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In The Country

Gourd times

Tim Iverson

(10/2016) If one thing alone could effectively symbolize the month of October it would undoubtedly be a pumpkin. They haphazardly adorn our porches, serve as decorative centerpieces, and permeate the air as candles, deodorizers, and air fresheners. For one month pumpkin dominates our cultural pallet in the form of beer, coffee, donuts, vodka, soup, waffles, marshmallows, and more. Starbucks initially introduced the Pumpkin Spice Latte in 2003 and many market experts point to this as the dawn of the pumpkin spice explosion. Economic data from 2014 shows a whopping $361 million in gross sales of pumpkin flavored products. What is it that sets this squash apart? A closer look shows that this really isnít a recent obsession, rather a resurgence.

Archeological evidence suggests pumpkins were first cultivated in Mexico sometime between 5500 Ė 7000 years ago. Pumpkins are a member of the gourd family and are closely related to zucchini, melons, and cantaloupe. The name pumpkin originally derives from the Greek word "pepon," which means large melon or gourd melon. The French and English later adapted this word into its modern incarnation of "pumpkin." They were widespread throughout the Americas by the time of European colonization and became a valuable staple in their diet. In 1630 a Massachusetts colonist penned a poem that read, "We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon, If it were not for pumpkins we should be undoon."

Pumpkin beer may seem like a recent phenomenon, but early colonists were already imbibing the brew. Malt was expensive and hard to come by, but pumpkin flesh was a readily available substitute. Colonists also believed pumpkin had restorative healing powers. From the 17th to 19th centuries common folk wisdom expounded that pumpkin could be used to remedy a number of ailments. It was widely believed that by mashing and applying or by consuming pumpkin you could cure freckles, snake bites, urinary problems in men, and diarrhea or constipation in pets.

An average pumpkin can contain as many as 500 seeds. When you carve your pumpkin this season save your seeds. Clean them off and try adding salt,pepper, or seasoning and roasting them in the oven as they can make a great snack. The thick shell of the seed prevents the acids in an animal's stomach and intestines from break it down. This allows the seed to travel through the digestive tract and come out intact on the other end. This helps spread pumpkin seeds and spurs growth of new plants in new locations. Pumpkins start off green and turn orange as they ripen. Just like leaves on a tree, their skin contain chlorophyll which allows the pumpkin to complete photosynthesis and create energy from sunlight. As the pumpkin ripens the green pigment fades. When the chlorophyll breaks down it allows the orange pigment, created by carotene, to emerge.

Halloween is the pinnacle of the month long pumpkin party and this is where they really shine. Jack-oí-lanterns have long been associated with Halloween. In Great Britain the tradition started out by carving out turnips and rutabagas, but when the tradition was exported to the American colonies pumpkins were used. The folklore surrounding jack-oí-lanterns varies from tale to tale, but generally holds the same throughout most stories. Legend has is it that in Ireland lived a man named Stingy Jack. Jack was on the verge of death when Satan came to collect him and return him to Hell. Jack quickly asked Satan to buy him a drink before their journey and the Devil obliged him. When they were done Jack suggested that Satan turn himself into a silver coin so that he could pay the tab. The Devil enjoyed the mischievous notion and complied. Instead of paying with the newly transformed coin Jack instead placed the coin into his pocket, which also held a crucifix. The religious symbol prevented Satan from changing back. Jack demanded that Satan leave him alone for 10 years, and if he agreed he would release the Devil. Of course, Satan complied. 10 years later Satan finds Jack on a desolate country road and demands his due. Jack, thinking quickly, says he will return to Hell with Satan, but first asks Satan to climb up a nearby apple tree so that he will have something to eat for the journey. Satan agrees and climbs up the tree to retrieve an apple. While the Devil is in the tree Jack surrounds the base of the tree with crucifixes, which prevented Satan from coming back down. As before, Jack demanded that Satan leave and never take his soul into Hell. Without much choice Satan is coerced into Jackís demand. Shortly thereafter Jack dies and when he approaches Heaven God forbids his entry because of his sinful life. For lack of anywhere else to go Jack descends to Hell and begs for entry. Satan refuses because of the deal he had made and turns Jack away. He tells Jack that he will be forced to wander in the plane between good and evil. In order to light his way Satan tossed Jack an ember from the fires of Hell. Jack placed the ember inside of a hollowed out turnip to act as a lantern.

In United States Halloween didnít really gain in popularity as a celebrated holiday until the mid to late 19th century. As more English and Irish immigrants spread across the country Halloween became more popular. Pumpkin carving and Halloween festivities earned an honorable mention in an article from Harperís Young People in 1866, and by the 1930ís was a well established American tradition. Today giant pumpkins are cultivated purely for competition and size. The largest recorded pumpkin weighed in at 2009 lbs.

For the month of October pumpkin madness hits a fever pitch and then recedes until the following fall. Whether itís in the form of pie, ale, lattes, another food, or a scent just make sure you thank prehistoric Mexican farmers and early Irish immigrants for what is truly an American tradition.

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