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Pumpkins Invade Europe (and a lot of other places, too)

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It’s shockingly true: Pumpkins are aggressive!  And I’m not taking about shark-toothed Jack-o’-Lanterns, either.  Pumpkins got their start in the New World; but something so potentially big, showy, prolific, and sexy simply couldn’t be constrained.   Yes, pumpkin (properly prepared) is an aphrodisiac — at least there’s a 1998 scientific study that says so.  How does this happy chemical concoction work on mind and body?  Search in Academic Search Complete and listen to a Johns Hopkins physician.   As you would expect, there’s actually a pumpkin perfume (neither advertisement nor endorsement intended).  But I digress. 

From the fields and farms of pre-Columbian America the arrival of Europeans unleashed a monster that would soon sink roots into the fields of every continent and find a place in most cuisines.  Cristofooro Colombo (Italian) — our Christopher Columbus (the Anglicized version of his name) — and his bosses Ferdinand and Isabella (he was Colon to them) would have found the use of pumpkins in Chinese food understandable; but with 21st century eyes we find it ironic. By the way, Columbus thought the planet was a pear with a nipple on top – not a pumpkin and certainly not perfectly round.  And there is no evidence that Columbus ever eat a pumpkin!   Come to think of it: Were there even pumpkins on Hispaniola?   

 Why is pumpkin in Chinese food ironic? Alfred Crosby is famous for coining the phrase “Columbian Exchange,” drop into Google Books to sample his  The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 and you’ll find that by the end of the 19th century pumpkins had even overrun Macedonia.  And The Worlds of Christopher Columbus by William D. Phillips Jr. and Carla Rahn Phillips (Cambridge University Press, 1993) makes the same observation.  In fact, the spread of the pumpkin, along with other plants and animals, is eatable evidence of the way the discovery of the Western Hemisphere changed cultures and global economics forever.  In this regard see 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann (Knopf, 2011). 

Pumpkins are easy to grow, nutritious, and easy to force into obesity.  What else can you call an over 1,000 pound pumpkin, the product of countless annual pumpkin growing contests across the land?  These huge pumpkins are an annual demonstration of the effectiveness of down-home genetic engineering.  Pumpkin is such a great food, why you can even drink it: not only as a soup; but as beer and wine.  And of course, pumpkins are staple autumn and Thanksgiving fare (pumpkin pie was not served at the first Thanksgiving — it takes more than pumpkin to make the pie).  You’ll find many old recipes using pumpkin in the cookbooks that comprise the University of Michigan’s Feeding America.  Here you’ll find recipes from historic American cookbooks: pumpkin pie recipes abound, candied pumpkin, canned pumpkin, preserved pumpkin, pumpkin bread, pumpkin soup, and cream de poturons (cream of pumpkins). The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink shows pumpkin pie recipes in American cookbooks in the early 19th century and in English cookbooks in the 17th century.   Google Book and (look-inside-the-book)  are also good places to look for free recipes.  Of course, if you want to just smell like a pumpkin there’s perfume and pumpkin shampoo and teeth brushing time can be more fun with pumpkin flavored toothpaste.

For a quick rundown of pumpkin history, lore, and practicalities and gastronomical applications check out the Gale Virtual Reference Library (search pumpkins, you’ll find entries in the Encyclopedia of Food and Culture) and two recently published food encyclopedias: The Cambridge World History of Food and The Oxford Companion to Food (Lockwood Library: Reference TX349 .D38 1999).  From the former, concerning the ancient peoples of Mexico (pp. 1248-1249):

Another important food for the sedentary people of Mexico was squash, by which we mean a number of plants belonging to the genus Cucurbita, which includes pumpkins, squash, and zucchini, among others.  All were fully employed as food sources. Their stems constituted an ingredient of a soup now called sopa de guias; the tasty yellow flowers have also long been a part of soups, stews, and quesadillas, and the fruit itself can be boiled. In recent times, brown sugar and cinnamon have been added to form a thick syrup that transforms the boiled fruit into calabaza en tacha, the classical dessert for the Día de los Muertos.  Pumpkin seeds are usually left to dry in the sun and then are toasted and eaten with a dash of salt. By weight, they have a higher content of isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, ryptophan, and valine than maize, beans, amaranth, and even egg whites.  These seeds are also known as a medicine to get rid of tapeworms.

But it is not  and was not all good.  Life is cheap when you reproduce so quickly and easily and countless pumpkins continue to loose their lives to simple pranks or as ammunition in the recreation of medieval warfare.  The trebuchet was a medieval artillery piece capable of chucking objects — from stones to corpses (early biological warfare) — over or into castle walls a pretty good distance away.   Today reenactors like to chuck pumpkins.  This could easily lead to “death by pumpkin” if you were walking by at just the wrong (right?)  time!  Smashing Pumpkins is so popular that there’s a famous musical group called The Smashing Pumpkins  Whoever knew pumpkins could sound so good?  With all the decaying pumpkins around, communities have to dispose of them somehow – so some hold composting and “smashing pumpkin events.”  Is it legal to smash a pumpkin in the street? Why doesn’t such a nice vegetable get more respect?  And though people aren’t generally called pumpkins — except perhaps as a form of endearment — as in “my cute little pumpkin” — bumpkin has just gotta (but maybe not) be related to pumpkin — not an often used term of late, but popular once — as in “country bumpkin” or rube.  For other negative terms try pumpkin-head, pumpkin-headed, and the now really obsolete pumpkinism.  But while it’s not all good, Cinderella always arrives in a pumpkin coach in the very height of elegance and, if imitation is the highest form of flattery, then all those plastic pumpkins in stores must mean something good.  And Charles Schultz’s Charlie Brown’s wait for the “Great Pumpkin” must have meaning.

Pumpkins are good citizens as well as a cultural icon.  For men of a certain age – well, really any age — research indicates that pumpkinseed oil – rich in zinc and unsaturated fatty acids — is especially helpful in reducing an enlarged prostate.  So for all those baseball players who have spit a seed into the air or into the ground (or into their hand) — good for you!  Vitamins, minerals, beta-carotene, vitamin C and potassium also promote artery health. 

As a cultural icon pumpkins have been praised in poetry.  Incidentally, The Smashing Pumpkins don’t really seem to care at all about pumpkins!  Use the Columbia Granger’s World Poetry Index (available on the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library Web site) and you’ll see that pumpkins have been poeticized about for hundreds of years: “Peter, Peter pumpkin eater, Had a wife and couldn’t keep her”; “What calls back the past like the rich Pumpkin pie?”; “bumpkin Amused himself by offering these Reflections on a pumpkin”; “There’s turnip in my pumpkin pie and ashes in my pepper”; and “golden bombs on all the farms Now burst in pumpkin pies!”. 

With Halloween upon us, thoughts turn to Jack-0’-Lanterns; but these scary forms were not first carved into the flesh of pumpkins; instead the horror goes to turnips, among other things.  In fact, the custom is from the British Isles (England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland) and the pumpkin was unknown when it emerged.  I personally don’t care much for turnips.  A carved turnip (or other vegetable) was placed at an entry way on All Hallows Eve to ward off evil spirits.  A pumpkin is much easier to carve than a turnip and the New World produced the easily carved pumpkin in almost shameful abundance.   Picture yourself in a bog or swamp at might, that’s scary, and then strange lights start flickering in the marsh gases.  You’re in the setting in which the Jack-o’-lantern story was born.  In a prescientific world, the explanation is memorable and in the best ghostly tradition.  But vegetable carving predates it.  The Wikipedia’-lantern offers two explanations from folklore, cutting to the chase, visit the Wikipedia for the beginning of the tale.  The Devil agrees not to take Jack’s soul; but Jack is far too sinful to go to heaven; but his deal with the devil saves him from going to hell.  With nowhere to go or call home, he must wander.  He asks the Devil for a light and he is tossed an eternal ember from hell.  He carves out a turnip (Jack loves turnips), places the ember safely inside, and begins an endless wandering of the Earth as “Jack of the Lantern” or Jack-o’-Lantern (or even Jack-a-Lantern).  Was Jack really just a night watchman?  Who are those wandering souls in the foggy night?  “Jack-o’-lantern” (Jack-with-the Lantern) wanders into recorded English usage and the Oxford English Dictionary in 1663.  The pumpkin and American Halloween  became associated probably also because of Washington Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hallow (1819).  The ghost of a Hessian soldier throws his head at Ichabod, knocks him off his horse, and the next morning Ichabod’ hat is found with a smashed pumpkin beside it. 

So what’s the point: Let your mind wander on the Web and in the library, who knows what you’ll find out and what connections you may make?  Wander and wonder . . . what’s the connection?

 Kam Abbott, “Pumpkin Patch” October 24, 2011 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.

 Patti Gravel, “Big . . . Pumpkin” October 24, 2011 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.

 Wigwam Jones,  “Lake Onion Pumpkin Launch 2001″ October 24, 2011 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.

 William Warby,  “Jack-o’-lanterns” October 24, 2011 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.

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