Pumpkin. Pumpion, pompion; MFr, pompon, Popon; L. pepo: Gr., pepon: literally, cooked by the sun, ripe; hence, a gourd or melon not eaten until ripe .

-Webster's New World Dictionary

"The fruit is of a great bigneff, whofe bark is full of little bunnies or hillie welts . . . which is yellow when it ripe .

-Gerard's Hertal, "The Great Round Pumpkin"

The pumpkin is hallowed among vegetables. The conventional place to keep wives, it has also served as a midnight coach for Cinderella and is a convenient receptacle for microfilm in more recent history. Pumpkins proliferate in fairy tales, nursery rhymes and ghost stores. Had Freud thought fit to investigate, he might have uncovered a wealth of associations for us to live down.

In some regions of England, children still celebrate Punkie Night, possibly the precursor of our American celebration of the Jack-O-Lantern on Halloween. The pumpkin is carefully hollowed out to a thin layer that supports the shell. Fantastic scenes or designs are then carved. A common candle within a tight lid on top projects eerily shifting patterns of light.

For many who crowd roadside stands this time of year, the chief delight is in the eating. The edible pumpkin received earliest mention in England for its restorative powers, boiled in milk and liberally buttered, relief was promised to "such as have hot stomach or the inward parts inflamed." Served with apples it was thought to be unwholesome for "such as live idelly", i.e., gentlefolk. For the robust and rustic, however, "nothing hurteth that fill the belly."

The origins of the pumpkin in the New World are somewhat muddled. Some sources suggest that the seeds were introduced to the Americas by early settlers and explorers. Others insist that those same explorers imported the seeds to Europe. After the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1521, where the vegetable was developed as a crop, there was ample time for them to spread to both the New World and Europe, where they flourished admirably.

In 1607, John Smith found pumpkins growing among the hills of corn which were lovingly cultivated by the Indians. The Indians named them isquoter-squash and combined them with ground corn for porridge and bread, drying the pulp for winter use. Wise to the big vegetable's versatility, they developed a tea from the seeds. That the recipe has fallen into disuse detracts little from the pleasure of this aromatic beverage. Briefly, roast, pound, and steep the seeds in boiling water. Serve with milk and honey.

Pumpkin sustained the American colonists through the early years of hardship and starvation.Virtually every meal featured some variation steamed, fried, stewed, or baked. Recipes such as Pompion Pudding by "Amelia Simmons, an American Orphan," crowd colonial annals. Baked pumpkin was recommended by zealous mothers as a proper dish for a growing child.

One version requires a small pumpkin to be seeded and baked with the shell filled with "new" milk. This simple dish has been touted as the original pumpkin pie of the first Thanksgiving. A modern interpretation by Jane Birchfield (Great Aunt Jane's Cook and Garden Book) gives the traditional holiday a delectable (and southern) twist: the pulp is simmered down until all the natural sugars have nearly caramelized. The result is a richer pie. GREAT AUNT JANE'S PUMPKIN PIE

In a large, heavy skillet, slowly cook down 1 large and 1 small can of pumpkin (or its equivalent in fresh puree) over very low heat, stirring often until thick and considerably darker. Place hot pumpkin in a large bowl; add 1 cup light brown sugar, 2 tablespoons molasses, 1 cup white sugar, 3 teaspoons each of cinnamon and ginger, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoons cloves. Stir until sugar is dissolved and spices are well mixed in. Add 4 large eggs that have been slightly beaten; stir until smooth. Blend in 3 1/4 cups scalded milk.

Turn into two 9-inch pans lined with unbaked crust. Bake at 450 degrees for 10 minutes, lower to 350 for 30 minutes. Space pecan halves on surface of pies, return to heat, and bake another 10 or so minutes.

Serve with sweetened whipped cream flavored with vanilla.

For a lighter pie, fold in a few stiffly beaten egg whites before baking.

Housewives assured their families of a good winter stock by drying pumpkin as the Indians did. Rings were sliced and hung to dry in the sun. Later, the strips would be boiled down with spices and cider and sealed in jars for the severe season ahead. One can still preserve pumpkin: PUMPKIN ChipS

(Makes 6 to 3 pints) 1 firm medium-sized pumpkin 1 cup sugar to each 2 cup chips Juice and rind of 12 lemons 2 or 3 ounces crystallized ginger

Peel the pumpkin and cut into 1-inch strips; then slice strips very thin. Measure amount of chips and add half as much sugar to the juice of 12 lemons. Stir well. Add pumpkin to mixture and let stand overnight.

Slice the lemon rinds into very thin 2-inch long strips. Barely cover with water and simmer gently until soft. Drain and refrigerate overnight.

The next morning, boil the chips in lemon juice and sugar until the chips are clear and transparent. Remove the chips and boil the syrup 10 minutes longer, or until it begins to thicken; then add chips, lemon rind, and crystallized ginger to taste. Bring to a boil. Pour into jars and seal.

By the early 19th century, pompion became pumpkin for reasons that are now obscure. Americans enthusiastically exchanged information and seeds on new varieties to develop as animal fodder and as a prime fattening agent for hogs.

Edible pumpkins adapted well to the climates and soils of diverse cultures. Most Americans would never suspect that their famous colonial squash is also native to parts of Asia and Africa.

Preparations vary; in many places the leaves are cooked like spinach. Certain African countries favor a spoon pudding made with pumpkin and cornmeal very like that of the American Indians.

In Peru and Chile, a hearty stew of meat and vegetables is simmered in a large pumpkin shell. CREAMY PUMPKIN SOUP 2 tablespoons butter 4 cups pumpkin pulp, chopped 1 medium onion, chopped fine 1 large potato, diced 2 medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped 1 quart chicken broth Salt and pepper Hot Pepper Sauce Chopped celery leaves Chopped parsley Cream to taste

Wilt onion in butter; add vegetables and broth, stock or water. Season with coarse salt, celery leaves and fresh parsley. Cook until vegetables are soft. Put through food mill or blender (as a last resort, push through a strainer). Add a lump of butter and enough cream to taste and desired consistency.

Heat and serve with crisp croutions. PUMPKIN SALAD ARABIC

The Arabs, who love their salads, serve a cool pumpkin dish unduplicated in the West.

Cool 3 to 4 cups freshly pureed pumpkin (or the equivalent in canned pumpkin) in a large bowl. In a smaller bowl, blend 1/3 cup sesame tahini, the juice of 2 or 3 lemons, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt (or more to taste) to a thick paste. Add to pumpkin; mix well. Chill. Serve with olive oil and garlic cloves. PUMPKIN BUTTER 6 cups firm pumpkins chunks 4 cups light brown sugar Juice and grated rind of 1 lemon 1 cup orange juice

Grind or blend pumpkin chunky. Add sugar (substitute a mild honey for a portion of the sugar if you like) and the lemon juice and rind. Next morning, add 1 cup orange juice and cook, stirring often, over heat until thick.

Use this on bread in place of honey, or mix into cream cheese with nuts to make a spread.