Cinderella’s magic coach may the most famous pumpkin in history but we shouldn’t forget Peter’s squash.
Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater
Had a wife but couldn’t keep her;
He put her in a pumpkin shell
And there he kept her very well.
This nursery rhyme, with its dark overtones of spousal abuse and an obscure symbolic link between pumpkins and failed romance, presents an interesting counterpoint to the Cinderella myth. For Cinderella, a pumpkin became the vehicle that carried her to marital bliss, yet for Peter’s wife a pumpkin is a prison. As a pumpkin farmer, I’m unqualified to draw a psychiatrist’s conclusions from these two stories, but hollowed out gourds have a long and honorable history of being used as vessels to carry water and food stuffs, so it’s no surprise they should also be filled with romance, myth and contradiction.
The only pumpkin that grows large enough to hold a wandering wife is the pink shelled, yellow fleshed pumpkin from the Cucurbita maxima called “Atlantic Giant.” The Atlantic Giant pumpkin is the kind that wins all the giant pumpkin contests, and many specimens have weighed well over five hundred pounds. My copy of The Real Mother Goose, first published in 1916, has an illustration for Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater that shows a girl, barely old enough to be Jerry Lee Lewis’ wife, glaring balefully out from a huge pale pumpkin. The artist captured the fat, corky, round stem characteristic of fruits in the Cucurbita maxima, and the Atlantic Giant’s rampant habit is authentically rendered as well.
In the past, large pumpkins like Atlantic Giant were used as cattle feed. The high carotene content that gives pumpkin flesh its typical yellow color is nutritious and gives butter that comes from cows fattened on pumpkins a pleasing yellow color. Now that the development of alfalfa bales, alfalfa cubes, silage and a whole industry of enriched cattle feeds has rendered the pumpkin obsolete on the dairy farm, milk processors tint their butter with dyes where yellow colored butters are demanded by the market.
Today, even the canned “pumpkin” for pies is rarely rendered from the round, orange, hard-shelled winter squash most people think of as pumpkins. Other squash varieties, like Butternut, that have a heavier yield, are canned instead, and pie eaters are none the wiser. Because of changing social mores the pumpkin has largely disappeared from the rural scene except as a seasonal ornamental crop or a fetish crop for obsessive gardeners anxious to prove that “bigger is better.” Even the ornamental role of pumpkins as seasonal ornaments is under attack. Some merchandisers are attempting to replace the lovely, perishable jack o’ lantern pumpkins with orange polyethylene bags that have black triangular shaped eyes printed on them. These convenient faux orange plastic bag “pumpkins” can be stuffed with garbage the day after Halloween and set out on the curb. They will never rot.
Pies, no matter what they’re made of, came to America from Europe, just like the Halloween tradition. I’ve heard horror stories over the years about homemade pumpkin pies that turned out stringy, watery, and tasteless. The idea has grown up that only some pumpkins are edible. There’s truth to this idea today, now that breeders select for ornamental qualities only as they create new cultivars for the seasonal market, but the Native Americans who first developed pumpkins as a crop ate them all, and at all stages of their development.
The thick, fat pumpkin seeds are rich in nutritious oils and some of them would have been saved to toast over the fire for a tasty meal during the long, cold winters on the east coast. Pumpkin seeds are still an essential ingredient in traditional Mexican mole sauces. Pumpkin seeds would have been sprouted too, giving people starving for fresh vegetables a bite of greenery in the late winter or early spring. After the year’s crop had been planted out and the pumpkin vines began creeping across the earth, the first golden flowers could be eaten in salads followed by the little green developing fruits.
The pumpkin is a close cousin to the zucchini, and its fruits were picked green and tender to be eaten raw by the Native Americans. Our English word “squash”, in fact, comes to us from the Naragansett word asquutasquash, meaning “uncooked.” Ironically, the English word “pumpkin” comes to us from the ancient Greek word for “cooked.” “Pumpkin” is an English corruption of the French word pompion which in Old French had been pompon, and earlier popon. The early French speakers were simply putting a gallic twist on the Latin word pepon which was a cognate of a Greek word which meant cooked. It remains true of the squash that we have come to call pumpkins that to be enjoyed at their maturity they must be cooked. The Latin pepon survives in the botanical Latin name Cucurbita pepo for one of the many groups within the Cucurbita family.
Nowadays writers use the word pumpkin imprecisely to describe hard squash that are either reminiscent of the jack o’ lantern pumpkin in color or in shape. Some pumpkins like the white Lumina pumpkins are pumpkin shaped and pumpkin sized but come from the Cucurbita maxima, like Hubbard squash. Tan colored pumpkins like the Long Island Cheese pumpkin belong to Cucurbita moschata, as do butternut squash. The long and the short of it is that every pumpkin is a squash to a botanist but not every squash is a pumpkin to a chef.
Confusion reigns over the pumpkin patch because there are two types of pumpkin in the Cucurbita pepo which look awfully similar taste a lot different. The New England Sugar Pie pumpkin is a small, heavy, round orange pumpkin with a nice flavor. The Connecticut field pumpkin is a larger orange squash, somewhat oblong in shape, that superficially looks a pie pumpkin but has no sweetness to its flesh. The Indians on the east coast developed the Connecticut field pumpkin for the production of edible seeds, not pies. Later, this common pumpkin variety was “improved” into myriad ornamental jack o’ lantern cultivars.
The most celebrated Connecticut field pumpkin is probably the one that the Headless Horseman threw at Ichabod Crane in The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow. True, Washington Irving doesn’t specifically mention the breed of the pumpkin that he describes laying shattered on the road near Ichabod Crane’s abandoned hat. And yes, Sleepy Hollow is in New York, not Connecticut, but the Connecticut field pumpkins were a standard animal fodder crop along the eastern seaboard. But who cares, anyway? Writers who cover celebrities are rarely held to a high standard of proof, so if an academic one day proves that Irving intended readers to imagine a Kentucky field pumpkin (Cucurbita moschata) you’re not going to sue me.
Then there’s the pumpkin that made Richard Nixon a household name. I refer to the “Pumpkin Papers.” Nowadays the press would call the whole affair “Pumpkingate.” To tell the story briefly, in 1948 Whittaker Chambers accused Alger Hiss of being a communist. Then he hid the microfilmed evidence inside a hollowed out pumpkin on his farm. In due course, the House Un-American Activities Committee got a subpoena, searched his pumpkin patch and confiscated the pumpkin.
Going back to Cinderella, illustrated editions of the fairy tale often picture her riding to the dance in a ribbed, heirloom French Cucurbita maxima type pumpkin called le Rouge Vif d’Etamples. Cinderella’s coach was red. Rouge means red, and vif means vivid. California Congressman Nixon said that Alger Hiss was a “red.” Nixon got a hold of the pumpkin papers and used them to fan his fame. You might say that Nixon rode into history on a pumpkin, just like Cinderella. Blurry black and white photos of Whittaker Chamber’s infamous pumpkin taken by newspaper reporters at his Maryland farm show a squash with the longer, irregular five sided, stem of a Connecticut field pumpkin— Cucurbita pepo, the jack o’ lantern…. It’s fitting, somehow.
“Trick or treat!” Richard Nixon said to America.
You know how that fairy tale ended.
copyright 2007 Andy Griffin