THERE it was, on the supermarket shelf, an almost unbelievable sight. A jar of pumpkin butter! Time was reversing itself. Back in prewar days, many Midwestern farm women mixed pumpkins with apples and cooked a thick fruit-spread called pumpkin butter - there were more pumpkins in the spread than apples. Then for some reason, pumpkin butter lost its popularity. Now it was back again, a commercial product in a store that featured gourmet foods. The pumpkin has always been a staple on breadbasket farms. Even in pioneer days, settlers planted pumpkins with their corn. They were piled high in their log granaries, for food during bleak winter days.
Historically, the pumpkin is as old as civilization itself. Columbus was puzzled when he saw the yellow pumpkin brightening fields in the West Indies. DeSoto found the plains Indians growing them as well. The notes of Captain John Smith, of Pocahontas fame, reveal that the East Coast Indians grew them also. ``Amongst their corne,'' Smith wrote in the quaint English of the day, ``they also plante pumpeons, a fruit unto a muske melon but lesse and worse.''
Apparently Smith penned his notes after nibbling on a slice of green pumpkin. It could be he presumed it was a ``muske melon,'' biting into which would be like sinking one's teeth into a green, puckery persimmon. Farm boys were known for tricking their visiting city cousins in this way. Indian turnips served in the same capacity, so peppery they brought tears to the eyes of the uninitiated.
IN pioneer days, the pumpkin often was a way of life. In many instances it kept the family of a southern Illinois settler from actual starvation during a long winter. Stocks of food often grew alarmingly low in frontier cabins during the ``big freeze'' days of winter. So the pumpkin was resorted to as a daily food.
Even if the weather was against the corn crop, the pumpkin vines kept growing, for they were hardy and drought-resistant. So pumpkin was eaten in various forms: stewed, put in soup, and fried. The seeds were used as food, salted and roasted. Some health stores, even today, feature pumpkin seeds as a health-food item, with fancy prices tacked on the bags.
So dependent were our first settlers on the pumpkin as a food item that it was eaten throughout the year, supplanted only in late summer by the new crop. Its name came from the Greek word pepon, meaning ``cooked in the sun.'' Down through the years the word changed to pompion, then to pompen, finally to pumpkin. Among southern Illinois settlers it grew phonetic: punkin.
The first person who carved a pumpkin into a jack-o'-lantern to gladden the heart of a child, is perhaps lost in antiquity. Yet, even so, this person's creativity has never lost its appeal.
On area farms, the pumpkin has always been food for cattle and hogs, long before it entered the commercial market for humans. Apparently all native Indians were familiar with the pumpkin, even the Western tribes, including the Hopis, Apaches, and Navajos. When the rains failed, Indian women of these desert tribes carried water from some distant spring to keep their pumpkin vines alive.
When Marquette and Joliet first visited Indian villages in the river floodplain that is now southern Illinois, they found women of the plains tribes cutting pumpkin into strips, which were hung up and dried. Once dehydrated, these pumpkin strips were boiled with venison and other wild game, flavored with herbs and dried berries. Our native Indians were well-educated as to survival foods.
In early England the pumpkin was cooked with meat or served buttered as a side dish. But it took the American housewife to elevate the lowly pumpkin to its present place among our favorite food items. She evolved the pumpkin pie, flavored with wild honey, later with brown sugar, topped with whipped cream or a jam made of ripe persimmons.
In later years, the pumpkin received a seasoning of ginger from Malaya; cinnamon from Ceylon; cloves from Madagascar; nutmeg from the Moluccas. So the lowly pumpkin came into full glory as part of the Thanksgiving menu.
THE pioneer housewife might be surprised to see a piece of whipped-cream-topped pumpkin pie in a restaurant priced at a $1.50 or more, remembering that she made an entire pumpkin pie for less than a dime!
So the next time you pass a field of ``prairie footballs,'' give the beauties a second look, for here is gourmet food of the first magnitude, despite the fact that the early circuit-riding preachers maintained it was a food spawned by the devil himself.