Once October rolls around, out come the pumpkins, filling the bins and crates of every market. Why does the pumpkin have a whole mystique that captivates and enchants? It inevitably has to adorn doorsteps, stoops and porches in every neighborhood.
The month is almost over, but I am driven to share my own fascination with the iconic pumpkins. I understand the association with Halloween and jack-o’-lanterns to ward off spirits and ghosts. I am neither superstitious (well maybe a little) nor a stickler for tradition but I am still completely smitten and bewitched by their annual arrival, like aliens out of nowhere.
The orange glow of their hard and smooth skin—that is more like a tortoise shell or crustacean carapace with ridges that meet at the base of a scrunched up coarse and sometimes gnarly stem—contrasts ever so vigorously with the grays of the side-walk cement and the washed-out hues of brick and paint of city buildings and townhouses.
The first time I laid eyes on a pumpkin was in an illustrated children’s book, probably the Cinderella story. That is perhaps where the magical entrancement began. I don’t remember ever seeing a real pumpkin until I came to the U.S., although I am sure it grew in Lebanon, but I do not recall any of my family ever eating or cooking with pumpkin.
I have taken my children to pumpkin patches to pick their own. I have carved pumpkins at Halloween events year after year, or turned them in to vessels to hold floral centerpieces for Halloween and Thanksgiving table settings (thank you Martha Stewart). I have taken hundreds of photographs of pumpkins. It’s as though by taking photos, I might break the spell or unveil the secret behind my obsession.
The path to demystification is to get to know your subject. Wikepedia tells me that the U.S. produces 680,000 tons of pumpkins each year and that 95% of the crop intended for processing is grown in Illinois. I’d be blown away by the sheer size of those pumpkin fields and my small iPhone camera will certainly have a hard time wrapping it’s frame around that picture!
I also discovered (see Colonial Williamsburg Journal (CW Journal : Autumn 09 : Some Pumpkins!) that the colonials did not celebrate Halloween. The holiday was brought over to the U.S. by the Irish immigrants in the 19th century along with the jack-0’-lanterns that were originally carved turnips. The article also mentioned that the pumpkin had been, for thousands of years, a nourishing staple both for North and South America’s indigenous people. Pumpkin along with corn and beans was cultivated as part of the three sisters crop (a symbiotic relationship that improved yield). By the mid 1600s the settlers in the colonies were growing their own and incorporating them in their meals.
The plant itself is described as a delicate, thirsty and voracious feeder. It produces both female and male flowers and depends heavily on pollination by bees. The pumpkin that is cultivated for decoration (not cooking) is just one variety of pumpkin also known as winter squash. They come in all shapes and colors and much is discussed about the difference in flavor and sweetness. Food52 has a post showing all the varieties (in case you have the time and the interest).
It’s not the visual aspect of the fruit alone that thrills me, it’s also the arrival of all things pumpkin in bakeries and stores: pumpkin pie, bread, scones and pumpkin cheesecake. But I draw the line at pumpkin flavored latte in coffee shops! There is pumpkin eggnog and ale… both not for me either.
Yes, I have made curried pumpkin soup and pumpkin scones in my day, I also use some varieties of squash in soups and stews— but I never made a pumpkin pie. Since all confections are ready-made, easily available, delicious and for the most part cheap(-ish?), why bother with the mess. I turn to canned pumpkin puree for some needs or the conveniently peeled and cut winter squash at the markets. But I am encouraged to do try working it from scratch someday when I have time for the ritual. Maybe that will exorcise my enchantment for good.
Soon after moving to D.C. I discovered that pumpkin kibbeh is a regional Lebanese dish that is found ready-made in Middle-Eastern take-out delis in the suburbs. The small pumpkin kibbeh balls stuffed with spinach, onions and nuts are delicious but too time-consuming to make myself. I recommend The Gourmet Basket in McLean, VA (no, they are not sponsoring this post). Call first to ensure they have enough on hand. They sell out quickly.
One snowy Sunday last February, I tried making the kibbeh “pie” using canned pumpkin puree. It was a lot of work but I had a pair of helping hands: a vegan daughter who was invested in the process in order to reap the benefits. I used the recipe from the Classic Lebanese Cuisine cookbook by Kamal Al-Faqih, but there are others on line including Emeril Lagasse (can you believe it?!) and a multitude of videos ranging from the good, the bad and the funny, showing method and process for making either the balls or the “pie”.
Finally no pumpkin story can go without mention of a longtime (baby-boomer) favorite, the comic strip Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz and the Great Pumpkin, a mythical figure in whom only Linus van Pelt seems to believe. Every Halloween Linus awaits in a pumpkin patch but the Great Pumpkin never appears. Unlike Linus, I know that pumpkins, luckily, will appear every year in October. Wake up Linus, the Great Pumpkin is all around you, focus on what is real. The Great Pumpkin is here in all its magic and all its glory.