In America, late October through November might as well be renamed “pumpkin season.” Across the country, people stock up on cans of pumpkin puree to stir into pies, pancakes and quick breads. They head to U-Pick pumpkin patches, as if on a pilgrimage, to pluck the plump orange gourds (which are native to this continent) directly from the vine and haul them home. And they queue up at Starbucks to order pumpkin spice lattes, a drink whose seasonal arrival the cafe chain has successfully marketed as “the beginning of fall.”
But on the Jewish calendar, pumpkin season begins earlier and extends longer. America’s most pumpkin-centric holidays — Halloween (with its roasted, salted pumpkin seeds, the byproduct of jack-o’-lantern carving) and Thanksgiving (with its pumpkin pies crowned with whipped cream) — have culinary mirrors in Jewish holidays, starting with Rosh Hashanah and stretching all the way through Hanukkah, particularly within Sephardi and other non-Ashkenazi Jewish cuisines.
“My mom made pumpkin bichak for the holidays” Queens resident Dalia Avezbadalov recalled, referring to the pumpkin-filled, yeast-dough dumplings popular in Bukharian-Jewish cuisine. In Morocco, potakhe de potiron, or split pea and pumpkin soup flavored with cinnamon and saffron, was a common Rosh Hashanah dish. And according to Claudia Roden’s “The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey From Samarkand to New York,” pumpkin jam is widespread throughout Sephardi communities on Rosh Hashanah. “Its ritual significance on the New Year has to do with its golden color, which represents happiness and abundance for the year ahead,” she writes.
As the Jewish holiday marathon season continues, you find zucca di sfatta, pumpkin puree flavored with onion, sugar and cinnamon, served as a light “first food” at Yom Kippur Break Fast meals hosted by Italian Jews. On Sukkot, Bukharian Jews stuff pumpkins with spiced ground meat, rice and raisins in oshi tos kadu; Syrian Jews eat kibbet yatkeen, spicy pumpkin pancakes. Perhaps most exciting from the deep-fried perspective are frittelle di zucca, the Hanukkah pumpkin fritters, sprinkled with confectioners’ sugar, that Italian Jews eat in place of latkes or sufganiyot.
Outside of the holidays themselves, roasted seeds called bizr (which can refer to pumpkin, sunflower or watermelon seeds) are a common autumn snack within Syrian Jewish communities. “A table festooned with empty shells is usually evidence of a well-attended party or sebbit (Shabbat lunch),” Poopa Dweck writes in “Aromas of Aleppo: The Legendary Cuisine of Syrian Jews.”