Pumpkin Recipes: Survival Food on the Ohio Frontier

Stead of pottage and puddings and custards and pies
Our pumpkins and parsnips are common supplies,
We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon,
If it were not for pumpkins we should be undoon.

Poem written in 1630s America,  from History.org article on pumpkins .

When the settlers from New England first arrived in Marietta, in the Northwest Territory about 1790, Indian wars were raging.  They had no easy trade with the east, their livestock was constantly in danger, they had to clear dense Ohio woods before they could plant vegetables, and then take the chance of going out of their forts to tend to their gardens. Even hunting was risky, said Benjamin Franklin Stone in his memoir of the pioneers of Israel Stone’s family.

Ohio Forest

Ohio Forest. Photo by Ben Millett from Flickr

In his autobiography, B.F. Stone says

Principle items of food were Indian bread, pork, potatoes and other garden sauce, occasional venison, bear and raccoon, opossums, squirrels, wild turkeys.

The war prevented us hunting much in the woods.  No apples, peaches or other cultivated fruits until the trees had time to grow from seed.

Great use was made of pumpkin.  We used to cut up and dry a great quantity of pumpkin.  Corn in the milk was dried for winter and spring.  Pumpkins, melons and garden vines grew more luxuriously [than in the middle 19th century.]

In the late 18th century, when my Ohio ancestors were depending on pumpkin recipes to keep them alive, the Europeans still disdained pumpkin, recently introduced to them, as food for the poor.

Like so many frontier foods, housewives found many ways to keep their family from getting bored with pumpkin. Not an easy task since pumpkin recipes benefit from sweetening and if ever two flavors were meant to go together, it is pumpkin and cinnamon.  if they had any cinnamon, it would have been in short supply, and for sweetening, they probably had to depend on maple syrup or honey once they ran out of the small amount of sugar they brought along, as it would be a while before traders would be delivering molasses to the frontier settlements.


Heirloom, eating pumpkins may not all be orange. Photo by Jeremy Seitz form Flickr

I found a great article at History.org, the website of Historic Williamsburg, with a very complete history of the use of pumpkin in America, from American Indians to today. Here’s a 17th century view of one way  pumpkins were cooked.

“A visitor to New England in 1674 wrote:

The Housewives manner is to slice them when ripe, and cut them into dice, and so fill a pot with them of two or three Gallons, and stew them upon a gentle fire a whole day, and as they sink, they fill again with fresh Pompions, not putting any liquor to them; and when it is stew’d enough, it will look like bak’d Apples; this they Dish, putting Butter to it, and a little Vinegar, (with some Spice, as Ginger, &c.) which makes it tart like an Apple.”

Today we tend to limit ourselves to pumpkin already stewed and canned and to a pumpkin recipe on the can’s label for pie. Or maybe we munch on salted pumpkin seeds, removed when the kids made jack-o-lanterns. Our more versatile ancestors were using pumpkin recipes for side dishes, or stuffed pumpkin with various fillings eaten as a main dish.

But we are not just being lazy when we choose pumpkin in a can.  Pumpkins in America have been for decades bred for making jack-o-lanterns–sturdiness taking precedence over taste. And the thinner walls suitable for carving mean you don’t get as much pumpkin meat.  So if you’re going to cook up some pumpkin from scratch, be sure that you find a store that sells eating pumpkins–perhaps labeled “heirloom” or you will definitely be disappointed.

What we call pumpkin pie, was known by them as pumpkin pudding. It just happened to be baked in a “paste”, which we call by the finished name–crust. The article from Williamsburg points out that the Amelia Simmons American cookbook in 1796 gave a recipe for pumpkin pudding that sounds almost identical to the pie filling you can find on the label of the canned pumpkin today. There are some things that you just can’t really improve on.


“…the Pilgrims seem to have been first to make pumpkin beer or ale. A later stanza of the poem quoted above provides evidence that they were versatile with their ingredients:

If Barley be wanting to make into Malt, We must be contented and think it no Fault, For we can make liquor to sweeten our Lips Of Pumpkins and Parsnips and Walnut-Tree Chips.

The Pilgrim recipe was said to involve a mixture of persimmons, hops, maple syrup, and, of course, pumpkin. Further south in Virginia, planter Landon Carter mentions pumpkins in his diary in 1765. He, too, concocted some sort of alcoholic beverage from fermented pumpkins. He christened it pumperkin.” [This information also from the history.org article. ]

Boy, I wouldn’t mind having a taste of pumperkin.  That sounds delicious!


NOTE: Be sure you’re buying eating pumpkins rather than jack o’ lantern pumpkins when you try these recipes. And if you want to try pumpkin in more modern recipes, try substituting it fro butternut squash in any recipe.


History.org article on pumpkins from Colonial Williamsburg Journal Autumn 09.

The website  Jas. Townsend and Son made the video. At their online store, theysell items for American Revolution recreators. They carry cooking and eating necessities including some ingredients and cookbooks and DVDs for recreating the 18th century kitchen. (Video is available on you tube).

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin Stone, excerpt from New England Magazine, both available at Google Books for search.

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