So back in October (2014) with the Halloween craze I suddenly found myself thinking: “what’s the deal with these pumpkin stuff?”. Then I realised I knew nothing about pumpkins- OK it is not a big deal, and perhaps you do not know much about pumpkins either, but you know where potatoes or tomatoes come from right? Well I came to the conclusion that I ought to know what was so special about them in both cultural and historical terms…And here is my research.
It seems that they are not only a Halloween icon, but also one of the most common crops on Earth. They had being used as a source of food as far back as 10.000 B.C as recent research by Cindy Ott shows. They were popularly grown and consumed in the Oaxaca highland (Mexico), and certainly cultivated in the Tehuacan and Tamaulipas as staple food since 6.000-5.000 B.C. Most Mesoamerican Pre-Columbian tribes like the Aztects and the Maya used them not only as a source for nutrients but also their seeds to create oil and sauces, and even the shells to make cups. Moreover, it has been suggested that they would also dry strips of pumpkin and then sew them together to make mattresses.
The use and demand for pumpkins increased even more with the arrival of the European colonists, as there were no other staples easily available unlike in the old continent. It seems that at this stage they may have even being used to produce certain drinks, like beer (Pumpkin beer…that’s a thought for you…) The Spanish colonists took brought pumpkins back into Europe where they became popular as they were quite cheap and nutritious food, and so pumpkins started to become common ingredients in European recipes. Of course, the tradition continued in America, and in fact the first recipe for pumpkin pie recorded in American cookery books dates from 1796, provided by a woman by the name of Amelia Simons.
However, by the 19th century pumpkin consumption went into decline. The main reason behind this turn was simply that fact that other food sources were available, and even though it was still an affordable item for the poor, the wealthier classes did not deem it appropriate for their kitchens neither their tables. Ironically, while less and less pumpkins passed through the tables of both American and European people, they grew dear in their hearts and evoked a sentiment of nostalgia. Moreover, these orange, dark green and yellowish fruits (yes, they are technically fruits) became usual sightings in daily life paintings and landscapes. In addition, this contributed to the tradition of serving pumpkin for Thanksgiving, as a recollection of the traditional agricultural life of the American settlers and ancestors.
So how do we get from the pumpkin to the Halloween lanterns? Well, it is all due to the Irish, of course. With the great influx of immigrants from Ireland since the Potato Famine, a cultural mash-up took over the United States, thus combining the original Celtic idea of Samhain and the American pumpkin tradition to make Jack O’ lanterns that were meant to spook off evil spirits.
But if you think that pumpkins are things of the past, then you are wrong. Most traditions revolving around pumpkins are still alive. The production of pumpkin crops in the United States nowadays is still massive. Researches Orzolek, Greaser and Harper, from the Penn. University have gathered data that suggests that around 1.5 billion pounds of pumpkins are produced each year in North America, particularly in the states of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, California, and Pennsylvania. Furthermore, in modern-day Mexico they grow enough pumpkins each year to supply for the whole country as have spare to export to Japan…
And with this brief story about pumpkins, I hope your curiosity, like mine, feels a bit more satisfied and complete. knowing about this millenarian food resource that has shape shift from pies to lanterns!