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EricaO

EricaO

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Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon (Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books)

Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon (Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books) - Cindy Ott I did not enjoy this book.
If you'd like to know why, read on. I have a lot of complaining to do.

One of my huge pet peeves about non-fiction work is lack of listed resources. This was one of two ways in which this book did not let me down; Ms. Ott has copious pages of notes and a long bibliography at the end, so that was nice.
Also, I always hope to learn something from every non-fiction book I read. In this case, I learned how Libby, the canned pumpkin company, processes and cans pumpkin meat. I want to tour the Libby factory if I ever find myself in Morton, Ill.
Other that that, I was horribly disappointed by this book, mostly because I had looked forward to reading it for so long. I mean, I freakin' LOVE pumpkins! They were often in the garden throughout my childhood, I try to grow them every few years, I fell in love with the pumpkin patch on the farm where we farmsit, I make puree from my leftover jack-o-lanterns, I cook them in soup and bread and pie and anything else I can think of! I just love pumpkins.
I did not love this book about pumpkins. I had a difficult time reading it. If I am not mistaken, this was either the author's dissertation or came from her dissertation. I feel her dissertation team let her down terribly and should have suggested a lot more editing. To me, this book read like a first or second draft of an 8th grade research paper. It wandered and rambled, there was no straight line from date to date, even within a paragraph. She'd be discussing something that happened in the 1500's, then jump forward to the 1800's, then back to some random date in the 1600's, all on the same page. This happened with too much regularity but without the benefit of adding perspective to whatever was being discussed.
The thing that bothered me most was though she said early on that pumpkin is a fruit, she kept calling it a vegetable. Who DOES that? And WHY? It's a freakin' fruit. If you're going to write a lengthy treatise on the history of the pumpkin, you should probably not give it the misnomer of "vegetable"; that bugged the hell out of me.
I was left very confused as to the whole origin of the term "pumpkin"; I got that it started out as a pompion which, supposedly, was European for big, ol' fleshy fruit that can't really be identified (because there were a lot of big, ol', unidentifiable fleshy fruits running around Europe?) though she redefines the term "pompion" a few times, never with the exact same meaning. I was also confused as to how there were pumpkins in Ancient Rome if they're native to the Americas? I'm pretty sure the Ancient Roman pumpkins were the big, ol' fleshy unidentifiable fruits, but that was never actually made clear. Nor was it made clear why there needed to be an excerpt on pumpkins in Ancient Rome, though I think it was her tool to show that pompions had been used since ye olden dayes to poke fun at politicians, though she kept using the term "pumpkin" over "pompion" and thus the confusion.
The biggest problem, I felt, was that she's trying to nail down the "idea" and "meaning" of the big, orange pumpkin - she and her resources call these field pumpkins - to the mind and culture of America. The thing is, I didn't buy into what I thought she was trying to sell. She put forth lots of ideas but never seemed to focus on what it was she was trying to say. In addition, I noticed a very strong New England bias and a strong anti-Southern bias making me feel that perhaps she was describing the meaning of pumpkin to the New England culture. She all but said that people in the south don't have such an esteem for pumpkins because they prefer sweet potatoes and because pumpkins don't grow well in the soil of Down There.
The book suffers from repetition, and not in that helpful "You need to learn this so I will repeat it" way that Sesame Street employs. Instead, the first two or three chapters told the story of how the pumpkin was native to the Americas, how it was seen as prolific and became a symbol of native agrarianism and had the ability to sustain a populace during starvation time but how everyone else in the whole world (England) thought it was a crass and crude vegetable (it's a fruit) and made fun of it and then after colonists stabilized and became independent, they took on the same air toward pumpkins - they were a nourishing, prolific, gardeny product but were for poor people and farm animals and could only grow in the country and only stupid people liked them. This message was stated over and over in a variety of ways. She kept saying things like, "...yet there was something about the pumpkin that was unlike any of the other natural resources that expanded colonial markets and built colonial cities- something which New Englanders identified. The pumpkin meant something that simple economics could not explain but that would one day make it a valuable commodity. That something was a sense of identity rooted in an agrarian world. Neither corn, tobacco, nor furs carried the pumpkin's symbolic weight." (p. 44) Then she goes on to trash talk the pumpkin again, discussing how it was for poor people and peasant farmers grew it and it was used as a symbol for empty-headedness. This made me dizzy.
She talks a LOT about pumpkin pie. New England pumpkin pie. Connecticut pumpkin pie. Oh the joys - and chapters - of pumpkin pie. It's a symbol of America - though, you'll note, the saying is "As American as APPLE pie" - and even though we now only really eat pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving, it's meaningful because it brings us closer together as a nation and it would be unpatriotic not to have pumpkin pie during that holiday. Well, except for in the south, because they're all southern and are still burnt over those damn Yankees winning the war so they eat sweet potato pie in protest. I was irritated by broad generalizations such as, "People craved pumpkin pie because of what it meant"(p. 98) (and what it meant was never solidly defined, just the same hedging about how the Colonials made it their own and there was a recipe for it and take that, England); I doubt people crave pumpkin pie based on its meaning. Yes, I agree that it has become tradition to serve pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving and we all love tradition, but I am also just as sure that people want pumpkin pie because it is delicious. I'm not convinced they're (pies) eaten out of symbolic duty. I didn't see support of her idea that Americans formed of identity-of-self-and-culture based on the pumpkin or its pie.
What I think she wanted to say, and probably could have had she just focused, cut out most of the repetition, and got to the point (seriously, if well-edited, this book would have been about 1/2 as long) is that early Americans were impressed by the pumpkin - it's big and showy, a vine can grow exceedingly quickly and at tremendous lengths and will produce a lot of fruit - and it helped sustain them through the first years in their new home. However, much like potatoes and cabbage, once other foodstuffs were readily available, the pumpkin was relegated to simple farm fare. That should have been it for the pumpkin but because of its dichotomous nature, it continued to hold an interest in the public eye, whether as a vehicle for mockery or a symbol of hearty produce and it is something that is uniquely American. New Englanders took this to heart and built their identity around the pumpkin (and probably a few other local things, like landmarks, turkeys, killing off the natives, etc) and it now holds a place of sentimental reverence in the hearts of New Englanders, especially during Halloween and Thanksgiving. The end.
I don't feel that this deep cultural identity centered around the pumpkin is true for the entire American culture. She even admits "the pumpkin's meanings do not resonate with all Americans, of course...such as Southerners who still push aside pumpkin pie for the more regional sweet potato pie, it might have seemed like a Yankee bias" - You think? The whole book is a Yankee bias, regardless of how the American populace obviously values pumpkin based on pumpkin-related sales from September through November.
There are a lot of typos and mistakes. The final two paragraphs of Chapter 6 are a rambling mess. Chapters 6 and 7 both have the subtext of "1946 to Present" which made it seem like the two chapters should have been combined. I was surprised she never linked pumpkins to magic, aside from pointing out it had been used as a vehicle (literally and figuratively) in the Cinderella fairy tale. All these things made it hard for me to take this book seriously, which is a shame because it's evident there was a lot of research behind the story. However, very little of it was hands-on research, from what I could tell. I didn't get the sense that she's ever grown a pumpkin or even carved a pumpkin, then pureed its innards and made a pie for Thanksgiving. Her work on a pumpkin farm/stand/place may have started the ball (fruit) rolling, but it didn't take her very far.
Again, I think with some more editing and some focus, this would be much more interesting and a lot less confusing. But in the state in which it was published, it was not worth the time it takes to read.