Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater
Had a wife but couldn’t keep her
Put her in a pumpkin shell
And there he kept her very well.
Children have learned this little rhyme for generations. Hard to know what we all made of it when we were small, but the rhythms are fun and so is the image of a little housewife in her pumpkin shell.
Boston can take some credit for this rhyme. It first appeared in 1825 in a little illustrated book titled “Mother Goose’s Quarto: or Melodies Complete.” Many nursery rhymes originated in England, but the Pumpkin Eater is strictly American; pumpkins are native to our part of the world. Pumpkins were growing in Mexico for about 7000 years before they made their way to Europe.
A terrifying pumpkin figures in the 1820 New England Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving. Superstitious Ichabod Crane leaves a party where he had hoped to woo his sweetheart. On the way home he is frightened by the headless horseman carrying a flaming pumpkin in his arms. In the morning Ichabod is missing and a smashed pumpkin is found in the road.
The most beautiful pumpkin in literature is Cinderella’s amazing carriage thanks to the magic of her fairy godmother. It was French Charles Perrault who added the pumpkin to the story in 1697. However, Tuan Cheng-shi wrote and published the first version, with most of the familiar elements, around 856 A.D.
At this time of the year in New England we are surrounded by pumpkins, at farmstands, and in front of all the supermarkets. But how did we come to make jack-o-lanterns on Halloween?
I found that in the sixth century Pope Boniface IV declared May 13 All Martyrs Day. Later Pope Gregory III moved the celebration and declared November 1 as All Saint’s Day. The celebration spread to Ireland where people still celebrated the ancient Irish festival Samhain which marked the end of summer and the creeping dark of winter. Traditionally bonfires were built in the fields, and costumes worn to ward off ghosts.
When the Irish potato famine struck in the middle of the 19th century and millions of Irish emigrated to the U.S. they brought their autumnal celebration with them. Halloween was already celebrated the night before in parts of our country. but it was the Irish who made this a holiday for all. It is quite fascinating to see how traditions are created and change over time. No more field bonfires. Now we carve the pumpkins that were a staple food of the first colonists to settle in our country and set fiery pumpkin faces on our porches.
By the time you read this the Halloween celebration will be over. Bowls of candy will still be on the counter, and scary costumes will be put away for next year. However pumpkins will remain on the scene. We celebrate Thanksgiving with pumpkin pie!
Not too many pumpkins are left in the fields, but pumpkins are on sale for decoration, and for eating. Pumpkins and other squash were crucial to the survival of the first settlers in Massachusetts. It was the Wampanoags who would have taught them about pumpkins because this nutritious vegetable was unknown in Europe.
We are fortunate to live surrounded by small farms. We can get the very freshest vegetables and fruits. I often shop at the Butynski Farm Stand where there is always a big choice of fresh vegetables. Right now the farm stand is bright with rows of pumpkins in front and around the building.
This is a family farm that has been operating since the 1930s, first as a dairy farm, when Grandfather Butynski bought it. Even in the beginning vegetables were grown and a little tobacco. I got to talk to Michael and Paul Butynski about the history of the farm.
Both men grew up working on the farm. Michael said, “We sold the cows about 20 years ago. We couldn’t make money with cows any more. We already had a vegetable stand but it was more limited. Now we have all kinds of vegetables, greens, cukes, squash, beets, tomatoes, melons, just about everything. We grow everything, but not berries or potatoes. And we still sell hay.”
Paul acknowledged that the farm was a lot of work. “But it is a way of life. People don’t always understand that. It’s nice to have more leisure during the winter, but if you are just sitting around a lot that’s no fun. In December we start ordering our seeds. Lots of book work to do at the end of the year.”
Michael agreed that after working every day during vegetable season he was ready and glad to have some down time. Even so, “In the winter we have to start getting ready for summer. There is work to do. Planning. And always maintenance on the equipment, and the buildings.”
When I looked at the different pumpkins, both Michael and Paul agreed that small sugar pumpkins are the most edible pumpkins. I am going to experiment. I walked away with sugar pumpkins to use as a vegetable and in a pie. I also took home a larger pumpkin to cook. There are dozens of pumpkin soup recipes online. I’m wondering if Peter, the pumpkin eater, was fussy about which pumpkins he ate.
Between the Rows November 2, 2019