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The Pumpkin: Not just a pretty face

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By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist

We associate things like fireworks, hot dogs and apple pie as being “American.” And while they are indeed rooted here, none of them spell red, white and blue as well as this orange fall rondure: the pumpkin.

We don’t give them much thought until the fall, when it seems as though they are everywhere: every grocery store, parking lot and roadside stand. We pick out the smoothest ones, scoop out the seeds for roasting and carve all varieties of faces in them. But pumpkins are more than just a pretty face. In fact, pound for pound, we’re chiseling away at one of Earth’s most perfect foods.

From the Greek word “pepon,” pumpkin, it turns out, is a fairly loose term. It changes depending on what country or part of the world you’re in since the pumpkin falls into a wider group encompassing many winter squash.

Though pumpkins are now grown on every continent but Antarctica, they were a staple of the Native American diet in particular. American Indians grew pumpkins for centuries and they became one of the most readily accepted foods of the new world colonists.

Much like bamboo is a useful tool and food in much of Asia, Native Americans ate pumpkins raw, roasted them, and essentially made the first pumpkin pie. They hollowed them out and roasted the seeds, much like we do today, poured a honey and milk mixture inside and baked it over smoldering coals.

In addition, they even dried cut strips of it to weave into mats.

But make no mistake: pumpkins also have a strong nutritional value. Right up there with canned tomatoes, canned pumpkin retains nearly all of its nutrients. Not many fruits and vegetables can make that claim.

Pumpkins get their deep orange color from carotenoids, a type of pigment found in certain vegetables and fungi, and are linked to the reduction of heart disease and diabetes while decreasing the risk of cataracts and macular degeneration.

They also provide fiber, which is a key player in the breakdown of carbohydrates and sugar, and allows our bodies to process sugar properly.

The pumpkin is a good source of Vitamin C and Vitamin E, which is a powerful antioxidant, helps balance cholesterol, repairs damaged skin, is a strong soldier in the battle against Alzheimer’s, and helps balance hormones.

Pumpkins contain potassium that reduces the risk of stroke and high blood pressure, while improving bone density, and wards off kidney stones.

Magnesium, an energy powerhouse, is also found in pumpkins and is essential for healthy bones while acting as a natural blood thinner, much like aspirin.

That all-star list of vitamins and nutrients in pumpkins is essential to our bodies, and oftentimes fewer than two of those are found in other foods. You would have to take a multivitamin to get a longer list of healthy nutrients.

Why this mini lesson in nutrition? Because pumpkins contain all of these healthy vitamins and nutrients, yet are affordable and accessible. So let’s all embrace the pumpkin.

Next year when you are carving a fun face into your orange winter squash, think about the benefits of this wonderful fruit.

Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the Executive Chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.

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