Pumpkins

Hello readers! This week I’ve been reading a new thriller, the fabulous No One Will Miss Her by Kat Rosenfield, and catching up on some other projects.

Of course, as seasons change we are at pumpkin-everything moment. It’s pumpkin spice lattes. It’s decorative gourd season.

I made pumpkin soup the other day, and people are out carving them in preparation for Halloween. The Jack o’Lantern concept (that is, a carved out vegetable with a light), came from Ireland, and was brought to the US with Irish immigrants.

However, the pumpkin is a native plant of the Americas (like so many of the best vegetables, really), and the Irish version originally involved turnips. Much smaller, and hard to get a really intricate image carved on!

(I can barely manage two triangle eyes and a stabby mouth, but some people can do amazing things with a pumpkin).

But pumpkins became the favored item for this kind of custom not just because they’re easy to carve, but because they’re easy to grow. Throw a couple seeds out your window and next year you’ll have this plant growing like a triffid, and delivering fat fruit. They’re so plentiful people can afford to waste them as decorations.

How the pumpkin also evolved to something used in both sweet and savory dishes is intriguing, but their plenty is probably part of it. We don't make sweet food with other members of the cucurbit family. Nobody puts honey on cucumbers (and don’t tell me about zucchini bread, that’s something I refuse to acknowledge).

But pumpkin pie was invented in Tudor England - a great historic period for pies, and for mixing of spicy and savory and sweet. In America, they start showing up in recipe books in the nineteenth century, as sugar was more affordable, and they quickly became part of the Thanksgiving meal repertoire as that holiday became a formalised event. It fit with pumpkins being seasonally available, and part of the harvest festival concept. But they were one of many options (including mince pies), and really came into their own with the commercially available canned pie filling which, along with canned cranberry sauce and condensed soup to make bean casserole, universalised the menu.

If pressed, I’d choose an apple or pecan pie over pumpkin, but the way this one plant took over the cultural narrative for a couple of months of the year is pretty impressive.

Pumpkin carved by Eric Muensterman.

What I've been up to:

An opinion piece in the Wall St Journal

Book review in The Spectator