Poems and Ponderings Pertaining to Pumpkins

Originally published in Smithfield Times magazine, November, 2020.

Poems and Ponderings Pertaining to Pumpkins

    It’s November, the weather has turned colder, and by now you’ve probably heard at least one person say “the frost is on the pumpkin”, but have you ever wondered where the saying came from or what it actually means? Probably not, but the answer may surprise you. A dirty Limerick leads some to believe it’s a metaphor for romance under the glow of a harvest moon, while others say it to describe the onset of colder autumn weather. In contemporary times both may be correct, but the original meaning had nothing to do with either.

     The saying comes from a 19th century poem written by James Whitcomb Riley titled “When the Frost is on the Pumpkin”, which referred to when it was time to reap the autumn harvest. Riley’s poem begins; “When the frost is on the pumpkin, and the fodder’s in the shock, and you hear the kyouck and gobble of the struttin’ turkey-cock…”

     Pumpkins have been grown in the Americas for several thousand years and were part of the Native American diet long before the arrival of the first Europeans. There’s a Native American folktale which tells of an Indian maiden riding a white horse who visited a tribe and sprinkled seeds which produced abundant pumpkins as a reward for refusing to take part in a war against a neighboring tribe.

     Irish folklore tells of a man named Jack who was so mean that when he died he wasn’t welcome in Heaven or Hell. Thus he was doomed to walk the world in darkness until Judgement Day with nothing but a hallowed out turnip with a glowing hot ember to serve as a lamp. By the 1800s the turnip had become a pumpkin – the Jack-o-lantern.

     The orange pumpkins common today were virtually unknown to the Europeans prior to 1620, yet they came to be a staple of early American diets. In fact, pumpkins were so much a part of their diets that there was a short poem written about them. “Pumpkin bread and pumpkin beer, if t’want for pumpkins we couldn’t live here; Pumpkin pudding and pumpkin pie, it t’want for pumpkins we should die.”

     While the Pilgrims used pumpkins in soups, bread, pies, beer, and puddings, we in the 21st century enjoy delicacies like pumpkin coffee, ice cream, donuts, cakes, muffins, pasta sauce, ravioli, pancakes, candy, cookies, and even “pumpkin butter”.

     Pumpkins, by the way, are a fruit, and not a vegetable.

     It’s likely that pumpkin pies of some sort were served at the first Thanksgiving, but they probably lacked the sweet taste we’re used today brought about by the addition of cinnamon, cloves, molasses, ginger, allspice, and sugar.

     There’s even a tongue-in-cheek folktale as to the origin of pumpkin pies that goes as follows: There was once a man who was an “inventor” by trade, who owed considerable money to his creditors. One day, he got the idea that he could extract gold from pumpkins after being convinced that their golden-orange color was due to trace amounts of gold in the soil. So as an experiment, he took a pumpkin, sliced it, and then boiled it. He then poured the pulp into a pie crust and placed it in the oven, fully expecting the pulp to burn off and leaving just a thin sheet of gold. His creditors caught wind of what he was up to and burst in just as the pie was being taken from the oven. They demanded to see the gold, but instead he turned to them and said, “Look! I’ve just invented pumpkin pie!”

     It’s a known fact that the colonists used pumpkins for brewing beer, but 18th century pumpkin ale was nothing like one would buy at a liquor store today. For one thing the alcohol content would have been higher, and it would have tasted rather bland.

     By the 19th century pumpkin beer had fallen out of favor and was virtually forgotten until the 1980s when a California brewery began producing its version of a pumpkin beer. Since then numerous breweries have followed suit with pumpkin beers of their own. 

     Beyond food and drink, the humble pumpkin has endeared itself in other ways. We hold pumpkin festivals, jack-o-lantern “spooktaculars”, largest pumpkin contests, and “pumpkin regattas”, where 400 pound pumpkins are carved into “boats”, not to mention the “pumpkin catapult” contests, where people bet as to which pumpkin can be hurled the farthest. Then there’s also pumpkin painting, and pick-your-own farms.

     Finally, just in case you’re wondering, the town of Morton, Illinois, holds the honor of being the “Pumpkin Capitol of the World”, for it’s claimed that 85% of the world’s canned pumpkin is produced there. Therefore it’s highly probable that the pumpkin filling in your Thanksgiving pumpkin pie originated in Morton. Who knew?



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