Hooray for the Pumpkin Pie

All year long folks wait for their favorite coffee shops to fill with the aroma of pumpkin spice lattes. It’s the season when grocery stores stock their shelves with limited edition pumpkin cookies and ice cream…It seems that no food symbolizes the blustery fall season quite like pumpkins.”

—-“History of Pumpkins and Recipe Round-up,” by Torey Avey

The coffee shop, deep into pumpkin

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“Hey,” Mark says. “Hey. THAT looks good. What is that?”

I am looking through a glossy cookery magazine, and the current page has a picture of a Bundt cake.  Its perfect surface is a roasty brown. Thick, creamy white icing drizzles up and down its sides. There’s a steaming cup of joe next to it, along with a rustic cake cutter and a stack of ceramic dishes.

The whole scene is enticing. And the cake DOES look tasty.

“That,” I read, “is a pumpkin spice Bundt cake.”

“Oh, dear lord,” Mark groans. “ANOTHER pumpkin recipe?”

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We don’t much care for pumpkin, at our house.

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The days have shortened; it is dark by early in the evening now. The sun doesn’t rise until 7:15 a.m. When the sky’s finally bright enough for my morning walk, I pull on my thin knit gloves; the temps are, often, in the forties.

And then I walk and note, each day, the trees and bushes shivering into reds and golds and oranges, and those blushing leaves wafting down to the ground in soft, lazy, cradling movements.

Big pots of mums, with flowers packed so densely they look like vivid yellow and magenta Muppet fur, pop up on porches. There are gourds and pumpkins in window boxes.

Store shelves are packed with Hallowe’en candy.

It is autumn, cool and crisp, invigorating.

It is autumn, scented, everywhere, with pumpkin spice.

Where, I wonder, did all this pumpkin hoopla come from? And why do I not feel involved in it?

Darkness falls like a curtain at 7:30 one night, and I fire up the desktop to go searching.

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Torey Avey tells me that pumpkins grew 7,500 years ago in Central America. And early in colonial days, settlers were making pumpkins into pies. Native North Americans cooked with pumpkins. European settlers learned from them.

“The English, who are fond of tasty food, like pumpkins very much and use them also in pies and know how to make a beverage from them.” I read this quote from a Dutch traveler, circa 1665, on MSN.com’s “What Are the Historical Origins of the ‘Pumpkin-Spiced Everything’ Craze?”

That beverage the English made probably wasn’t a pumpkin spice latte, but I am illumined to learn that pumpkin drinks didn’t spring into life in the late 20th century.

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On Tuesday afternoons, I run errands. Sometimes I hit the library, and other times I take things to the post office. I shop for birthdays and necessities. I take the car to the dealership for check-ups. I pick up things at the hardware store.

Often, now, no longer in school, James comes with me.

This week, we go to Squiggly’s, where hardworking young people clean my car, inside and out.

Afterwards, I take James to a coffee shop. He has a notepad; I have a mystery novel, one slender enough to slide into my stretchy tan purse. The cafe has only one other customer.

We browse the goodie counter. One whole shelf is devoted to pumpkin treats. There are pumpkin muffins and pumpkin cookies; there are glazed scones flavored with pumpkin. There are pumpkin bars and pumpkin cake pops.

There are varieties of pumpkin-spice lattes.

“Too. Much. Pumpkin,” grits James.

He orders a caramel latte. I carry a decaf Americano to our table.

We feel pursued by pumpkin.

We are stubborn. We will not yield. But I’m not sure why.

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Almost as important as the pumpkin itself is the spice that we flavor it with. There’s a formula there, and nutmeg is vital to it. In fact, nutmeg was the reason the Dutch sold the island of Manhattan to the British. They used the proceeds from that sale to buy an Indonesian island where nutmeg abounded. The spice, by then, had been in common use for at least 2,000 years.

Nutmeg was treasured. In the 1300’s, a pound of nutmeg was more valuable than an equal weight of gold. (To buy a pound of nutmeg then, one had to offer riches equivalent to the value of “seven fatted oxen.”)

Nowadays, nutmeg is essential to pumpkin pie spice. But we are lucky; we can get a full pound of nutmeg for a mere $18.00 (what-are-the-historical-origins-of-the-pumpkin-spiced-everything-craze/).

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I read fascinating pumpkin facts on the Internet, and something I read there flits into the boney mind chamber and pries a memory loose, dislodges it from its firmly tucked space in one wall. I remember that, the year I turned ten, we planted pumpkins in the little field behind the old brown barn.

It was like the beginning of something, growing those pumpkins. The little field had always been a kind of play yard, and a place where old furniture or equipment might be temporarily stashed before their eventual disposal. But now it was a garden, and this was the first time we had grown anything besides flowers—grown something to actually eat.

I think, now, that we planted both pumpkins and watermelons that year, and we watched the blossoming of both with a kind of inhaled interest. My mother was deeply involved with this garden. I have a image of her, early in the morning, slogging through rain-muddied rows in a pink house dress and someone’s old, black, too-big, ladder-buckled, boots.

We watched the amazing evolution, from sprouts to vine, from blossoms to hard little fruits.

I can almost remember picking and eating watermelons; in hazy memory that treat, not one I normally enjoyed very much, was nectar.

But the pumpkins took longer, grew harder, demanded my intense attention. I surely remember both the look and feel of those brazen gold blossoms, and the tiny miracle of infinitesimal, hard, green pumpkins emerging. And I remember how those baby pumpkins grew and grew.

There were dozens of them. In those days, pumpkins were for carving, not for eating. I envisioned piles of jack o’ lanterns, enough for everyone to put their distinctive mark on two, or more.

I walked the rows and I watched the growth and there was magic in the process.

And then August came, and quite suddenly, abruptly, we moved to a new house, to a rambling, winterized cottage near the shore of Lake Erie, a house in the clutches of the small city that abutted our former town.

That place had a temporary magic of its own (we weren’t to stay there long), a mischievous magic that buzzed and simmered close to the surface. But that move ripped open a door that had valiantly kept family turmoil contained. My naivete was shocked by the resulting discord…a discord which did, eventually, repair itself, but not before I’d learned how to be wary.

I learned too, that nothing was permanent. Some of my tethers frayed as that summer eased into fall.

And once—a bright, impossibly blue-skied day—my father drove us back to see the pumpkins. He pulled up that driveway, drove all the way back to the little field, and we stayed in the car and looked.

The pumpkins were glorious, huge and orange and ready to be picked.

And of course, we asked to do that. “NO,” my father said, gruff and low. “They belong to the other people now.”

And he turned the old Buick around in the space where the driveway veered to enter the old brown barn, a turn he’d probably undertaken two thousand times before.

I don’t remember if my mother was in the car.

I never, of course, went back, and I don’t remember any further joy in pumpkin carving until my own kids delighted in jack o’ lantern creation (but not in the clammy cleaning out of pumpkin guts, a job relegated to parents.) We bought fancy pumpkin carving kits, and each year we made more and more complex creations.

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The memory of the lost magic of those pumpkins we planted goes with me, a hopeful vision of a kind of golden time before some things fell apart. Maybe the shock of that move has something to do with my later resistance to the treats of the season.

Pumpkins grow golden on the edge of my innocence: a metaphor. And I’ve never since been tempted to cook with them.

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In a 1796 recipe book, American Cookery, there’s a recipe for fixing ‘pompkin’ with molasses, allspice, and ginger. The English and French were enamored of the pumpkin, too; they also experimented with different kinds of dishes and different combinations of tastes.

Finally, a basic mixture of spices emerged: that nutmeg, of course; ginger and allspice; cloves; and certainly, there had to cinnamon. Those five spices remain the essential basic flavorings; they are the pumpkin spice we celebrate.

The New England states refined the concept of pumpkin pie, and, because pumpkin was almost certainly a part of that first, hopeful, celebratory meal, the pies became locked into United States Thanksgiving celebrations.

Libby’s started offering canned pumpkin in the 1920’s, and now cooks could create lovely, lavish pies without the long processes of roasting, stewing, and straining that turned fresh pumpkins into pie-ready puree. Libby’s canned pumpkin came to define the kind of pumpkin pies Americans crave to this day.

And in 1934, McCormick released its “pumpkin pie spice”; its name was changed, in the 1960’s, to simply “pumpkin spice.” But the formula did not change, hadn’t changed in the many years before McCormick put it together and packaged it: those five basic spices stayed, and still stay, the same.

People experimented with pumpkin; they made spice cakes and pumpkin rolls, but it wasn’t until 1996 that Home Roast Coffee in Tampa, Florida, put pumpkin spice in its coffee drinks. That spark ignited a trend across the country; now hot, pumpkin-spiced beverages are an anticipated autumn treat.

By the 2000’s, retailers were offering pumpkin-flavored menu items. Pumpkin doughnuts and cookies proliferated; even breweries started injecting pumpkin flavoring and its spices into their concoctions.

The trend hasn’t crested yet.

(https://www.msn.com/en-us/foodanddrink/foodnews/what-are-the-historical-origins-of-the-pumpkin-spiced-everything-craze/ss-BB12GxFK#:~:text=%22Pumpkin%20became%20recognized%20as%20part%20of%20the%20comfort,2008%2C%22%20said%20Suzy%20Badaracco%2C%20a%20food%20trend%20analyst.)

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Thursday was one of those impossibly perfect autumn days: a cloudless blue sky, lazy falling leaves, temps that peaked in the low seventies. That day, several of us sat on Susan’s beautiful patio. We ate our brown-bag lunches, and interesting talk flowed.

And then Susan brought out dessert—a pumpkin dessert with a crunchy streusel topping.

Of course, I took a piece to be polite, and of course, I discovered it was wonderful. I joined the clamor for the recipe.

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“Our family isn’t good at math,” we say, or, “We’ve never been big dancers.” We believe those statements as woven truth, and we seldom have the chance to examine where they came from.

This fall, I’m remembering an abandoned pumpkin patch, and I’m exploring this oft-repeated statement: We don’t much care for pumpkin, at our house.

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https://www.pbs.org/food/the-history-kitchen/history-pumpkins-recipes/

https://www.msn.com/en-us/foodanddrink/foodnews/what-are-the-historical-origins-of-the-pumpkin-spiced-everything-craze/ss-BB12GxFK#:~:text=%22Pumpkin%20became%20recognized%20as%20part%20of%20the%20comfort,2008%2C%22%20said%20Suzy%20Badaracco%2C%20a%20food%20trend%20analyst.