Debate the big issues as you wish, but when it comes to the humble pumpkin America has lost her way and the tragic decline has been a long time coming.
Thoreau observed, “I would rather sit on a pumpkin, and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.”
Emerson declared ““We fancy men are individuals; so are pumpkins; but every pumpkin in the field goes through every point of pumpkin history.” (Okay, did the Transcendentalists take drugs?)
Willa Cather recalled, more lyrically and less oddly: “I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge.”
A contemporary and anonymous thought gets more practical: “Men are like pumpkins. It seems like all the good ones are either taken or they’ve had everything scraped out of their heads with a spoon.”
Then there is the 2009 animated, science-fiction, television epic, “Monsters vs Aliens: Mutant Pumpkins from Outer Space,” in which we are warned, “Susan Murphy (a.k.a. Ginormica) and the Monsters are now working with the US government as special ops.” Well, no surprise there.
But nobody talks about eating the blessed things, just using pumpkins as furniture, as pathways to enlightenment or as feminist metaphors or sci-fi. When Americans do eat pumpkins it is inevitably in a pie consumed only between Halloween and Yuletide. Quelle blague.
Even characters in the “Peanuts” comic-strip await the Halloween arrival of The Great Pumpkin, a Father Christmas figure, but do they feast on the stuff? Not a chance.
In the global race for FPU or Full Pumpkin Utilisation (probably one of the UN Millennium Development Goals) America has lost her way and her ruthless foreign competitors are laps ahead.
It was not always so. Pumpkinesque seeds, 9,000 years old, have been found in Mexico, and the American Indians fed pumpkins to the Colonists who spread them to Europe and around the world. Back home the English, who had long carved jack-o-lanterns from turnips, found that pumpkins gave them a bigger artistic canvas.
America’s Pilgrim Fathers made pumpkin pie, pumpkin pudding, pumpkin soup and even pumpkin beer but then came industrial might, The New World Order and purple broccoli. Americans came to abandon quill pens, shoe-buckles, pumpkins and their Constitution. Meanwhile abroad, fiendishly cunning members of The Yellow Peril (or pick a colour) grabbed the lead in APT (Applied Pumpkin Technology) and have never relinquished it since.
The biggest producers include China, India, Mexico and the US, with Illinois producing 95% of the country’s 1.5 billion-pound crop. Apart from a small number used as furniture by Thoreau-fanciers living around Walden Pond, the rest of American production seems to end up as jack-o-lanterns or pies.
Yet pumpkins grow on every continent save Antarctica. Arabs, Persians and South Asians make them into one of various tasty confections called halwa. Indians and Pakistanis serve it hot, cooked in butter, sugar and spices. Chinese boil the leaves and eat them in soups or like collard greens. Afghans usually serve pumpkin slices topped with yoghurt sprinkled with ground beef fried in cinnamon, or use it as filling in golden-fried flat-bread as a delicious snack. Africans (especially the gentle, deeply civilised Batswana) adore them prepared in many ways, chiefly boiled or baked. The Japanese (ever guilty of what my club’s architect calls exquisitry) batter and fry tiny, delicate, bite-sized ones as tempura, Thais stuff them with custard and serve them up as dessert, Italians pack them into ravioli, Mexicans use the flowers as edible garnishes, Kiwis and Aussies roast them and Austrians sprinkle pumpkinseed oil onto their potato salads. Pie-eyed Americans lag behind.
At a geostrategic level, the high consumption of PBPs (Pumpkin-Based Products) may give important health advantages to the 200 foreign nations now being classed by Washington as America’s enemies. The seeds are a folk-remedy for prostate problems and the meat is a proven aid to digestion. Chinese scientists report that pumpkin reduces diabetes and pre-diabetic conditions. Even the US Nutrient Database states that it provides 46% of Vitamin A, 29% of beta-carotene, and between 3% and 10% of other key vitamins and minerals, but Americans don’t eat pumpkin: possibly because it is not an ingredient in their Four Basic Food Groups (hamburgers, fried chicken, frozen pizzas and corn-dogs).
This is an example of acute VES, Vegetable Exclusion Syndrome. Afghans grow barley but only feed it to their animals, quite unaware of Scottish miracles involving barley, spring water and distillation equipment. When the mid-19th Century English were finally convinced to eat swedes and turnips, and not just feed them to their livestock, improvements in public health were said to have exceeded all earlier medical discoveries combined. America, the world’s last superpower, either carves jack-o-lanterns of no nutritional value or bakes them into fattening pies. Dumb and dumber.
This is not to say that America has totally abandoned the strategic race for Pumpkin Supremacy. Many rural spots hold contests for pumpkin-throwing, sometimes by hand but often using medieval siege-implements such as catapults and trebuchets. US agricultural hobbyists compete to grow the world’s biggest pumpkin, with leading contenders up around 1.5 tons: some specimens add fifty pounds in weight a day and farmers can actually hear them growing. Apart from what gets eaten in pies there is a metaphor here and an example of American Exceptionalism: apply science to grow the biggest pumpkins on earth, then hurl them through the air and smash them in vacant fields.
Pursuing the analogy, Ben Franklin wanted the independent, clever, socially-sophisticated, wild turkey to be the National Bird; instead America got the eagle; the universal, bog-standard symbol of bloodthirsty empire. Now, after centuries of being overfed and bored, domesticated turkeys are as lethargic, obese and moronic as many of the people who eat them – always with pumpkin pie, only between Halloween and Yuletide.
This Thanksgiving Americans can make predecessors proud, and restore America’s competitive edge around the world, by doing something creative with pumpkin. Your ever-grateful Afghan friends tender a suggestion that is one of the two or three finest dishes that your correspondent has ever tasted anywhere.
In Peshawar, Pakistan, 20 years ago, a departing Australian Army contingent teaching the safe removal of land-mines offered to throw an Aussie ‘barbie” or barbeque; a going-away shin-dig for their chums. As manager of the expat club (then the only bar between the Indus and Oxus Rivers of Classical Antiquity), I asked what this entailed and was told, “Waal, Cobber, we ‘tike’ a hot iron plate, throw on steaks and pour beer over it.” Anything else, I inquired drily. “Roight! Waal, sometimes in the outback we ‘scripe’ all the wet stuff out of a punkin, mate, an’ we stuff it wiv’ meat and veg and roast her on the coals.” Jamie Oliver take note.
I approached our Afghan chef, Yakub (Jacob), and he fixed me in his Jeevesian steeliest, as if Bertie Wooster came home wearing yellow spats again. “I do believe, Sir,” he purred disapprovingly, “that we can do better than, as you phrase it, ‘stuff it with meat and veg,’ Sir.”
What emerged from the kitchen was a transport of culinary delight. Yakub had cleaned out a pumpkin and stuffed it with fresh spinach leaves, garlic, pine nuts, yoghurt and big hunks of dried bread, and then he baked it at 350-degrees or so until it was fork-tender. The soft, sweet orange meat of the pumpkin contrasted with the moist, succulent, slightly-sour filling that was the consistency of turkey-stuffing. Celebrants nearly ate through the table-top, and that usually-carnivorous bunch demanded it as a vegetarian main course for months to follow. Never was any dish such a rage, since 1892 when the Australian soprano, Dame Nellie Melba, took a liking to peaches and the Savoy Hotel’s French chef, Auguste Escoffier, saw some raspberry jam on the shelf and said he’d have a think.
“You are a genius! How did you do it?” I demanded of the unflappable Yakub, who replied with his dependable sang-froid.
“It is a classic Uzbek dish. As everyone knows, Sir, the Turkic peoples are uncommonly expert at stuffing vegetables. It would be familiar to any Afghan chef with experience, Sir,” he replied with elegant modesty.
Since Irish and English working-class and convict immigrants to Australia would have known little of pumpkins, or of exotically-stuffed vegetables, the recipe would likely have travelled there with Afghan camel-drivers brought to run caravans across the vast, Antipodean deserts in the 1890s. So this food, fit for gods, took a full century to go from Afghanistan to Australia and back again, diminished on its return journey though it was.
Eternally grateful for America’s generosity and bravery, Afghans puzzle over why that great nation has so crippled itself with debt. Too poor to write bail-out checks, Afghans can at least help to restore America to her previous position as the Pumpkin Superpower and they provide this recipe accordingly.
“Noshe-jan!” they exclaim, which means bon appétit.
Books mentioned in this article may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.