Appalachia Appalachian Food Preserving/Canning

What People Used to do with Pumpkins

Seminole pumpkin growing in appalachia

I’m most familiar with using pumpkins for pies, breads, rolls, roasted seeds, and decorations. I know folks used to eat pumpkin stewed as you would potatoes and that folks dried the pumpkin for using in soups and other things. While flipping through These Storied Mountains written by John Parris I came across an article he wrote about other ways folks in the mountains of Western North Carolina used pumpkin in days gone by.

Pumpkin Is More Than Just Pie by John Parris

Some mountain women make a pudding of boiled pumpkin. And some still make pumpkin molasses, which provided sweetenting in grandma’s day. Back then the word “molasses” was used in the same way we use “syrup” today. When cooked for a long time in a large quantity of water, strained and the water further reduced by boiling you have pumpkin molasses.

Then there is pumpkin whiskey.

As knowledgeable old-timers will tell you, pumpkin whiskey is a heap sight easier to make than corn whiskey, and not as risky. All you need is sugar and a good-sized pumpkin. You cut a plug out of the top of the pumpkin, clean out the seeds and the pulpy mass to the meat. Then you pack the hollowed out pumpkin full of sugar, replace the plug, seal it with wax, and set the pumpkin under the bed or in a dark place. In a week or so the sugar has turned to liquid and you’ve got yourself a quart or so of whiskey.

The pumpkin, truly a symbol of autumn, is deeprooted in American Life.

In the early days, it was used stewed in soups, in stews, in pie and pudding. The flesh was dried for winter and early spring. The seeds were used as a delicacy. The early settlers here in the hills learned to grow them in their fields of corn. It was common practice 50 years ago to plant a seed of pumkin in a hill of corn. To the pioneers, the pumpkin was one of the most versatile of vegetables.

Pumpkin could be stored in the fall, down under the fodder bundles, and then served as a vegetable-peeled and boiled, it was then fried- through most of the winter. It could be dried, or freshly cooked, and put into the cornbread batter.

Most of us think of pumpkin pies when we see a wagonload of pumpkins or pumpkins sitting on the back porch or lying at the barn door waiting to be stored down under the fodder. But pumpkin is more than just pie. It is bread and a pudding, a butter and a molasses. And many a mountain family right now is savoring one or all of them.


I hope you enjoyed the old article written by John Parris. His description of pumpkin molasses made me think of the old saying waste not want not. By simply using pumpkin and water they laid up good thoughts for the sweetness that would be added to their family’s plates in the coming months purchased only by the work of their hands.


*Source: These Storied Mountains: Pumpkin Is More Than Pie written by John Parris

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  • Reply
    William J. Boone
    January 19, 2021 at 1:48 pm

    So help me, I can’t stop commenting! Pop-Pop called the classic pumpkin used for Jack-o-lanterns “cow punkins” because they were grown to feed the cows in the winter. He grew “pie punkins” for their finer texture and flavor. They grew big, sometimes 2 or three feet across and grew on their sides. Mom-Mom made the best pumpkin pie I’ve ever eaten, but left no recipe, or receipt, as she called them. She just made them out of her head, so I can’t reproduce them, more’s the pity! The pumpkin filling was silky smooth, not nearly so set up as the Libby’s recipe turns out and very delicately spiced so you tasted more of the pumpkin. Pop-Pop didn’t care for heavily spiced food. She said you could use cow pumpkins for pie, but you had to push it through a sieve after cooking it to remove the gritty, fibrous bits.

  • Reply
    November 1, 2019 at 12:57 am

    I thought pumpkin whisky would be fun to try. I tried to make it twice. Twice because I thought sure I must’ve done it wrong the first time. Either John Parris left out a vital step in the process or people were hiding their moonshine in pumpkins and telling him it was pumpkin whisky. Both times I tried it, the sugar mixed with the liquid in the pumpkin and oozed out through the pumpkin as sugar water. After a week or so, the pumpkins ended up sitting in a deep, watery pool with not much of anything inside. I found a video of a guy demonstrating how to put the sugar in the pumpkin and sealing it up. He announced that his second video would show opening the pumpkin, pouring out the whisky and serving it at Thanksgiving dinner. I never found his second video. I’m sure he ended up with the same sugar water I did.

    • Reply
      November 1, 2019 at 6:52 am

      Nadine-thank you so much for sharing your experience with trying to make Pumpkin Whiskey! Maybe he left out a vital step or maybe they were pulling his leg đŸ™‚

    • Reply
      Ron Bennett
      November 17, 2020 at 4:13 pm

      I think he may have left out the yeast . I would think some would be needed to turn the sugar into alcohol

  • Reply
    Mrs. K
    November 23, 2016 at 11:03 am

    Tipper – great post and comments. Ed Ammons – very funny, LOL! Jim Casada – my pumpkin sauce is served over ravioli or pasta of some sort – we just had it over tortellini. Pumpkin whiskey sounds interesting too, never knew about the molasses. Going to have to look for a pumpkin sauce recipe like apple sauce. We love all sorts of squash and eat a lot of it during this time of year. Pumpkin Stew is my favorite that I have splashed together.
    Happy Thanksgiving to all.

  • Reply
    November 22, 2016 at 12:37 pm

    I always liked John Parris and thought he was the best at Mountain Writings. Never knew about Mountain Whisky or the other uses, but I always thought of Pumpkins as a Fall Thing. …Ken

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    November 22, 2016 at 11:14 am

    A simple recipe late fall and winter:
    1-pumpkin (the larger the better)
    ¼ stick of dynamite ( any brand)
    1-electric blasting cap
    100 ft. of 2 strand wire cable (insulated)
    1-lawn mower battery (any small battery will do)
    Make a hole in the pumpkin big enough to insert the dynamite all the way to the center if possible. Insert the blasting cap into the dynamite and throw a couple of loops of the wire from the cap around the dynamite to keep it from coming out (at this point make sure the little lead clamp of a thing at the end if the cap wire is securely in place.) Insert the dynamite and cap combination into the pumpkin and pack some of that pumpkin mush around it (or not, it doesn’t make a lot of difference in the final outcome. Now, lay out the 2 strand wire cable to its maximum length, remove the insulation from the ends of the wires and attach one wire to the negative (-) side of the battery. **Make sure the other wire is safely away from the battery.** Go back to the pumpkin and remove the insulation from the other end of the cable wires, remove the little lead thingy and twist the wires from the cap to the two wires from the cable (take care to keep them separated.) Walk slowly back to the battery and kneel down beside it facing the pumpkin. Find the loose wire from the cable and hold it away from the battery. Make sure all participants behind you, yell “FIRE IN THE HOLE” and stick the wire to the (+).
    PS: This recipe is also good made with watermelon in the summertime!
    PPS: Another good use I have for pumpkins is for target practice. Shooting paper targets gets boring after a while but exploding pumpkins is always fun.

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    November 22, 2016 at 11:05 am

    Love this post this morning and the comments as well. I also love the reads of John Parris one of my favorite mountain authors.
    Now then, Mom used to make pumpkin butter and pear butter, when she had the privy of fresh pumpkins. We had a pear tree, so lots of pears where used in a multitude of recipes, some made only once some made every year. I liked Moms pumpkin butter OK but to tell the truth Apple Butter is the only butter that I love on a biscuit, well except the one that’s ingredient is served up by “Bessie”!
    Ann Applegarth..,I believe your recipe would be considered candied Pumpkin, too like candied orange rinds, pears etc. I love candied orange rinds, also good when the ends are dipped in dark chocolate. I made them one year. So I may give your candied pumpkin a go!
    Melissa P…Brilliant Idea using the pumpkin as a feeding tray. The little critters if they haven’t hibernated and our little chipmunks don’t stay in too long, love pumpkins as well as the seed.
    Jim…Using condensed milk as well as sweetened with sugar will give you such a “sugar high” that you’ll be able to hunt until your bullets give out! Yep, I love condensed milk as well! Let us know how the pies taste!
    Tipper, I’m not so sure about a pumpkin under my bed fermenting, as one year I stored a few small pumpkins stuck around here on the floor in the kitchen. I put them on the floor cause the kitchen floor was cooler, duhh, except where the freezer released the warm air from the motor. There was a big sale right at Halloween! It got forgotten since it was hid behind a case of canned drinks. Ewwww, it was a mess when I went to clean it up. Smelled whiskey like, even though it didn’t have no sugar stuffed in it! ha
    Love this post Tipper,
    PS…the beauty of pumpkin molasses makin’ Well, the “yeller jackets” would be mostly outside holed up for the winter by that time!

  • Reply
    November 22, 2016 at 9:47 am

    There is hardly a post on here that doesn’t bring up some sort of memory from my years growing up years. Dad never ate pumpkin, and to even say the word sometimes brought on a story.
    It seems back in those days everything was put to the best use–nothing was wasted. Dad often told tales of working from sun up to sun down along with his brothers. As if he already didn’t work hard enough, he decided to plant a big pumpkin patch. He was so descriptive about the bountiful supply of pumpkins that came from that patch. They ate them, canned them, and fed to livestock until every critter and everybody soon tired of pumpkin. He said they still just kept hauling pumpkin out of that holler. Being of “Hard Shell Baptist” faith, his family didn’t have the option of experimenting with whiskey. It is not certain if they observed Daylight Saving Time on that ole farm so long ago. It seems this may have just given them another hour to deal with all those pumpkins. I suppose this would best be described as even the critters were “foundered.”
    My childhood was deprived, as never able to eat pumpkin pie or peas growing up. Mom never shared why she hated peas.

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    November 22, 2016 at 9:46 am

    Tipper–From personal experience or through mountain folklore, I’ll add several other uses for pumpkin to those covered by John Parris.
    *Pumpkin butter–mighty fine when spread atop a biscuit hot from the oven.
    *Pumpkin leather–thin strips of pumpkin dried–they make a delicious, crunchy snack.
    *Pumpkin sauce–I don’t know how to make this and wish I did. King College (now King University), where I attended undergraduate school, served it regularly during the winter months. It had a consistency somewhat akin to apple sauce and I absolutely loved it.
    *Pumpkins as food for fattening hogs. Grandpa regularly fed his hogs culls and damaged pumpkins, and they also got the “leavings” when the “womenfolks” (Grandma Minnie) worked up pumpkins for baking. I don’t know that it is indeed the case, but Grandpa swore that a hog fattened on a steady diet of pumpkin and Hickory King corn made the tastiest hams a body could want.
    Jim Casada
    P. S. As I’m typing this pumpkin pies are baking per Granny’s recipe with a couple of slight adjustments–pumpkin pie spice in place of the spices she used and sweetened, condensed milk in place of cream. I don’t know how they’ll turn out but if smell is an index there’s some fine fixin’s in the offing.

  • Reply
    November 22, 2016 at 9:11 am

    Now I’m thinking of trying to make pumpkin molasses, too! I do hate to waste food. And grew up hearing “wasting food is a Sin!” so there’s that to worry about, too.
    Wish I had a bigger kettle, because I have enough pumpkin that I could be boiling it in a rendering pot over a fire outside, and stirring it with an oar.

  • Reply
    November 22, 2016 at 9:10 am

    I’ve heard of drying it and making pumpkin “leather” (like fruit leathers) and I used to see candied pumpkin strips in the stands on the square in Reynosa, Mexico. Also, “pepitas” (roasted young pumpkin seeds) were my craving food each pregnancy.
    Perhaps planting them in the corn sounds like part of the “three sisters” tradition of planting corn, beans, and squash together: The beans climb up the corn stalk to get more sun and, perhaps, fix nitrogen in the soil for the corn. The squash covers the soil at the base of the corn and beans to shade and cool the soil and conserve moisture. I don’t recall what the squash gets out of the deal but “three sisters” is possibly the earliest known in the tradition of companion planting.
    Pumpkin -such a versatile fruit/vegetable!

  • Reply
    Ann Applegarth
    November 22, 2016 at 9:04 am

    Tipper, the person who gave me that recipe rolled the candy in maple sugar,
    but white sugar is traditional. I never changed the bottom line!

  • Reply
    Ann Applegarth
    November 22, 2016 at 9:02 am

    Oh, Tipper, there is another delicious way to use pumpkin — pumpkin candy!
    It’s popular in Mexico and in the Southwest U.S. Here’s a recipe:
    Dulce de Calabaza Mexican Pumpkin Candy (makes about 2 pounds)
    1qt. quart raw pumpkin (1″ x 1-1/2″ cubes)
    2-1/2 c. water
    1 c. brown sugar
    1 c. white sugar
    Put pumpkin and water into a pan. Bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer uncovered for 15-20 minutes till pumpkin is barely tender. Remove pieces
    with a slotted spoon. To the liquid in the pan add brown sugar. Heat on low until dissolved. Put the pumpkin back into pan and bring back to a boil. Turn heat to low and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let sit overnight.
    The next day, bring the mixture back to a boil; simmer 5 minutes. Remove pumpkin pieces from the syrup and spread them out on a wire rack so that they are not touching each another. Let stand in a warm place or in a 140 degree F oven for 3 to 4 hours to dry.
    Roll each piece in the maple or raw sugar, and store in a cool, dry place.

  • Reply
    H Lee Mears
    November 22, 2016 at 9:02 am

    Well, I’ve never heard of these things! I never found a pumpkin under the bed. But I’m going to have a story now for Thanksgiving dinner table!! (We used to read John Parris n AshevilleCitizen)
    Like your Monday column, Granny used Candy Roaster, froze enough for two years every yr. We got to where my Mother made the pies for Tgiving & Christmas and we could hardly wait. Seems she used about your reciepe ,also would make about 4 with just vanilla. I guess ‘egg custard w/ pumpkin’.? My brother & I esp loved these for breakfast.

  • Reply
    Rooney Floyd
    November 22, 2016 at 8:51 am

    I never heard of pumpkin whiskey. I wonder if it’s like persimmon beer–which makes me want to share this rhyme:
    “Apple cider, ‘simmon beer; the black cat spit in the yellow cat’s ear.”
    Happy Thanksgiving!

  • Reply
    Melissa P (misplaced Southerner)
    November 22, 2016 at 8:40 am

    I’ve heard that the pumpkins that are sold for jack o’lanterns aren’t very good for cooking. I have another use for those. After Halloween is over, I cut the pumpkin into about 2/3 and (as long as the “smile” isn’t too close to the bottom) poke 4 holes into it (directly across from each other – 4 equidistant holes), cut 4 long pieces of twine, wrap one piece of twine through each hole and tie them together at the top so that the punkin will hang evenly, fill with bird seed, and hang from a window where I can watch the fun. I throw the other part of the pumpkin that I cut off (as long as it isn’t scorched) down into the woods and watch the ground critters enjoy that part. I’ve even seen deer knock the hanging “feeder” around like a pinata. Guess I’m easily entertained.

  • Reply
    November 22, 2016 at 8:24 am

    I’m planning to try drying pumpkin slices this year, because I have run out of freezer space for puree. I’ve never seen it done, but I asked Old Sturbridge Village if folks used to do this, and they said yes, so at least I know it’s not just something I made up! I’m trying to decide whether to leave the skin on the wedges or not…maybe one of your readers can give me some advice?

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    November 22, 2016 at 8:04 am

    I had not heard of pumpkin molasses, whiskey or dried. The soup however I have eaten prepared by some of the best. It is now my favorite way to eat pumpkins.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    November 22, 2016 at 5:36 am

    Wow Tip, I’ve never heard of pumpkin molasses, pumpkin whiskey, and dried pumpkin. Very versatile. This is just one more example of how the mountain people used everything to the fullest extent!
    When my grandmother died and we cleaned her house we found little balls of string in every nook and cranny. She saved the string from every flour sack and added it to a roll already started and put it away for further use. She made use of everything!

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