The History and Folklore of the Pumpkin

Repost from the Chronicle of Higher Education

We prefer them round, lightly ridged, deeply orange, with a satisfying heft. Our affection is true, but seasonal—we are fall-weather friends for the most part, bracketed by a display in late October and a pie in late November.

Is that it for the pumpkin’s appeal?

Hardly, says Cindy Ott, author of the engaging Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon(University of Washington Press). Her readers learn of a paradox: Historically, as pumpkins declined in utility, they rose in symbolic capital. “Nearly two hundred years have passed since the pumpkin last played a role in everyday American life,” writes the author, an assistant professor of American studies at Saint Louis University. “Yet its outsized physical presence inspires deep human attachments.”

According to Ott, we don’t know if pumpkins were eaten at that famed feast of Pilgrim and Indian at Plymouth. The original sources don’t record it. She thinks the pumpkin “gate-crashed the Pilgrims’ fête” centuries after the fact. But there is no doubt that colonists, especially in New England, came to embrace the indigenous staple. “We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon / If it was not for pumpkin, we should be undone,” went a colonial song. The pumpkin was a reliable hedge against hunger. It grew like a weed, so prolific that a single vine could produce hundreds of pounds of pumpkins. It stored well for winter, and even in the pre-pie days, it could be palatable, if not enticing. “For most of the colonial period,” says Ott, “people dreamed of oranges but fed on pumpkins.”

Read the rest of the article here.

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