Thursday, October 27, 2011

How Do You Say Isqoutm?

On the 3 ½ mile trip between my office and home last night, I counted 53 pumpkins on the lawns and porches of houses. (A couple houses each had a bunch, it is true.) I’m sure I didn’t see them all – I do watch the road sometimes. I haven’t bought one this Halloween season, but I might yet.

Seeds at archeological sites tell us that pumpkins have been part of the American diet for at least 7000 years. The word comes from early English colonists in Massachusetts who couldn’t pronounce the local word isqoutm, so they mispronounced pompion (melon) instead. Pompion derives from Greek pepon (melon).

Pumpkins are used in a variety of dishes ranging from stews to waffles, but most pumpkin recipes are desserts, and pie is the most common of them. I rather like the modern variety of pumpkin pie, though I didn’t acquire the taste from my mom who was revolted by it. She grew up on a dairy farm, and she said the look, smell, and consistency of pumpkin pie was much too similar to cow patties. The original colonial recipe for pumpkin pie, as described on a University of Illinois website, was quite different from the modern one: carve open the top of the pumpkin; dig out the seeds; pour in milk, honey, and spices; stick the top back on; and bake the whole thing in hot ashes. I’ll pass on that one.

Nowadays, anyone who buys a whole pumpkin more likely has artwork than dinner in mind. Carved pumpkins often are said to be an American adaptation of squash lanterns carved by Scots and Irish on Halloween. Historian David J. Skal disagrees:

“Although every modern chronicle of the holiday repeats the claim that vegetable lanterns were a time-honored component of Halloween celebrations in the British Isles, none gives any primary documentation. In fact, none of the major nineteenth-century chronicles of British holidays and folk customs make any mention whatsoever of carved lanterns in connection with Halloween. Neither do any of the standard works of the early twentieth century.”

Halloween did arrive in North America with Scots and Irish, but carved pumpkins in particular seem to be a fully homegrown tradition. When did they first turn up? The pumpkin thrown at Ichabod Crane by the Headless Horseman in Washington Irving’s Halloween-appropriate 1820 tale The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is usually depicted in modern illustrations as a jack-o-lantern (see a clip below from Disney’s 1949 version), but in the short story Irving makes no mention of a carved face. (The tale, by the way, strongly implies the horseman was Brom, Ichabod’s rival for the hand of Katrina.) Pumpkin jack-o-lanterns aren’t mentioned in print until the 1860s. One suspects they originally were the work of some sly Yankee farmer with a surplus of pumpkins.

Thanks to Halloween, billions of pounds of pumpkins are grown each year, and 80% of the American crop is sold in October. It’s a harmless enough tradition, but, given the ridiculous mark-ups on them in supermarkets this time of year, the jack-o-lantern visages are really the faces of smiling retailers.

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