true to say a pumpkin is C. pepo and a butternut squash is C. moschata, there is much more to the story. Here are some of the major varieties or subspecies of Pepo…as you can see, they are quite variedand only one “qualifies” as a pumpkin…what will often be called a carving or face pumpkin…


And here are the 2 main forms of Moschata…


There’s our good old butternut squash…and something else that not only looks like a pumpkin, but is commonly called a pumpkin, the Cheese Pumpkin…so named because of the yellow/tan color of its outer skin…but its inner flesh can be anywhere from pale yellow to the rich orange we expect in a pumpkin pie.  And now we’re almost there…


…because what Libby’s packs in its cans is what it calls the Dickinson Select Field Pumpkin. It owns the proprietary rights to this variety, having purchased it from the Dickinson family of Illinois in 1929…it’s said they brought it originally from Kentucky sometime in the 1800s. And it’s a type of Cheese Pumpkin, thus a Cucuribita moschata, cousin to the butternut squash. Should the Dickenson then be considered a butternut squash? Not really, but botanically it is more closely related to one than it is to Cucurbita pepo pepo.

Bear in mind, the folks at Libby’s aren’t fools…the Dickinson has much more flesh per fruit than our Hallowe’en pumpkins, it’s less watery, and with a smoother, sweeter taste. And even if your pie wasn’t made from Libby’s, it’s sure to have something very similar to the Dickinson…otherwise, the consumer would notice: Hey, this isn’t pumpkin!

Now it’s true that you can buy something called a “pie pumpkin”…also called Sugar Pumpkin or Sugar Pie Pumpkin. This is a smaller, meatier cultivar of Cucurbita pepo pepo…it has its fans, obviously, but from what I gather, its main appeal is that you’re making a pie from something that looks like a pumpkin. In fact, many leading experts say that this is one of those rare cases where canned is much better than fresh. Perhaps your cook disagrees, and that’s fine.

But there’s your answer: unless it’s “artisan,” your Thanksgiving pumpkin pie was made from some variety of Cheese Pumpkin, which is a close relative of the butternut squash, and less closely related to the Jack-o-Lantern pumpkin you carved a month before. But then again, it was definitely not made from anything that you’d identify as a butternut squash, with its long fat neck. So now…dig in!


Copyright © 2013 Mark John Astolfi, All Rights Reserved

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