By Emily Paster, The Nosher
As autumn progresses and the High Holidays fade into the distance, many Americans Jews turn their attention to a different holiday: Thanksgiving. The humble pumpkin, native to North America, plays a starring role in this quintessentially American holiday.
Valued for its versatility and its heartiness, pumpkins were a mainstay in the diet of Native Americans by the time Europeans arrived. Some may even recall learning how those early Pilgrims narrowly avoided starvation during the winter of 1620 by eating pumpkin and other crops shared by their Wampanoag neighbors.
But Americans are not the only ones who have a long and colorful association with pumpkin. Since almost the first moment explorers from Europe returned from the New World, Sephardic Jews have embraced pumpkin.
They haave incorporated this once-unfamiliar gourd into numerous dishes — both savory and sweet — and even made it an essential part of fall festivals.
But what was the reason behind this Sephardic love affair with pumpkin? As is typical with Jewish cuisine, the answer is complex.
Pumpkins were one of the first crops from the New World to be brought back to Europe in the 16th century. As Spain sponsored many of the early trips to the Americas, its inhabitants were among the first Europeans to learn about pumpkins.
At that time, Spain was also home to a large population of Jews — until the Inquisition, that is, when they were expelled and dispersed around the Mediterranean or forced to convert to Christianity. Indeed, some of those converts, still facing persecution in Spain, were among the first Europeans to settle permanently in the New World — a fact that becomes significant later in our story.
Quite soon after Europeans discovered pumpkin from the Americas — as early as the mid-16th century, in fact — they began planting this hardy and easy-to-grow crop, which had the additional benefit of keeping for months in storage during the cold winter. Despite these attributes, most European consumers remained wary of actually eating pumpkin.
In France, for example, pumpkins were used mainly as animal fodder.
In Italy, pumpkin was thought of contemptuously as food for the poor. In The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, Gil Marks notes that, by contrast, Iberian Jews quickly embraced pumpkin as a culinary ingredient.
The Sephardim who fled to nearby Italy from Spain brought pumpkin with them and soon Italian Jews began trading in pumpkins as well as cooking with them. This trade was facilitated in part by Diaspora Jews’ continued connection to Spain through the Marranos — Christian converts who remained in Spain and still secretly practiced Judaism.
In The Book of Jewish Food, Claudia Roden points out that since it first appeared in Italy, pumpkin has been associated with the Jews.
Ravioli filled with pumpkin was originally a Sephardic creation. Italian Jews also developed recipes for pumpkin puree, pumpkin flan and pumpkin fritters, a Chanukah delicacy.
Starting in the second half of the 16th century, dishes made with pumpkin spread throughout the Sephardic world. Pumpkin, which is in season in late summer and autumn, became associated with fall holidays such as Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot.
Roden notes that the pumpkin’s rich golden color evokes happiness and nearly all New Year’s foods carry some symbolic wish for happiness and prosperity in the coming year.
Then there was the vegetable’s name. The word for squash or pumpkin in Arabic is qara, which sounds like the Hebrew verbs for “to rip or tear up” and “to read or call out.” Thus, a custom developed among Sephardic Jews to eat pumpkins or squash at Rosh Hashanah and recite a special prayer that any harsh decrees that may have been issued be “torn up” and that the speaker’s merits be “read out” before the Creator.
Pumpkin’s thick, protective outer rind led to another symbolic association with the New Year: By eating pumpkin on Rosh Hashanah, Sephardic Jews expressed their hope they would be protected in the year to come.
Each Sephardic community developed its own pumpkin specialities. A jam or sweet spread made with pumpkin was common throughout the Sephardic world, especially as a Rosh Hashanah delicacy.
Pumpkin was also commonly used in soups and stews, just like today.
Each Sephardic community adapted pumpkin — which is nothing if not versatile — to its own cuisine and paired it with the ingredients available to them.
Turkish and Greek Jews made sweet pumpkin pancakes while Syrian Jews preferred their pumpkin pancakes spicy.
Tunisian and Moroccan Jews served pumpkin as an accompaniment to couscous.
Lebanese Jews made a vegetarian kibbeh using pumpkin instead of meat.
Pumpkins traveled as far as Central Asia and India where Jewish communities again adopted it. Bukharian Jews from Uzbekistan filled their savory pastries, or bishak, with pumpkin, while the Bene Israel community of India made pumpkin curry and a dessert called halwa from pumpkin, nuts, spices and cream.
It is widely accepted that Sephardic Jews embraced pumpkin — and indeed other New World crops such as tomatoes and eggplant — earlier than their gentile neighbors.
Why did the Sephardic Jews, when faced with these strange, thick-skinned gourds from the New World, decide to integrate them into their cuisine when so many other Europeans would not?
Is it that Jews have always been open to new foods and ingredients because of their experience of constantly moving and thereby constantly being exposed to new foods? Jews are famous for adopting the foods of the country they found themselves in.
Surely that adaptability was part of it.
Poverty may be another explanation. Because pumpkins were disdained as food among most Europeans, they were inexpensive. Leah Koenig, author of Modern Jewish Cooking, points out that “as a community with limited means as well as dietary restrictions, [Jews] had a greater impetus for adopting new-to-them produce . . . than their non-Jewish neighbors.”
On a related note, Joyce Goldstein in The New Mediterranean Jewish Table suggests that Jews living in Italian ghettos could afford to buy meat only rarely but that certain vegetables, like pumpkin, were meaty in texture and therefore viewed almost as a meat substitute — something that may have come in handy for dairy meals. (Another New World vegetable, eggplant, which was also beloved by Italian Jews, shares this characteristic.)
Even beyond the necessity of adapting to new foods as they dispersed into the Diaspora, Jews have always had a certain openness and curiosity about food that set them apart.
The network of Jewish merchants, peddlers and traveling scholars who passed from community to community, traversing geopolitical borders, carried tales of exotic foods and dishes from faraway places — and sometimes even carried the foods themselves — that piqued the curiously even of isolated Jewish communities.
Moreover, Jews were often merchants in foodstuffs — inspired in part by their own needs for certain ceremonial foods, such as the etrog at Sukkot.
Some of those converted Jews, or Conversos, who landed in the Americas with the early Spanish settlers became exporters of New World produce and used their connections with Sephardic communities in the diaspora to sell them.
That, too, may have made Jewish communities in Europe and the Mediterranean more likely to accept those unfamiliar foods — the fact that fellow Jews were selling them.
Whatever the reason, or combination of reasons, that caused Sephardic Jews to embrace pumpkin as a culinary ingredient, Koenig notes that this early acceptance by Jews had important ramifications for the future of New World foods:
“Sometimes, Jewish communities inadvertently helped normalize . . . unfamiliar ingredients and helped usher them into wider acceptance over time.”
This was true not only for pumpkin but for many other New World vegetables as well, from artichokes to tomatoes.
So this fall, embrace pumpkin as part of our heritage as both Americans and as Jews. In honor of how our Sephardic ancestors used pumpkin in a wide variety of dishes, think beyond pumpkin pie and pumpkin bread and incorporate pumpkin into some savory dishes as well.