Halloween, Pumpkin and Pie: A historical and nutritional crash course

Growing up, mum had some pretty strong beliefs, which, in the beauty of adult retrospect, have had their benefits. I now value the importance of breakfast before leaving the house and dirty shoes are instinctively removed before standing on carpet. However, one thing I refuse to agree with her on is Halloween. For a woman who decorates every nook and cranny of the house with Christmas decorations, Halloween is banned. Children who knock on doors are turned away and pumpkin decorations in shops are sternly frowned at. Something about refusing to honour a completely Unaustralian tradition that is American and should remain in America. But I love dress ups and chocolate and free things so for those three reasons we will agree to disagree. 

Halloween stems from Celtic celebrations which marked the end of the harvest season and beginning of winter- the 'darker half' of the year, where souls visited houses and food was left out for them. This evolved to people going house-to-house in costume, usually reciting verses or songs to pray for the dead, in exchange for food. Candles were burnt in houses to guide the souls back to visit homes. So why now are we using pumpkins? Irish legend has it that old man Jack was returning home after a night's drinking (an Irish drinker- shocking, I know) when he encountered the Devil. Jack tricked the Devil into climbing a tree and cheeky Jack then etched the sign of the cross into the bark, trapping the Devil from coming down. Jack made a bargain that the Devil could never claim his soul when he died. Years later, when Jack died, he was refused entry to heaven for his life of sin and drunkenness. The Devil, true to his word, didn’t let Jack into hell and threw a live coal straight from the fires of hell at him. It was a cold night, so Jack put the coal into a hollowed out turnip to stop it from going out. Since then, Jack and his lantern have been roaming the streets looking for a place to rest. And hence the name Jack-o-Lantern. When America was settled by Europeans, they began to use the native pumpkin, which is much softer, larger and hence easier to carve than a turnip. The pumpkin has now become synonymous with Halloween and pumpkin pie is as American as fireworks on the 4th of July, or a waaarrrrrmmm apple pie.

History lesson done, now onto the nutrition lesson. As mentioned, pumpkins are thought to have originated in Northern America, and are a member of the squash family. In regards to carbohydrate content, is moderate in it’s content compared to other vegetables. One cup of mashed potato has 30g of carbohydrates in it (equivalent to two slices of bread), one cup of mashed pumpkin has 10g, and one cup of zucchini has 3g. The colour of pumpkins is derived from the carotenoids in them, which include lutein, alpha and beta carotene. What are carotenoids I hear you ask? They are orange pigments found (unsurprisingly) in orange foods such as carrots, sweet potato and egg yolks. These are particularly important in eye health- in the body both alpha and beta carotene converts into vitamin A (retinol) which not only acts as an antioxidant, but forms a structural component to the retina which allows for vision to occur. Similarly, lutein is found in the macula and is thought to protect the eyes from damage by blue light. I’m going to draw my own conclusions and say that’s why we trick or treat at night- because we’ve eaten so much pumpkin in the lead up to Halloween that our eyes are working well enough to see in the dark. Just don’t quote me on that fact.

Because Vitamin A is fat soluble, if we eat too much, it accumulates in our fat stores (as opposed to water soluble vitamins that can be excreted in urine). This is why the government has set upper limits for the safe daily amount of Vitamin A, D and E (though not for the fat soluble VitaminK). Carotenaemia occurs when people live off carrot sticks- the carotenoids build up in the body and the orange pigments starts to give the skin a look not dissimilar to the cheap fake tan you got for the year 9 formal. Whilst usually not dangerous, excessive intake of one of the carotenoids, canthaxanthin, has been associated with yellow deposits on the retina and visual defects. If you find yourself in this situation, simply swap some carrot sticks for celery and the skin will slowly return to normal.

With History and Nutrition covered, let’s move onto the fun part, the cooking! I have had a play with pumpkin and come up with two delightful recipes to pay homage to this time of year (sorry mum) and such a delicious vegetable. Healthier Chocolate, Pumpkin and Pecan Pie is my take on the original. It is gluten free (not that that makes it healthier, but does make it Coeliac friendly) and is moist and dense and great with a spoonful of yoghurt or cream. Pumpkin, Haloumi and Onion Pie is quite UnHaloweeny and very untraditional but came about as I mixed the salty haloumi, sweet pumpkin and tangy pickled onion and realised the taste is enough to bring any roaming ghosts back home. Happy Halloween/ Pumpkin Eating!