"Almanzo ate the sweet, mellow baked beans. He ate the bit of salt pork that melted like cream in his mouth. He ate mealy boiled potatoes, with brown ham-gravy. He ate the hame. He bit deep into velvety bread spread with sleek butter, and he ate the crisp golden crust. He demolished a tall heap of pale mashed turnips, and a hill of stewed yellow pumpkin. Then he sighed, and tucked his napkin deeper into the neckband of his red waist. And he ate plum preserves, and strawberry jame, and grape jelly, and spiced watermelon-rind pickles. He felt very comfortable inside. Slowly he ate a large piece of pumpkin pie." -- Farmer Boy, Laura Ingalls Wilder
One of the staples of the pioneer diet was pumpkin. Not only could it be prepared in a variety of ways, but it also was one of the few foods that could be kept for a period of time and cooked "fresh" in the era before refrigeration. Stored in a cool, dry place, a pumpkin would go for months before beginning to deteriorate.
If pumpkin pie was on the menu, however, a pioneer cook had some work to do before she could mix up the pie filling. In the rest of this article, I'll outline the process of going from pumpkin to pulp.
First, the seeds and stringy matter inside the pumpkin had to be removed. Most pioneer women probably saved the seeds, either to plant the next season or to roast as a crunchy treat. The easiest way to separate the seeds is to dive right in with one's hands -- although it's not a job for anyone who doesn't like the feeling of something slimy!
Once all the stringy insides were removed, the pioneer cook had two choices of how to prepare the pulp. She could either boil the pumpkin or roast it. To use the boiling method, the cook would cut the pumpkin into chunks.
The chunks were put in a pan with a small amount of water and simmered until they were mushy. The excess moisture was then removed from the pulp. I used a sieve, running the pulp through several times, but a pioneer cook probably would use cheesecloth or something similar.
To roast the pumpkin, large pieces would be placed in a dutch oven and set in the coals until it was soft. Although the pumpkin could be peeled first, I left the skin on - because it's fun to peel it off once the pumpkin has been roasted!
Although roasted pumpkin doesn't have as much moisture as its boiled counterpart, there is still a lot to be removed, not surprising when you consider pumpkins are 90 percent water! The more patient the cook, the more times she will drain the pulp, and the better the end product will be.
A medium-sized pumpkin like the one I worked with produces a lot of pulp, and with no way to store the processed pulp, the pioneer cook would no doubt be kept busy making everything pumpkin - pies, bread, stewed as a vegetable. Although she wouldn't have known it, she was serving her family a tremendously healthy food packed with antioxidants and beta-carotene. She was probably just glad to have something to add variety to the limited choices in their daily diet.