Tuesday, October 20, 2015

When Pumpkins Ruled the World

In his book The Botany of Desire, author Michael Pollan makes a startling assertion: that we humans are not the masters of our universe. Not only does he forward the classical Darwinian thesis--that we are one among many, and all of us subject to the same forces (evolution, gravity, Google)--but that we are in many cases dupes of nature. The example he gives is grass. We think we are the ones wrangling the grass into neat squares with our mowers and weed control. But what we are really doing is beating back the forest, which is the enemy of the grass. The grass has convinced us that seeding it and mowing it and watering it is culturally important. And if you don’t believe that grass has us under its control, consider that the largest member of the grass family is corn, and that the United States has more acres planted for corn than any other crop. It sweetens our food, powers our vehicles, fattens our livestock, and sometimes we even eat it. But corn faces new competition from a fruit that is poised to take over the world: pumpkins.
Pumpkins are winter squash and they seem benign and vaguely artful as they lie arrayed in a crisp September pumpkin patch, exuding orange coolness. But they have totalitarian goals in mind. Pumpkins were cute when they allowed us to carve silly images on them, and could only be found otherwise in cans. Now their presence is relentless, and pumpkin season begins in September and runs all the way through Christmas, where pumpkins are trying to insinuate their way into our hard-won secular mythology by claiming a place on Santa’s sleigh.
Pumpkin is no longer just a canned fruit. It’s found in bread, cookies, pies, mousses, succotash, chili, soup, salsa, gnocchi, ravioli, waffles, pancakes, curry, chowder, butter, biscuits, fries, facial rubs, body scrubs, beer, cider, and oils. Pumpkins can be used as jack-o-lanterns, of course, but they can also be used as bowls and doorstops, and delinquent teens appreciate them for their ability to explode on pavement when dropped from a great height. If that’s not utilitarian, what is?
And all of this utility has resulted in a cultural shift in this country that produces endless pumpkin festivals. There’s the Pumpkintown USA festival in East Hampton, Connecticut, the Jack-o-Lantern spectacular in Providence, Rhode Island, the Damariscotta Pumpkinfest & Regatta in Damariscotta, Maine, and the Keene Pumpkin Festival, which moved to Laconia, New Hampshire after college students, tripping from ingesting too many pumpkin products, rioted.
The pumpkin meme has invaded our culture, too: It can be traced back to Washington Irving and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, where the image of a shattered pumpkin was associated with the Headless Horseman; Linus van Pelt (appropriately a Knickerbocker himself), the schizophrenic philosophy king of Peanuts fame, hallucinates a gourd in It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown; the students of Hogwarts played their own version of beer pong with pumpkin juice; and one of my favorite new wave bands of all time, XTC, penned the glorious "Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead," which is laced with themes of service, sacrifice, and redemption, all traceable to a pumpkin zeitgeist.
And we haven’t yet discussed the clearest sign that the Apocalypse is upon us: pumpkin chucking (also known as punkin chunkin, or punk chunk, or just PC). While pumpkins may not be the nutritional champions of the planet, who came up with the idea of launching food as a sport? And why pumpkins? Why not ears of corn, which could be rifled and fired with accuracy? Using a variety of medieval devises such as trebuchets, catapults, and slingshots, contestants send the orange fruit screeching into clear autumn skies. The world record is nearly a mile.
If you’re not convinced that pumpkins are actively seeking world domination, you’re not paying attention. The proliferation of pumpkins is the biggest threat to our Constitution, to religious liberty, and to the craft beer industry. The sad news is that it’s probably too late to do anything. Any day now we’ll be pulling up to gas stations and pumping pumpkin-diesel into our coal-dust spewing Volkswagen TDIs. Thanks, Obama.