October 25, 2017

New England Pumpkin Lore: Cozy and A Little Creepy

October is definitely pumpkin season. The stores are full of pumpkin-flavored treats, jack-o-lanterns are appearing on my neighbors' porches, and someone recently motored across Boston Harbor in a giant pumpkin. Pumpkins are everywhere this month. There is some interesting New England lore about pumpkins, some of it homey and comforting, some of it kind of spooky. I guess that describes October too.

Pumpkins are of course native to the Americas. Historians say they were first cultivated in Central America and eventually adopted by the various American Indian groups that lived in New England. Samuel de Champlain, an early visitor to New England's shores, saw Algonquin Indians growing beans, maize and pumpkins along the banks of Maine's Saco River in the early 17th century. Pumpkin and squash were often included in dishes like succotash and were also dried for eating over the cold winter months.

When the Puritans colonized New England they adopted many local crops into their diet, including pumpkins. And because many of their English crops didn't grown well here, the early Puritans apparently ate a lot of pumpkin. A lot. It was seen as less desirable than traditional English foods, but Edward Johnson (1598 - 1672), the founder of Woburn, Massachusetts, wrote the following:

.. let no man make a jest at Pumpkins, for with this fruit the Lord was pleased to feed his people to their good content, till Corne and Cattel were increased.

Take that, pumpkin haters!

The colonists atet pumpkin in variety of ways. Boiled and mashed pumpkin was a popular dish. Mashed pumpkin was also added to breads, while dried pumpkin was used to sweeten alcoholic drinks. In addition to mashing, another popular preparation was to hollow out a pumpkin and fill it with cream. The pumpkin would then be baked until the flesh became soft and the center custardy. It sounds delicious, and I did once try to make something like this. It didn't work too well, but I think I was using the wrong type of pumpkin.

Modern New Englanders are more familiar with pumpkin custard as the filling in pumpkin pie, not actually baked in a pumpkin. Surprisingly, the earliest pumpkin pie recipe from New England (written down in the 1760s by a wealthy Boston Tory family) calls for slices of fried pumpkin layered with apples and dried fruit in a pastry shell. It sounds good, but that's not what we would call pumpkin pie today. After the  Revolution the pumpkin custard pie that Americans still know and love become dominant.

So, there's the homey, cozy lore about pumpkins. They're also obviously associated with Halloween, which here in America is part harvest festival and part celebration of death and the macabre. Corn stalks, hay bales, apple cider, and cute little pumpkins are all part of the holiday's harvest aspect. Ghosts, witches, horror movies and scary carved pumpkins are part of Halloween's macabre side. Pumpkins can be cute or scary depending on how they are used.

Halloween was not really celebrated in New England until the late 1800s. It was one of those holidays, like Christmas, that the Puritans and their Yankee descendants avoided. But even though there was no Halloween, New Englanders still carved pumpkins in the fall months and lit them with candles. For example, local poet John Greenleaf Whittier (1807 - 1892) includes the following line in his 1850 poem "The Pumpkin":

Oh, fruit loved of boyhood! the old days recalling,
When wood-grapes were purpling and brown nuts were falling!
When wild, ugly faces we carved in its skin,
Glaring out through the dark with a candle within!

Halloween wouldn't have been celebrated when Whittier was a boy, and in fact that poem celebrates Thanksgiving.

Nathaniel Hawthorne seems to be the first writer to use the term "jack-o-lantern" to describe a carved candle-lit pumpkin. He used it in his 1835 story "The Great Carbuncle." A carbuncle is a type of gemstone, and the titular one shines with a blinding light.

Hide it under thy cloak, say'st thou? Why, it will gleam through the holes, and make thee look like a jack-o'lantern!

Again, that was written well before Halloween would have been celebrated in New England. Hawthorne seemed to like jack-o-lanterns. In his 1852 story "Feathertop," a witch brings to life a scarecrow with a carved pumpkin for its head, but again there is no reference to Halloween in the story, which takes place in May.

I'm not quite sure how the jack-o-lantern became exclusively associated with Halloween, but somehow, as immigration changed New England and holidays like Halloween and Christmas became accepted, it took it's place as the reigning symbol of Halloween.

Before it was used to describe carved a pumpkin, the term jack-o-lantern denoted either a lantern-carrying nightwatchman or a will-o-the-wisp, one of those wandering orbs of light, perhaps of supernatural origin, that appear in forests and swamps to lead travelers astray. Will-o-the-wisps were often thought to be lights carried by malevolent fairies seeking to trick unwary humans. One of the rare pieces of English fairy lore from early New England mentions jack-o-lanterns in this sense of the word:

... Marblehead (Massachusetts) was a sort of compendium of all varieties of legend. For instance, the belief in the Pixies of Devonshire, the Bogles of Scotland, the Northern Jack o' Lantern was prevalent there; _ and my father has told me that he was often cautioned by the fishermen, just at twilight, to run home or the Bogles would be sure to seize him (William Wetmore Story, The Life and Letters of Joseph Story, 1851)

When you're out and about this Halloween, be careful as you walk towards that glowing pumpkin. Maybe it's been carved by friendly neighbors, but maybe it's a trick to lead you into the dark October night.


Source for the jump rope rhyme: B.A. Botkin's Treasury of New England Folklore. The information about early pumpkin recipes and preparation comes from Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald's America's Founding Food


Sue Bursztynski said...

Fascinating bit of folklore! I was always under the impression that it came from English folklore and tradition(not the pumpkins, they used turnips). I guess the local folklore was woven in. I remember reading somewhere that the Aztecs had a festival of the dead which went for about two weeks and the Spsnish persuaded their converts to cut it back to two days.

Pity the English who colonised my own country didn't respect local foods - they were starving while the indigenous folk were scratching their heads in puzzlement at these idiots starving when the country was overflowing with food!

Peter Muise said...

Hi Sue! Yes, you're right - the British and Irish carved turnips for various holidays, but in North America people used pumpkins because they were bigger and much easier to carve. I should have made that clear in the post!