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Pumpkins: American Food and Decoration
Rick Ellis, my partner, is a food stylist and culinary historian. He has over 5000 books devoted to American cookery. I serve as an adjunct curator of sorts. In fact, I suggested he specialize in American material because, when we started almost 25 years ago, American food was under appreciated. Its serious scholarly study and even the interest from chefs were just beginning.
Since it is October, I have been thinking about the unavoidable decoration, pumpkins, as blog topic. And
recently, at dinner, amongst our towers of bookcases, Rick and I spoke about this iconic squash. I stated a thesis that the importance of the pumpkin in America had gone from the status as one of American oldest and most celebrated foodstuffs to inedible decoration on a giant scale.
Fostering our discussion, Rick immediately began to pull books from our shelves. The first out was a graphic title, “Play With Your Pumpkins,” illustrated by Joost Elffers and Saxton Freymann. The illustrations are of fantastically carved pumpkins. The text by Holland’s most celebrated food writer, Johannes van Dam (who is also president of the notable Gastronomic Library Foundation) is a solid history. It is a great read and wonderful to look at.
We discovered that the pumpkin is native to the Americas and was domesticated separately by both the Aztecs and Northeastern Americans. Until industrialization and the cheap transportation of many types of food, pumpkins were an important source of nutrition on this continent as well as others via trade. Pumpkin is relatively easy to grow and store and can be used many ways. Now almost every culture has pumpkin in its diet. Ironically, because of other choices of things to eat, pumpkin has steadily become less important in the American diet and is now a relatively minor element on our tables, save for the vestigial holiday pumpkin pie.
Pumpkin pie as we know it was first published in the next book we examined, Amelia Simmons’s “American Cookery.” This is the rarest of all of Rick’s books. It is considered the first American cookbook because it is authored by an American and includes recipes using Native-American ingredients, including pumpkin. That this pie is historic and tastes good accounts for its continued popularity. Libby, the principal producer of canned pumpkin, boasts that they are responsible for the contents of over 50 million pies a year.
Early pumpkins are much like today’s pie pumpkins, small in scale with sweet flesh and far less stringy than the pumpkins grown to be jack-o-lanterns. The origin of these candle powered Halloween icons is uncertain and there is much conjecture. It is generally agreed they are largely a 19th-century tradition with earlier antecedents. There are pages and pages of Internet sites dedicated to discussing the origin of pumpkins being used as lanterns. There is a great deal of wit and whimsy to pumpkin carving, which in many circles has become an art form. (A personal aside since this is a blog: I interject that in my youth we had the largest and best carved pumpkins in Pacific Palisades—made even better by the flashing light bulb that my brother salvaged from a cardboard Early Times liquor display. I am a born decorator.)
Then there is the topic of the giant pumpkin—hybrid pumpkins that grows so big that they are monuments to themselves, unsuitable for carving and completely inedible. They are popular at country fairs where their owners enter their latest creations into competition. There are still more pages and pages of websites dedicated to this size fixation.
From start to finish, from food stuff to trophy, from pure substance to pure appearance, I can think of nothing more American than the pumpkin.
Images from top: pages from “Play with your Pumpkins” by Joost Elffers and Saxton Freymann; pumpkin recipe from “American Cookery,” by Amelia Simmons; jack o’lanterns; Howard Dill with one of his giant pumpkins.