Heritage Outdoors

The Literary Gardener: Pumpkins, Then and Now

Stephanie Sipp,

By Carol Howard

Pumpkins are a fruit of homecoming. As the autumn harvest season turns toward shorter, colder days, and the natural world drifts to winter sleep, we celebrate our nostalgia for the magic of childhood and the family and friends of years past. On All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween, we decorate our homes in carved jack-o’-lantern pumpkins. The otherworldliness of the modern holiday reminds us of its roots in a spiritual tradition to call home those who have passed before us.

On Thanksgiving Day, pumpkin pie—a treat at once sweet and savory—marks bittersweet homecoming or nostalgia (from the Greek algos, ‘pain,’ and nóstos, ‘a return home’). Friends and relatives are called home from afar to offer blessings for family and to enjoy a bountiful harvest feast.

The longing for a return to simple pleasures and the slower pace of years past is not just a recent American phenomenon, born out of a desire to distance ourselves from the advent of video games and cellular phones. In fact, pumpkins marked nostalgia and homecoming well before the Civil War. In the 1840s, New England writer John Greenleaf Whittier wrote in his sentimental poem The Pumpkin,

Ah! on Thanksgiving day, when from East and from West,
From North and from South comes the pilgrim and guest;
What moistens the lip and what brightens the eye?
What calls back the past, like the rich Pumpkin pie?

For Whittier, the pumpkin was a reminder of a now far-flung community. And even then, Whittier faced an era of expanding cities and industrial growth in America. The pumpkin not only recalled close-knit society, but it brought the poet back to a romantic agrarian ideal:

Oh, greenly and fair in the lands of the sun,
The vines of the gourd and the rich melon run.

“Many New Englanders embraced the pumpkin as a sign of virtue,” writes historian Cindy Ott, “finding a sense of heritage and comfort in the old-fashioned, rural way of life it embodied.” The pumpkin thus occupies a unique place in American lore.

Today, decorative pumpkins are a lucrative American crop. A hobbyist-gardener, though, might think twice before dedicating a backyard plot to the sprawling vine of the heavy orange Howden or Connecticut Field variety. Large pumpkins bred for carving and porch decoration dominate a garden space, and they are not the tastiest fruit. (In the kitchen, we call them vegetables, but botanically speaking, they are seed-bearing fruit.)

Instead, one might venture to grow one of the smaller types, those closer to butternut squash, that offer a more distinctive flavor and sweetness. These delicious fruits come in yellow, white, beige and green, as well as the traditional orange. They are round, oblong or crook-necked, and with skin textures both smooth and bumpy. In fact, the difference between ‘squash’ and ‘pumpkin’ has shifted over time, as ‘squash’ once seemed more palatable and more refined than its less sophisticated and tasteless sister, the ‘pumpkin.’

Around Asheville, commercial farms supply pumpkins to local craft brewers who produce an array of popular pumpkin beers.

Gardeners and consumers alike, in these mountains, appreciate a wide assortment of heirloom pumpkins and squashes—for decoration, to be sure, but also for eating and drinking.

Read the full text of John Greenleaf Whittier’s The Pumpkin at poetryfoundation.org. Cindy Ott’s book Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon, was published with Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books at the University of Washington Press in 2012.

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