People & Places

Danziger: In praise of the lowly pumpkin

Image by Jeff Danziger
Image by Jeff Danziger

Old Carl Sandburg said…

THESE are the tawny days: your face comes back
The grapes take on purple: the sunsets redden early on the trellis
The bashful mornings hurl gray mist on the stripes of sunrise.
Creep, silver on the field, the frost is welcome.
Run on, yellow balls on the hills, and you tawny pumpkin flowers, chasing your lines of orange.
Tawny days: and your face again.

Well, Carl might have had a point, but he might have been nipping at the Prestone a little early. The only way to enjoy the days of fall in Vermont is to take it a day at a time. Casting your mind further ahead to when the frost has gone from the pumpkin to your toes doesn’t help at all. But even so it’s a nice time of year. It’s pumpkin time.

The Lord rewards those who praise the lowly, or so we hope. And in this spirit we today look at the lowly pumpkin. Not only for its bright color, its ability to grow all summer without a lot or weeding (or any weeding), not just for its ability to make the best of poor soils and long dry periods, but for the fact that it is the one vegetable that joins your family for a time before fullfilling its ambition.

The pumpkin is the vegetable made with children in mind. No child ever had a friendly relationship with beans or cucumbers. Carrots are almost enemies, and about onions the less said the better. Peas are time-consuming and frankly better left to machines. Tomatoes are fragile and worrisome, susceptible to all manner of rot and mold. Plus they fall over and splay awkwardly if they’re not propped and tied to things. And everything except pumpkins requires weeding, long hours in the sun (at the stern behest of your parents) bent over or crawling along in the futile task of trying to get ahead a superior species.

By the end of the summer, when the slow dread of winter begins to enter the night air, no matter that Mr. Sandburg thinks, the garden turns into a wilderness of dead and dying produce. The tomatoes fall against each other, offering their still green progeny up for adoption. The onions are gone by and the kohlrabi, if you are crazy enough to plant such a thing, are suitable only as baseball replacements. The zucchini has reached alarming proportions and even the deer pass it by. The pea vines are long since dead and the beans have gone from sweet and green to rock hard, brown and chalky. If you have any corn left it’s starting to dry out, and the ears left are wizened, dwarfish things, rejected even at Chinese restaurants.

The garden is a scene of depression and horror, reminding one of First World War trenches, and all of the transience of life. Look at me, it says, and ponder your own miserable mortality. Another year’s gone by and you ain’t gettin’ no younger, bub. A dying raspberry plant nods in agreement as the winds sweep down from the north.

But the pumpkin holds out hope! You can talk the kids into helping you clean up the garden if there are nice little orange guys and big old giants to be found amid the wreckage. Over here says the pumpkin, follow the vine for fun in the autumn! A tad overstated perhaps, but as every parent knows kids will believe anything. Pumpkins have personalities. Some look like family members, some like characters from history. I grew a pumpkin once that looked like the King, and I spread the word. Thousands of Elvis fans came from all over. Well, it actually looked like King Edward the Seventh, just before his abdication to marry a commoner. The amazing thing was I also had a pumpkin, not far from the King, that looked like Wallis Simpson. What he saw in her is beyond me. But that didn’t impress the Elvis fans. They were mad!

Pumpkins have only one role in life, and that is to delight the children. No other living thing produces an excuse to make such a mess in the kitchen. Slime, seeds, shards all over the place. Near misses at cutting off your fingers. Not all kids enjoy making a mess in the kitchen. But it’s good to find out early who does and who doesn’t. Remember this later when they want to borrow the car. The pumpkin innards are spread out on cookie sheets and dried in the oven to make pumpkin seeds, which are rich in vitamins (vitamin P1 to be exact) as well as essential trace elements. You can make your own roasted pumpkin seeds, and they will only cost you $200 a pound if you have an electric stove. You can even teach the rudiments of agriculture by instructing your kids to set aside some of the seeds for next year’s planting. These seeds will invariably get lost or die, and you will have to buy seeds again from the store. Which is one of the rudiments of farming: Don’t lose your seeds.

Image by Jeff Danziger
Image by Jeff Danziger

Then there’s the historical lessons taught by the pumpkin. The pilgrims made pumpkin pie at the first Thanksgiving, making the pumpkin a part of our earliest traditions. But there was no sugar back then. Then later sugar was introduced and the pies got much better. Which teaches the historical lesson that everything is better with sugar. The Native American tribes were later eradicated to make room for the suburbs of Boston, but not before they had a good dessert.

A few years ago students of jack-o-lantern artistry made note of a new departure. For centuries the top of the pumpkin was cut off so the dried vine remnant formed a handle for lifting and candle lighting purposes. This made all pumpkins look vaguely like Peewee Herman, a disadvantage even before there was a Peewee Herman. But recently a new technique, perhaps spurred by Peewee’s problems with the press, has emerged, based on using the handle as a nose. The hole for the candle is cut in the side, which then becomes the top. You cut the eyes and mouth around the dried twisted nose appendage and you have a whole new range of personalities. Much more realistic, as any art critic will tell you because while the eyes are the candles of the soul ( or some such ), no one has an illuminated nose. Well, except Uncle Fred. Also, these pumpkins look better unilluminated, and we all know that the millions of candles all over the country are messing up the ozone layer.

After making a thorough disaster of the kitchen and having lopped off a few fingers, we can risk father’s life with the making of a pumpkin man. A pumpkin man may be placed in a chair on the porch to greet passersby, that is, if father is a sniveling coward. But if father is a show-off, that is, if he’s a normal father, he will want to put pumpkin man on the porch roof. This is a stupid thing to do, but having kids didn’t take a lot of brains, either. It’s especially dangerous in cold and wet weather when you might slip and fall. But the kids are impressed, and you’ll make the Darwin Awards. Also there’s a state law that the pumpkin man must be left in place until the Christmas wreath is put up. It can then be removed. The Christmas wreath must be removed before the Fourth of July. That’s another law.

The true joy of pumpkins is, however, the pies. My Irish granny never had pumpkin pie until she came to this country from the slums of Belfast. As the years went on she perfected a recipe with extra eggs and cream and demerara sugar until it was just perfect, brown and smooth and sweet and reeking of nutmeg and cardamom, and a dash of Angostura bitters. One year she was cooking up a storm, a whole six-course Thanksgiving dinner and the pies tasted even creamier and eggier than usual. This was later revealed to be because in the confusion she had forgotten the pumpkin. So there. You can make pumpkin pies that way, too … Actually it wasn’t the slums. It was actually Dublin. Or maybe Limerick. Anyway she forgot the pumpkin. Where was I?

The point is it’s a creative act, making pumpkin pies. There is no firm recipe. In fact the lack of a recipe is the creative part. As long as you mix about three eggs to one and a half cups of milk or cream and about two cups of mashed and cooked pumpkin, you can add about anything else you want. Some of the things I’ve heard about are rum, ginger, Kraft caramels, almond flavoring, almonds, peanut butter … you can add anything you want and if it works you can use it next year. Some people even add gelatin and whip the whole mess up for a chiffon. Wait, not peanut butter, and it was Dublin.

This is a handy for teaching kids about the elasticity of human invention, the facts of supply and demand, the supply of whatever you have handy and demand for anything with eggs and cream in it, and, of course, the consequences of their actions. Any real disasters can be solved by smothering the whole thing with whipped cream. Another good thing to teach kids early. Those looking forward to a career in politics, anyway.

The most famous literary reference to pumpkins (Oh, Lord, not literature again …) is from James Whitcomb Riley. Riley wrote in a good-natured way designed to make Americans feel good about themselves. He wrote in a clunky dialect that’s memorable mostly because happily nobody does it any more. But he was obviously as much of a cheerful chucklehead as Sandburg, welcoming the end of summer as if there was anything to look forward to. I included it here because I have to mention that you can make ice cream with pumpkins, too. So the frost can really be on the pumpkin. And it’s not bad. You might mention this to your kids, especially if their names are Ben or …

Anyway here’s Riley on the glories of pumpkin-time:

“They’s something kindo’ harty-like about the atmusfere,
When the heat of summer’s over and the coolin’ fall is here,
Of course we miss the flowers, and the blossums on the trees,
And the mumble of the hummin’-birds and the buzzin’ of the bees,
But the air’s so appetizin’; and the landscape through the haze
Of a crisp and sunny morning of the airly autumn days
Is a pictur’ that no painter has the colorin’ to mock ~
When the frost is on the pumpkin and the fodder’s in the shock.

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  • Danzinger, danzinger, your brain is made of mashed pumpkins with ginger and cinnamon, a dash of wild scepticism, a scent of frankness, a nut of reality and a heap of humor. How can we not love you?

  • Bruce Cunningham

    beautiful – didn’t realize Jeff had such great writing talent as well

    and I’m lover of Wolaver’s Pumpkin Ale, too