Friday, October 31, 2014

A Pumpkin-Spice-Flavored Book Review

I've designed this book review to be a special scratch-and-sniff product compatible with most computer screens and mobile devices.  Simply scrape your fingernail over the following word to enjoy an extra-sensory reading experience:


Didn't work?  Hmmm....I'll have to go back in and tinker with the HTML code, I guess.

In the meantime, please enjoy today's blog post while sipping your Extreme Pumpkin Pizazz Latte from Starbucks and eating your Choco-Pump Flakes (sprinkled with Nutmeg Sugar) from Kellogg's.  Perhaps you are also burning your Autumn Harvest Pumpkin Pie candle from The Wick Barn and wearing those "once-a-year" orange slippers your aunt gave you four birthdays ago.  I'm assuming that you're already listening to Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness by The Smashing Pumpkins as you read this.

Each year at this time, the P-word is as unavoidable and inevitable as Christmas decorations in August.  You'd think the whole world was bathed in orange and dusted with cinnamon spice.

I myself am not immune to the seduction of the squash.  This year, I even managed to gear my reading schedule around pumpkin-flavored books like Agatha Christie's Hallowe'en Party, a book about the making of It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, and, returning to a favorite from last year, the definitive Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon by Cindy Ott.  Heck, I even began a short-story collection by Joyce Carol Oates (Sourland) all because it began with a story called "Pumpkin-Head."  I stopped myself before I started reading A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.  I mean, there's the Christmas reading list to start thinking about, right?

Let's begin with Ott's "curious history," which is a terrific stem-to-seed overview of our orange crush on what's been called the "national vegetable" (better luck next time, Mr. Broccoli).  Ott primarily (though not exclusively) looks at the pumpkin's American history, including the first Thanksgiving dinner, which almost certainly did not finish with wedges of golden-brown pumpkin pie.  "No one mentioned dining on pumpkin at the feast that day in Plymouth--not a word about it," she writes.  Squash--which, by the way, is loaded with Vitamin A--was a sacred part of early Native American life; the Iroquois even held an annual feast of squash.  "American Indians introduced the pumpkin to European explorers and colonists, who regarded it with the same mix of wonder and disdain with which they viewed must of North America," Ott adds.

Apart from Native American reverence, the poor pumpkin wasn't very popular back in the day.  Artists frequently used "pompions" in their paintings to signify idiocy (hence, the term "pumpkinhead") or lasciviousness ("immoderate lust").  "People on both sides of the Atlantic identified the pumpkin with crude and unruly behavior and with unchecked human desires," Ott notes.  Worse yet, the early American settlers discovered that pumpkins were not exactly a cash crop: "The vegetable's value lay in the kitchen cellar, not in the marketplace.  Americans raised pumpkins primarily to feed their families rather than to garner wealth."  By the end of the 19th century, pumpkins were bringing in about $2.50 a ton on the market (that's about a tenth-of-a-cent for those of you trying to do the math).  The agricultural journal The Horticulturalist wrote in 1870: "We could wish that we had seen the last of them...It is about time that pumpkins were retired from service and entered upon the fossil list."  Wow, harsh words, indeed.  That guy must have been a real pumpkinhead.

Today, of course, pumpkin farming is big business--as in BIG business.  There's a robust competition to grow the biggest pumpkin known to tip a county fair's scales--you know, the kind that give pick-up trucks flat tires when they're loaded into the back.  "Some growers bid for seeds at online auctions," Ott writes, "paying up to $1,600 for a single top-quality seed from a 'stud pumpkin,' as the heaviest, better-pedigreed pumpkins are known."  (Fun fact: in 2007, Illinois was the number-one pumpkin producer, with 13,679 acres and nearly 219,000 tons of pumpkins harvested that year.)

Ott does an excellent job of making our mouths water with descriptions of dishes like "pumpkin pudding" and roasted pumpkins.  Colonial versions of "Thanksgiving pie" went something like this: "bear's meat, dried pumpkin, and maple sugar in a cornmeal crust."  By the early 19th century, however, what we now know as pumpkin pie was making a regular appearance on the dessert table--particularly in late November.  "The thought of keeping Thanksgiving without a pumpkin pie," wrote a correspondent to American Farmer in 1833, "is surely almost insupportable."

Ott also excels at taking us on a tour through the pumpkin's role in popular literature, from Cinderella to "Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater," all the way to Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
     About the time of the publication of Sleepy Hollow, the pumpkin first appeared in its incarnation as a jack-o’-lantern, although Halloween was not yet a part of Americans’ regular holiday calendar. The jack-o’-lantern as a folk character originated in Ireland as a trickster forced to wander the netherworld after being banned from both heaven and hell for his ornery behavior. He had nothing to do with the pumpkin at all. Americans may have merged the Irish jack-o’-lantern with legends about supernatural pumpkins, but another source lay closer to home.
     In North America, “jack-o’-lantern” (or jack-ma-lantern among African Americans in the South) was another name for the will-o’-the-wisp—an unsettling and inexplicable light emanating from a darkened forest or dense swamp. A newspaper account published in October 1830 offers a good description: “Two gentlemen saw a globe of light or fire apparently twenty feet above the ground. The light resembled a large lamp, was in constant motion, slowly traveling on a light breeze…This is the first ‘Will with a Whisp,’ or Jack o’ Lantern, of which we have had any credible information for many years.” Jack-o’-lantern personified the unknown, bewildering forces that seemingly occupied wild places. For some, it was not simply a spook. Like St. Pompion, it might lead people astray or lure them with its evil ways. “If the victim had an irresistible urge to follow the Jack-O’-Lantern,” explained one source, “it would be overcome only by ‘flinging [himself] down, shutting [his] eyes, holding [his] breath, and plugging up [his ears].’”
     By having a ghost hurl a pumpkin from the dark and sinister woods, Irving combined the pumpkin and the jack-o’-lantern legends, but the pumpkin in his story was not carved into a grinning jack-o’-lantern. One of the earliest examples of the pumpkin as jack-o’-lantern is an 1846 newspaper account called “The Jack o’Lantern,” about a young boy taking a pumpkin that a farmer did not “make any use of” and carving in it “the outline of three faces, with their eyes, and noses, and teeth.”
I've only just skimmed the surface of all the good stuff you'll find inside Ott's Pumpkin.  I highly recommend it as a book to get you fully in the mood for the season (though its pages hold up nicely at any time of year).

*     *     *

Speaking of getting into the spirit of the season, few things do it for me as well as the annual watching of It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.  It's all there: the pulled-away football, the World War I flying ace, Pigpen's "off-white" ghost costume, and the long vigil in the pumpkin patch.  I can almost taste those dog-lips on my apple...

As he did in his book about the Charlie Brown Christmas special, Peanuts executive producer Lee Mendelson here takes us behind the scenes in It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown: The Making of a Television Classic.  In addition to the script and the music score, Mendelson includes sections on the young voice actors, the animation by Bill Melendez, and an endearing account of his decades-long friendship with Charles M. Schulz, aka "Sparky."
We were just good friends. There are only half a dozen pictures of the three of us [including Melendez] over four decades. We simply never bothered. We were having too much fun to pose for cameras.
The concept for It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown originated during a brainstorming session between creator, animator and producer shortly after the huge success of A Charlie Brown Christmas.  The television studio "suits" wanted another "guaranteed blockbuster," Mendelson tells us: "Now that we had agreed we would do the show, we needed to come up with the idea--and fast.  We were all kind of blankly staring at nothing in particular."

Mendelson, Schulz and Melendez started throwing ideas onto the table: "What about something involving all the unrequited love between Sally and Linus...?"  "How about doing something with those strips you started a few months ago...the one with Snoopy as a WWI Flying Ace?"  And then comes this exchange:
     Sparky:  When do they want this show?
     Lee:  Sometime between October and February.  Just as long as it's a blockbuster.  Ha, ha.
     Sparky:  Do you think they would go for a Halloween show?
     Lee:  I don't know.  I don't think there's ever been an animated Halloween show.  Do you want me to call them and see?
     I called the network and asked them if we could do a Halloween show.
     Network Exec:  It's up to you guys.  Just be sure it's a block--
     Lee:  (interrupting)  I'll call you back later.
     I hung up the phone before he could get in another word.
     Lee: He says it's up to us.
     Sparky:  So why don't we do something with Linus and the Great Pumpkin?
     Bill and I both jumped up and said: Yes!!!!  That's it!!!
     It was one of those moments when you know something important, creatively, has transpired.

And that, boys and girls, is how a cultural icon is born: just by tossing a few ideas against the wall and seeing if they'll stick.  There may come a day when The Great Pumpkin goes out of fashion and those simply-drawn, jazzy-scored kids start to lose their appeal.  But I don't think that's happened yet.  Every year, you'll find the faithful sitting in a pumpkin patch waiting for the appearance of a great television show.

*     *     *

In closing, I'll turn to a slightly more devious version of Halloween (though still tame by Rob Zombie standards).  Agatha Christie's Hallowe'en Party begins with the ill-fated titular gathering of children, chaperoned by the usual roster of adults with secrets behind their mask-like faces.  By the end of the second chapter, a girl has been drowned in a tub of water where earlier the children had been bobbing for apples, the small village of Woodleigh Common is in an uproar over perverted serial killers who prey on the young and innocent, and Hercule Poirot has been called in by his friend and mystery writer Ariadne Oliver (a thinly-costumed Agatha Christie) to investigate what looks like murder.  The stage is set, let the questions and prevaricating answers begin...

As with every Agatha Christie mystery, I read every sentence with scrutiny, searched every wayward gesture and tossed-away line of dialogue for clues....and, as with every Agatha Christie mystery, I was left completely stumped and baffled right up to the very end.  Hallowe'en Party, published late in Christie's career in 1969, shows no sign of the author losing her touch.  If anything, she's at her typical best here, with a conclusion that's more suspenseful than most of her books I can recall.  It helps to make it a scene of child endangerment, I suppose; but even so, Christie tightens the screws in the final pages.

The first scene, by contrast, is full of merriment and decorated with pumpkins (Great ones and little ones alike) as Ariadne and the other adults bustle about the house making party preparations (little do they know, it's about to become the scene of the murder).  Here's how the book begins:
     Mrs. Ariadne Oliver had gone with the friend with whom she was staying, Judith Butler, to help with the preparations for a children’s party which was to take place that same evening.
     At the moment it was a scene of chaotic activity. Energetic women came in and out of doors moving chairs, small tables, flower vases, and carrying large quantities of yellow pumpkins which they disposed strategically in selected spots.
     It was to be a Hallowe’en party for invited guests of an age group between ten and seventeen years old.
     Mrs. Oliver, removing herself from the main group, leant against a vacant background of wall and held up a large yellow pumpkin, looking at it critically—“The last time I saw one of these,” she said, sweeping back her grey hair from her prominent forehead, “was in the United States last year—hundreds of them. All over the house. I’ve never seen so many pumpkins. As a matter of fact,” she added thoughtfully, “I’ve never really known the difference between a pumpkin and a vegetable marrow. What’s this one?”
I'm sure Cindy Ott could tell her.  Or perhaps even Linus.

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