Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

Smashing good pumpkins

From buffoonery to horror, pumpkins rise again... and again



Golden orange pumpkins carved into grinning grimaces and their golden orange glow will be lighting up many a misty front porch this fright-filled night. And although it's hard to imagine, we have a jilted lover to thank, at least in part, for the fantastic Jack-o and Jacqueline lanterns at the heart of Halloween fun.

No denying pumpkins have long been essential to Thanksgiving and harvest iconography — shorthand that to "our festive fall fables" — as well as our festive fall tables. But it's in Washington Irving's classic American tale, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, where we witness the mighty pumpkin crossing over, so to speak, into the land of horror.

Cindy Ott brings us this insight in her intriguing book, Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon, for this big orange vegetable was once a symbol of social and class distinction, and the incumbent comedy based on status reversal.

Pumpkins once symbolized the stupidity of country bumpkins and, of more feminist concern, the containment for women. (Recall the nursery rhyme about Peter the Pumpkin Eater, and that's not the only application). The pumpkin later became a symbol of gluttony and buffoonery in general — in plays, editorial cartoons, book illustrations, you name it, the pumpkin equalled "numbskull."

And so it was, writes Ott, that Irving used the pumpkin in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow to represent the rusticity of New York's rural Hudson River valley as well as the buffoonery of the tale's main character, Ichabod Crane. A lanky, somewhat foolish schoolteacher prone to superstition, Ichabod reads too many scary ghost stories, including the legend of the horseman who lost his head during the American Revolution.

Then late one night when he's returning home along an isolated country road, Ichabod is chased by what seems like the Headless Horseman, who tosses a head-like object at him. Poor Ichabod is frightened to death, or at least to the point where he runs off, never to be seen again.

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