The Last Seasonal Vegetable
by Sam Bett
Pretty soon we’ll all be sick of pumpkins. We’ll see them stacked in pyramids in supermarkets and cutely emblazoned on memos and coupons. We’ll imbibe our fill of pumpkin-flavored refreshments. In the days after Halloween, when our tires slip on pumpkin guts that no one is rushing to clean up, we’ll lose our craving for that “festive” flavor. When we leave our homes for work we’ll feel embarrassed and a little nauseated to spot a jack-o-lantern decomposing on our neighbor’s porch.
It’s like this every year in New England. Each summer we eagerly await the tastes of fall. When the cornucopias finally reappear, we binge on all the seasonal delights and then swear we’ll never dip another slice of pumpkin bread into a pumpkin-flavored frappe. But why this annual surfeit? Why can’t we enjoy pumpkin-flavored foods throughout the year so we won’t tire of its signature flavor?
While all produce has its optimal harvest period, in America’s seasonless supermarkets few fruits or vegetables are ever truly unavailable. In autumn, when fresh asparagus from Western Massachusetts is a distant memory in Boston, Whole Foods imports limitless stalks from Peru. Watermelons, the prize of summer, can be found during blizzard weather at any Shaws or Foodmaster. The same goes for strawberries, shallots, peaches and corn on the cob.
Pumpkins are the glaring exception. No one imports them from South America in April—not because they can’t be grown there or elsewhere, but for lack of demand. We’ve romanticized the traditionalism of pumpkins so much that we’ve excluded them from the all-inclusive marketplace of our modern food system. Pumpkins are perhaps the only vegetable Americans still feel uncomfortable consuming out of season.
The bizarre thing about this old-time seasonal availability is that the pumpkin-flavored treats so popular around the holidays rarely contain fresh ingredients. Consider the “Pumpkin Spice” coffees, lattes, muffins and donuts that hit the menus of major coffee chains by September, when pumpkins in Massachusetts are still babies on the vine. This early arrival demands a reliance on flavorings, extracts and industrial versions of the “One-Pie” company’s pumpkin in a can—a family standby and the main ingredient of most of the pumpkin pies baked in New England in the 20th century. When it’s time to bake, we carry our pumpkins home from the store in the same metal cans as baked beans, cranberry sauce and evaporated milk, even though the pumpkin harvest and pie season coincide by no accident.
Perhaps we don’t import pumpkins out of season because, as a nation, we’ve forgotten how to use them. For most people they’re a “holiday food,” which means dessert. While pumpkins can be added to almost any baked good, they’re difficult to integrate into daily fare. You can’t serve them raw, and although they’re tasty grilled, you rarely see them on a shish kebab, despite their cousin zucchini’s regular appearances. Pumpkin soup and pumpkin-walnut ravioli are common menu items these days, but they are hardly staples of our diet. Pumpkins don’t go well with bagels, lasagna, Buffalo wings, chicken Caesar salad, or macaroni and cheese. What else do we eat? Ask your friends how they like to cook pumpkins for dinner and they’re likely to tell you they never have.
The average American’s annual interaction with pumpkins is more likely to take place on the kitchen floor than the kitchen counter. Those who seldom use their oven—let alone use it to bake pumpkins—have probably carved a jack-o-lantern. New England’s cultural obsession with pumpkin carving is exemplified each October by grand regional festivals such as “Pumpkin Fest” in Keene, New Hampshire, where attendees carry tens of thousands of jack-o-lanterns to the city center and display them on towering scaffolds up and down Main Street. The pumpkins often outnumber the residents of Keene, with records close to 30,000.
Then there’s the “Damariscotta Pumpkinfest and Regatta” in Wiscasset, Maine, where inventive participants race around the harbor in orbicular kayaks and “super-modified” gasoline motorboats carved out of pumpkins the size of bumper cars. The day after the race, the monster gourds are hoisted into the sky with cranes and dropped 150 feet onto cars from the junkyard.
Catering to our overzealous if temporary excitement, each year farmers grow a surplus of pumpkins to ready themselves for the eager autumn market. Too many is just enough: We want to be able to browse the rows of tables, to hunt for the best one. When the garden centers are full, the extras are abandoned in the fields. On a ride through Western Massachusetts in late October you’re likely to stumble upon fields freckled with pumpkins ripe for picking yet never to be sold. No one complains about the pity of all this waste because Americans don’t eat “carving pumpkins.” (They’re not as tasty as petite “pie pumpkins,” but certainly edible.) As we organize food drives and donate canned goods to the shelter, rows of inviolate specimens await the plow. While I’m not suggesting we force the less fortunate to eat this unappetizing surplus, it’s notable and disturbing that the primary association we make with pumpkins is no longer food but decoration. When we encounter a nice round pumpkin, we see an uncarved jack-o-lantern, or perhaps a festive lawn ornament that has no practical use once its decorative appeal sours.
Come Thanksgiving, rudely sodden jack-o-lanterns will melt into black sludge on doorsteps throughout Boston and across America. Once they were proud works of art that children presented with sloppy hands to their parents, posing for photos promptly uploaded to the family blog. By December their sinister grins will be forgotten in the shadows of rainbow-colored Christmas lights, waist-high plastic candles and jovial statuettes of Santa Claus.
Perhaps we opt to keep pumpkins seasonal because the appeal of their disposability is so classically American. We buy pumpkins so we can carve them, enjoy the sight of their baby-toothed faces on our stoops for a week or so, then kick them into the bushes. Despite being simple and unprocessed vegetables, pumpkins fall into the same category as plastic utensils, road flares and party hats: disposable goods.
Next time you see a deflated pumpkin on a doorstep, suppress your disgust and consider its cultural importance. If you could only eat apples for a few weeks every fall, you’d eat apple pancakes for breakfast, apple fritters for lunch, apple-braised pork for dinner and wash it all down with strong apple cider. Eating a food until you got sick of it used to be a normal, necessary part of life, especially in New England where the growing season is short. New fruits and vegetables would arrive in the warm months like visiting relatives, fill our pantries and our bellies temporarily, then disappear until the next year. This was the reality of a world without cold storage, tin cans, highways and vacuum sealing. Seasonal limitations were once an insuperable source of anticipation, celebration and frustration. With today’s international trade, they’re an unfamiliar novelty.
In the past, overabundance signaled seasonal change and prepared us for the next taste on the calendar. Now that we can enjoy nearly any food in any season, pumpkins deserve the nostalgic treatment we reserve for them and no other vegetable.
Sam Bett is a writer and Japanese translator based in Somerville and native to the South Shore. He edits Easy Jaws, a food zine available at Sherman Market in Somerville’s Union Square, as well as other projects for Lava Roll Press. He is currently working on his first novel. You can reach him at email@example.com.