“We put into a small Port, called the Boohoole, which we afterwards named the Pumpkin-Bay, because of its fertility in bearing of Pumpkins.”
—J. Quarles, The Tyranny of the Dutch Against the English, 1653
“I FEEL TENDER TOWARD YOU, and not like that pumpkin we threw out today,” my husband said. It was October 2020 in Chicago. We were childless, and twiddling our thumbs, working remotely, waiting, waiting for The Call from our new adoption agency. Two years prior in Seattle, already longing for The Call, I’d bade farewell to a little lemon cypress tree we’d called Steven; he turned gray on the dining room table; we let blackberry vines overtake him in the yard. A soft spot in my chest, a depression, as it were, lingered when we said goodbye to Steven. With a decorative pumpkin, at least, there is more expectation of rot.
In Penelope Mortimer’s novel The Pumpkin Eater, the unnamed protagonist’s desire for more children, despite being surrounded by loads of them, seems to be a desire to find a sense of balance in life, a sense of validity. And what are the origins of the nursery rhyme “Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater, had a wife but couldn’t keep her. Put her in a pumpkin shell and there he kept her very well”? Wild stories on the internet abound: the pumpkin shell is slang for a chastity belt, or Peter’s wife was a prostitute he murdered.
IN A PERSIAN FAIRY TALE, a boy falls in love with a girl who is a pumpkin; the lesson (if fairy tales have lessons) is to love people for who they are.
Contemporary Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama admired pumpkins for their sense of stability, which reminds me of Merce Cunningham saying balance is not just not falling down. Kusama made Pumpkins Screaming About Love Beyond Infinity and Dancing Pumpkin and various pieces called A Pumpkin or the like. I like a screen print called Pumpkin God; it has an indent in its side, as if to suggest a hand on a hip. A pumpkin with a little attitude. I have gone so far as to apply for grants to travel to Japan to understand Kusama’s admiration of pumpkins, though I haven’t gotten one yet. But if I don’t write this essay soon, I might turn into a pumpkin!
What is the midnight of my life?
PUMPKINIFICATION, in satirical ancient Roman literature, referred to the process of a dead emperor turning into a god. But pumpkins hardly seem godly. Maybe that is part of the point of the satire? Then again, if God is everywhere, God is a pumpkin. Also, there were no pumpkins in ancient Rome, my Classics friend Ashley pointed out, but “squashification” or “gourdification” doesn’t sound as good.
My parents call me Pumpkin, or when I’m lazy, Lumpkin. My parents are not lumpkins. As the pandemic loomed and raged, they threw themselves into developing a vegetable garden in their backyard in central Brooklyn, despite a lack of gardening experience. My dad wasn’t designing trade show exhibits; my mom’s Girls Who Code club wasn’t meeting at the library. The pumpkin leaves are as big as umbrellas, they said their first season of gardening.
Pumpkinification, in satirical ancient Roman literature, referred to the process of a dead emperor turning into a god. But pumpkins hardly seem godly. Maybe that is part of the point of the satire?
Across time and geography, pumpkins have saved people from starvation. Emily Paster writes in The Nosher, “The Secret Sephardic History of the Pumpkin,” that “. . . early Pilgrims narrowly avoided starvation during the winter of 1620 by eating pumpkin and other crops shared by their Wampanoag neighbors.” Meher McArthur writes for KCET that “During World War II, when much of [Japan’s] food supplies were disrupted, the Kusama family storehouse was apparently always full of produce, in particular pumpkins. Despite consuming them to the point of nausea as a child, Kusama has retained a life-long fascination with pumpkins, spending hours drawing them as a young artist. To Kusama, the pumpkin represents comfort, humility, and stability, and she has described them as ‘such tender things to touch, so appealing in color and form.’” According to How to Grow Vegetables and Fruits by the Organic Method edited by J. I. Rodale, “[pumpkins] like clear, cloudless skies and hot days to mature fruit, but do not need hot nights as do watermelons and cantaloupes.”
Maybe it’s the appearance of pumpkins in color and form, or maybe it’s the lesser-known history of pumpkins helping people evade starvation, that makes Pumpkin Spice Lattes, in their disposable paper cups, so abhorrent. I don’t hate Pumpkin Spice Lattes the way I’m supposed to. And, I don’t love Pumpkin Spice Lattes the way I’m supposed to. Pumpkin Spice Lattes have become shorthand for a certain kind of whiteness, like a meme of the Lululemon yoga pants girl, the spirit of the PSL.
Am I a pumpkin hater? Heavens, no. I love a beautiful whole pumpkin, whether all smooth and orange like a plastic jack-o’-lantern or speckled green with a warty spray of knobs. I love the curling vines, the hearty stem, the abundance in my parents’ garden. If the supply chain totally falters, they have frozen pumpkin bread up the wazoo.
THE NOSHER HISTORY lesson taught me that Italian Jews (who’d fled the Spanish Inquisition) invented pumpkin ravioli; pumpkin is a hearty vegetable, an affordable substitute for meat. Pumpkin ravioli in brown butter with a touch of sage—I will gladly eat this annually. Maria Tarantino and Sabina Terziani write in the Summer 2010 issue of Gastronomica about a Sicilian treat called “the triumph of gluttony,” a hollowed-out brioche filled with pistachio paste and pumpkin jam in a bowl of milk blancmange. Put THAT in my mouth!
“IN THE FOLKLORE of many peoples, the . . . pumpkin [is] in fact, [a symbol] for . . . female sexual organs.” So writes Giuliano Catoni in A Short History of Siena. Should we interpret the carriage turning into a pumpkin in “Cinderella” as sexual? If you don’t get home by midnight, you turn into a female sexual organ? Kusama’s pumpkin obsession is a counterpart to her tuber obsession in which she faces her fear of the phallic; that is well documented. Her mother ruined her childhood by having her spy on her father as he dallied.
A FRIEND WHO GREW up in New England and lives in California celebrates a personal holiday, “Pumpkin Sunday,” with relentless nostalgia each October with his children and family friends. The day begins with pumpkin pancakes, followed by pumpkin ale or cider, followed by pumpkin curry, ending with a pumpkin carving. I worry what may happen if one year a rebelling teen wishes to abstain. Heartache? A sense of betrayal? A sense of loss?
The pumpkin patch, too, is the site of childhood innocence. You go each year to a pumpkin patch with your child; maybe as an adult without children you go with a sense of nostalgia. Or in our case in 2020, nostalgia for an uncertain future. In our favorite family photo from 2021, printed on canvas and in the home of each immediate family member, we hold our gorgeous nine-month-old son in a pumpkin patch as we stand astride blocks of hay and before a goodly display of corn. Or should I say godly? Here he is, we seem to say, holding him aloft between us. His alarmingly alert gaze into the camera says, “Here I am.”