Wednesday, December 8th, 2021

orange field pumpkin is impressively massive

Pumpkin is the true home-baked American pie tradition. (Or maybe sweet potato, but more on that later.)

Each year on the fourth Thursday of November, America embarks on a pumpkin pie feeding frenzy unknown anywhere else in the world. In the lead-up to the Thanksgiving holiday, sales of pumpkin spike like a toddler’s blood sugar. Even people who don’t really like pumpkin pie often eat it anyway. After all, it’s tradition — as American as college sports and unused vacation days.

But it wasn’t always so.

The Thanksgiving pumpkin pie is now a symbol for sweet, sweet national unity. But it was once a hotly contested battleground in America’s original culture war. In the 1800s, the humble pumpkin became a totem of the fight to abolish slavery in America.

“There are these New England abolitionists writing saccharin-sweet stories about pumpkins,” said historian Cindy Ott, author of “Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon.” “They very consciously saw these pumpkin farms in contrast to the immoral plantation economy and plantation farms in the South. They very specifically and explicitly compare those two landscapes.”

In the mid-19th century, according to Ott, eating pumpkins was a matter of identity politics. And much the same could be said of Thanksgiving itself.

When Abraham Lincoln declared a day of Thanksgiving on the fourth day of November in 1863, it was the culmination of a long pro-Thanksgiving campaign by abolitionist, pumpkin lover and home economics icon Sarah Josepha Hale. Lincoln framed it as a call to “heal the wounds of the nation and restore it,” and the declaration became an annual tradition for American presidents.

Sarah Josepha Hale campaigned five presidents of the United States to make Thanksgiving a national holiday.
But some in the Confederacy decried the Thanksgiving declaration as a rank political ploy. Worse, Thanksgiving was yet another example of self-regarding New Englanders telling them how to live.

“This is an annual custom of that people, heretofore celebrated with devout oblations to themselves of pumpkin pie and roast turkey,” read a fiery anti-Thanksgiving editorial in Richmond.

For years after the Civil War, according to Ott, many Southern families refused Thanksgiving and especially pumpkin pie as cultural artifacts of the Yankees. This is true even though pumpkins grow just fine in the South and pumpkin pie or “pudding” recipes had long existed there, including in Mary Randolph’s famous 1824 cookbook “The Virginia Housewife.”

So how did the New England anti-slavery movement get sole custody of the pumpkin? It’s complicated.

The abolitionist history of the pumpkin
Pumpkins were always a strange romance.

The orange field pumpkin is impressively massive. But it is also dry, stringy and a bit tasteless.

Unlike other varieties of a domesticated squash, the field pumpkin never took hold in the everyday urban market of the 1800s. It was too ungainly. Too cheap to be profitable.

Contrary to legend, it didn’t have any place of pride in the Pilgrims’ 1621 feast, which few associated with Thanksgiving until decades after the holiday had become a national tradition. In fact, no one from that feast recorded serving pumpkins at all.

“If it was served, it was just as kind of like a savory side dish,” Ott said. “It was not in any way a special part of the occasion. It was probably served the day before and the day after, too.”

 

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The native pumpkin was a fast-growing source of sustenance, a staple but not a beloved food for early colonists up and down the coast. By the 19th century, increasingly picky eaters preferred more flavorful winter and summer squashes.

Sheep enjoy a bounty of pumpkins Harrison Farm in Groveport. The sheep love beautiful intact pumpkins and the chickens enjoy all pumpkins and gourds, even the soggy ones. These vegetables are treats for the animals, providing nutrition as well as mental stimulation. Pumpkins are donated by friends and volunteers as well some local businesses.
The fast-growing field pumpkin was often grown in manure bins or amid cornrows and used as feed for dairy cows to make milk taste richer. In the rural South, it was the province of poor and little farms, said Ott, not really something you’d get sentimental about.

But in the urban North, it became something city dwellers encountered only while on salutary trips out to the country to appreciate “nature.”

For the New England literati, the pumpkin came to symbolize a noble and primitive way of life that urbanites had left behind. Even as farmers were derided as rubes and “pumpkin eaters” — nothing spoils your appreciation of a farm’s natural beauty quite like encountering actual farmers, wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson — pumpkins became nostalgic totems of abundance and connection to the land.

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