Pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving always reminds me that I have a strange birthright.
I come from an odd little mountain town in Pennsylvania, populated mostly by people whose ancestors came over from Germany or Ireland and then never went anywhere else ever again, unless it was down to Harrisburg for the Farm Show.
The town is located in a beautiful little valley with good farmland and tiny roads. For hundreds of years, there was no reason to leave. Respectable men didn't go traipsing off to Harrisburg when there were plenty of nice, well-raised goats to look at here at home. Disneyland? Bah. We had Hershey Park. There was no need for shopping malls or museums; we had the Amish market in Belleville (like the best of both, but with more chickens).
Furthermore, if you did try to leave, you had to squeeze through a tiny two lane pass called "The Narrows" (pronounced, "Tha Narrahs"), a region that boasted some of the best hunting, fishing and foraging in the world. It was a simple matter to bump off a corn-fed whitetail deer, fish up a string of bass or bluegills, scrounge up wild raspberries or teaberry, and wind up with a roaring, head-to-toe case of poison ivy. As a result, most attempts to leave were sidetracked by the sight of free-roaming edibles, flaunting themselves tastily along the side of the road. Once you reached out your car window and snagged one, you had to turn around to take it home and put it in the refrigerator (or, in the case of out-of-season deer, chop it up quickly and hide the remains in the freezers of several of your neighbors, usually in white paper wrapped packages labeled "ground chuck"). Then you had to take to bed for several days, covered in oatmeal poultices and calamine lotion until the swelling from the poison ivy rash went down enough that your mouth could open and you could be identified by your dental records. By the time you could wear clothes again, the need for the trip out of the valley was usually either snowed in, closed, dead, or had married someone else.
But even that was okay. Who needed to go out of town to go spouse-shopping? Almost everyone had a cousin they could marry, or maybe an illegitimate half-sibling who was not publicly acknowledged to be a relation. And no hussy picked up at the Harrisburg Farm Show could compete with a good local gal. With a home town honey, you wouldn't have to get to know a new set of in-laws (chances are they were already relatives), you wouldn't have to train a green hand to have an oatmeal compress ready when you came back from fishing, and she would already know how to make a proper pumpkin pie.
Everyone back home knew you didn't use Jack-O-Lantern pumpkins to make pie, any more than you'd put vinaigrette on a pine tree and serve it up as a salad. Eating Jack-O-Lantern pumpkins was just another sign of the moral decay of society. Put enough sugar and nutmeg on anything, and Americans will happily fatten themselves on it. Every autumn, the grocery stores back home would set out a bin of mammoth, creamy orange, u-shaped beasts labeled, "Eating Pumpkins", strictly for making into pies.
Eatin' pumpkins, sow pumpkins, goose-neck pumpkins. Whatever you called them, everyone knew what they were. But upon moving to California, my mother and I found that not only do stores not carry them here, no one can identify them by those names. "Sugar or pie pumpkins?" people say when we ask. No! Those are just a better tasting variety of Jack-O-Lanterns. Only goats and Harrisburg girls eat those. "Squash," they correct us. No! Squash are the little green things you use to make bread or lure deer into your back yard. (A hunting blind is a lot more comfortable when it's you sitting in your bedroom with your rifle pointed out a slightly opened window.) "Freaks," they mutter when they think we're out of earshot, and over the years we've slowly come to agree.
Eventually, we learned to use banana squash to make our "real" pumpkin pies, but every year around this time, Mom and I comb seed catalogs and the internet, looking for an image that matches the behemoth gourds we ate in our youths. We have yet to find one, making us suspect that the townsfolk were not the only ones breeding with their own relatives generation after generation.
Oh, well. Times change. Mom married a boy from Pittsburgh (one she didn't meet at a Farm Show). When a neighbor comes to me and says, "I shot this in my back yard," I neither eat it nor put it in my freezer without asking detailed questions. And even if we're making our pies out of lawn decorations or squash, there's plenty of County Fairs nearby at which my daughter can find a good husband, once she gets a little older. On top of all that, I have never once contracted poison ivy at Disney Land.
Yep. This Thanksgiving as I looked around the table, I was struck by the fact that we're living in a different culture than the one I grew up with, and that we're eating a different obscure vegetable in our pies. But when all is said and done, I have to be grateful for the way things have worked out. Even if my husband can't make a good oatmeal compress.
Comments and pumpkin varieties to Alex.Queen@gmail.com.
This article first appeared in the November 27, 2004 issue of the Manteca (Calif.) Bulletin.