The U.S.A. has a pumpkin paradox. But it took living in Australia for me to realize it.
A few years ago I was living in Sydney, having relocated for work. I had been there a few months when I was invited by another Yankee ex-pat to come to a Thanksgiving she was hosting. I happily agreed, and offered to bring pumpkin pie.
At this point in my life, I was not much of a baker. I could cover basics, but had never attempted a pie. However, I knew that pumpkin pie could be simple – a can of pumpkin, some spices and egg and other simple ingredients, pour a frozen pie crust, bake, and you’re set quicker than you can sing a verse of ‘Tis a Gift To Be Simple.’ While this might be true in America, it wasn’t quite so simple in Sydney, as I discovered when I went to the grocery store. I managed to gather most of the ingredients without drama (although I did spend many minutes in front of the frozen crusts, trying to determine if a small ‘shortcrust’ that came in both sweet and savory forms would work). Until, that is, I got to the canned vegetable aisle.
I scanned for pumpkin, to no avail. Hmm. Alright, maybe it’s in with the fruits, I thought, and went to that aisle. Canned mango, check, canned guava, yes, but no canned pumpkin. I asked a store clerk, who looked at me oddly, and couldn’t find any either. Nope, no canned pumpkin in the entire store, (or in any other store in the neighborhood, as I discovered later).
At this point, I was grumpy. I had to make the pie after work, and considering I didn’t even really know what I was doing in the first place, the idea of having to roast a pumpkin, (which I also didn’t really know how to do), and then make a pie was daunting. This crankiness, and the slight hint of panic, lead to an internal kick of American self-righteousness. Think of all the American holidays that feature pumpkins prominently – Halloween (would it be the same without the jack-o-lanterns? I think not), Thanksgiving, and would any autumnal display be the same without that familiar orange? And yet, here I was in Australia, where there wasn’t enough respect for the pumpkin to even warrant a single lonely dusty can. Harrumph.
So it was with irritation that I walked over to the produce section, to find some sort of pumpkin that I could roast to put in the promised pie. And lo, there was not only one type of pumpkin; there were four, of varying sizes and colors. When I asked the clerk which type would be best to cook with, he was able to give me a thoughtful response and instructions based on the texture and sweetness of the varieties (I went with the Kent, a green-skinned variety with very sweet dark flesh that roasts beautifully). I realized that even though Australians have no holidays that celebrate the pumpkin in any form, and they don’t carve them into faces or put them pouring out of cornucopia, they actually eat pumpkin. Often, in fact – usually roasted, and as everything from a side dish with lamb to an omelet filling. And, simple as it is, pumpkin eating is something that I can’t think of any Americans that I know (including me) ever doing. I couldn’t find canned pumpkin, I realized, because Australians respect it as a vegetable, and not just a symbol of autumnal bounty.
The U.S.A has a strange contradiction, then; we love the symbolism of the pumpkin, a vegetable (technically a fruit, as it has seeds) that most likely originated in North America, and whose very name is thought to be given by the early American colonists (changed from the British ‘pumpion’, which is a bastardization of the French ‘pompon’). And yet, we almost never eat it. When did Americans stop eating pumpkins, and why? Australians just love them, and rightly so; they are sweeter than most vegetables, filled with vitamins, and come in brighter kid-friendly colors than your average tube of Go-gurt. So what happened?
My Aussie co-worker Holly, when presented with my conundrum, said that she had wondered the same in the UK when she couldn’t find pumpkin soup. Someone there told her that pumpkin was once the vegetable that people gave to their pigs, and so it fell out of favor with the ruling classes, and perhaps pumpkin had retained the stigma today. This seems to my mind as good a reason as any for the UK, where a historically more rigid class system would probably affect eating habits. But if this is the case, why would it cross the pond? Why would the pilgrims, having survived their first harsh winter, celebrate with pumpkin (a vegetable they renamed themselves), and then have it promptly fall out of favor as anything but a pie flavoring and carving canvas for the next five hundred years?
I will do my best to investigate, and if ever I live the New York City dream of having enough outdoor space to put a planter in, I will plant some pumpkins. But until then, I will simply have to take a moment at Thanksgiving to celebrate the delicious, nutritious, over-celebrated yet underappreciated pumpkin.