A Pumpkin Primer

I grew up with pumpkins. As a child I picked them myself from our neighborhood farm or from my mother’s garden. We carved jack-o’-lanterns for Halloween and had pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving dessert. While pumpkins are native to North America and are widely grown here, the popularity of “pumpkin spice” products (which typically contain no actual pumpkin) and the spread of Halloween traditions from the United States have led to pumpkins becoming more available elsewhere in the world. So, for those of you who may have encountered pumpkins for the first time in recent years and been somewhat at loss for what to do with them, here’s a short introduction from someone who grew up with them.

About pumpkins

Pumpkins are a variety of winter squash. In American English, “pumpkin” typically refers to large, orange or yellow squashes with vertical ribs. In other regions, the word applies to winter squashes more widely. Pumpkins tend to be sweeter than other varieties of winter squash, but for most cooking purposes, you can substitute one kind of winter squash for any other.

Pumpkins grow on sprawling vines on the ground. Some varieties are bred to grow larger than others, but you will usually find pumpkins sold in four sizes for three different purposes: decorative (large), carving, sugar, and decorative (small).

Decorative

Either small enough to fit in your palm or gigantic monsters, these pumpkins are just meant for autumnal decoration around the house or on your front steps. The small ones are too small to carve, while the big ones are often irregularly shaped, having slumped under their own weight while growing. Neither is particularly good for cooking, but you’re welcome to try and see what you come up with.

Carving

Early migrants from the British Isles brought their traditions of carving lanterns out of various root vegetables to their colonies on the coast of North America, where they learned to grow the native squashes from the indigenous peoples. Pumpkins soon became the favored vegetable for the fall custom.

The classic jack-o’-lantern pumpkins are about the size of your head or larger. Their flesh tends to be stringy, watery, and not very good for cooking.

To carve a jack-o’-lantern, start by setting the pumpkin on a flat surface and deciding which side will make the best face. (Pumpkins are often a little lopsided with one half larger or more rounded the other, because of how they lie on the ground while growing.) Next sketch out a face you like with a pencil, marker, or just by making shallow cuts with the tip of a knife.

When you are satisfied with the face, cut the top off in a circle large enough to get your hand in comfortably. It’s a good idea to cut a small diamond-shaped notch half into the top and half into the body of the pumpkin to help you line up the top correctly when putting it back on. Scoop out the seeds and strings from the interior with a large spoon. (Save the seeds if you want to roast them; there’s not much use for the stringy bits.) Scrape away a bit of the flesh on the bottom to make a stable base for the candle.

Carve out the face with a small, sharp knife. In accordance with the principle of “measure twice, cut once,” it’s a good idea to start cutting out the holes a little smaller than you marked them, since you can make them bigger as you go, but not smaller. Once you have all your holes cut through the wall of the pumpkin, cut back the flesh from the inside to widen the holes and allow more light through. It can also help to scrape away at the flesh on the inner surface to make it thinner. (Basically, wherever you have cut through the pumpkin should be wider on the inside than on the outside.)

Take the carved jack-o’-lantern into a darkened room and shine flashlight down through the open top to see how the light comes through and whether there are any places where you need to cut away more of the flesh to get the effect you want. When ready to display, light a tea light or other small candle and put it inside the pumpkin (on a small dish, if you want easier cleanup or worry about the candle burning down), put the top back on, and enjoy!

Once carved, a jack-o’-lantern will only be at its best for a few days, a week at most. Then, as the flesh dries, it will start to shrivel and crumple in on itself. If you want yours to look its best, carve no more than a week before Halloween (or whenever you want to display it).

Sugar

Sugar pumpkins are roughly the size of your head or a little smaller. They are grown to have the best flavor and consistency.

You can peel a raw pumpkin with a sturdy paring knife and cut the flesh into chunks to boil or steam, but I find the best way to prepare pumpkin for cooking is to roast it in halves.

Snap or cut off the stem and split a pumpkin vertically with a small sharp knife. Scoop out the seeds and strings. Save the seeds if you want to roast them. Lay the pumpkin halves cut side up in a shallow baking pan lined with foil or baking parchment. Roast at 400 F / 200 C for 30-45 minutes or until the flesh is soft and the halves no longer hold their shape. (You can also steam pumpkin by setting the halves cut side down in a baking dish with a little water in the bottom.) Let the pumpkin cool until safe to handle. The skin will peel easily away from the flesh, though you may need to cut around the split edges with the tip of a knife. Puree the flesh.

Roasting pumpkin seeds is easy. Separate the seeds from the strings, toss the seeds with a little vegetable oil and salt, spread them out in a pan, and roast them at 400 F / 200 C for about 15 minutes or until they are a nice golden brown. They make a good crunchy snack.

Once you have your roasted pumpkin, here are a couple of my favorite recipes for using it.

New England pumpkin pie

One pumpkin will yield about two pies with this recipe

Ingredients

  • 1 unbaked pie shell
  • 3 eggs
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup / 1 dl brown sugar
  • 1 cup / 2 dl milk (soy and almond substitutes work fine)
  • 1 ½ cups / 3 ½ dl roasted pumpkin
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ginger
  • ½ teaspoon nutmeg

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 475 F / 250 C.
  2. Prepare the pie shell.
  3. Beat the eggs lightly.
  4. Add the salt, brown sugar and milk and mix well.
  5. Add the pumpkin and spices and mix well.
  6. Pour the mixture into the pie shell.
  7. Bake at 475 F / 250 C for 15 minutes.
  8. Reduce heat to 325 F / 150 C and continue to bake for another 45 minutes or until the filling is well set.
  9. Let cool and serve with whipped cream, or serve warm with vanilla ice cream.

Pumpkin apple beef stew

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • A pinch of salt
  • A pinch of pepper
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 pound / ½ kilo stew beef
  • 1 onion
  • 2 potatoes
  • 4 carrots
  • 2 large apples
  • Pureed flesh of one pumpkin
  • 2 cups / 5 dl beef stock
  • 1 cup / 2 dl dark beer

Directions

  1. Blend the flour, salt and pepper in a bowl.
  2. Cut the beef into cubes and roll them in the flour mixture.
  3. Melt the butter in the bottom of a large, heavy pot and brown the beef cubes.
  4. Roughly chop the onion. Peel and roughly chop the carrots and potatoes. Core, peel, and roughly chop the apples. Add them all to the pot.
  5. Add the pumpkin, stock, and beer to the pot.
  6. Let simmer over low heat for two hours or until the beef is soft and the root vegetables thoroughly cooked through.

Happy fall!

Images: Pumpkins, photography by Infrogmation via Wikimedia. Winking Halloween pumpkin inside – 2014-10-31, photograph by Tim Evans via Flickr. Pumpkin pie, photograph by distopiandreamgirl via Flickr.

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

Advertisements

Quotes: Trail Goes Down Between Two Hills

“[T]he Pima of Central Arizona have historically embedded in their landscape the stories, histories, and lessons of their way of life and culture. Thus, the Pima, when they wish to remind someone of their past, or of a lesson they would like that person to remember, make what seem to white people abstract references to locations on their territory, such as ‘Trail Goes Down between Two Hills.’ The target of their comments, however, will know what they mean.”

– Matthew Barlow, Griffintown: Memory and Identity in an Irish Diaspora Neighbourhood, 11

Historian Matthew Barlow here cites the work of anthropologist Keith Basso on how memory can be embedded in a landscape to explain how the Irish-Catholic population of Montreal imbued the working-class neighborhood of Griffintown with meanings important to their identity as Irish-Canadians, such that even after the neighborhood was redeveloped, Irish-Montrealers could invoke generations worth of memories by reference to churches, pubs, streets, and other landmarks.

It’s a fascinating way of thinking about how we relate the landscape we live in, but, of course, the first thing I thought of was:

Image: Still from Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Darmok” via IMDb, text added by Erik Jensen

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

An Extant Map as Evidence of Native American Cartography

In the U.S., and indeed more widely in the Anglo-American world, Meriwether Lewis and William Clarke are known for their two-year expedition of the Louisiana territory (purchased from France in 1803) and the land beyond the “great rock mountains” in the west.

Less commonly remembered in cursory mentions is the extent of Lewis and Clarke’s interactions with local Native Americans. (Apart from Sacagawea, who is known at least in the U.S.) The whites didn’t just exchange gifts or talk about trade or clash with the local population; they received invaluable help and information (like when the expedition wintered with the Mandan people in present-day North Dakota).

Now it seems that western historians need to re-evaluate that extent.

According to The Jefferson Watch, cartographers have identified at least ten places in the journals of Lewis and Clarke where the captains talk about the maps by Native American hosts to help them figure out the lay of the land.

Christopher Steinke, at the time a graduate student at the University of New Mexico, found one of those maps at the archives of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) in Paris. It was drawn by Inquidanécharo, a chief of the Arikara (in French, Ricara), who was apparently also known as Too Né.

LudditeLabs on Twitter did some of the heavy lifting and linked to the BnF digital copy of the map:

BnF Gallica Inquidanecharo Map Missouri Valley

An article by Steinke is available at JSTOR, where this abstract comes from:

“The Bibliothèque nationale de France contains a hitherto unnoticed map attributed to Inquidanécharo, a Ricara chief. Lewis and Clark knew him as Too Né, an Arikara village leader who accompanied them upriver to the Mandan and Hidatsa villages in 1804. The map, which Too Né showed to playwright and artist William Dunlap when he visited Washington in 1806, is the most detailed surviving Indian representation of the Great Plains from this period. It invites scholars to reorient early American exploration and cartography from indigenous perspectives. Too Né interpreted his map as a work of history and cartography and situated the American explorers in the historical and religious landscape of the Arikara people.”

In “Here is My Country”, Steinke outlines some of the main features of Inquidanécharo’s map, and recounts some history surrounding it. He also lists a few other Native American maps from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

What most struck me, though, is that Native American maps seem to have contained more information than just geographical details—they also depicted cultural connections and ethnographical information.

I knew Native Americans used symbols and pictograms, and had to have—like people everywhere—a way of talking about and remembering locations outside their immediate surroundings. I had no idea, however, that Native American cartography was as polished or wide-reaching as it was (a hint for the Finnish school system), let alone that their maps might still be extant. Fascinating!

Found via bluecorncomics on Twitter.

This post has been edited to correct a typo.

In Live and Active Cultures we talk about cultures and cultural differences.

Possible Prehistoric Twig Toy

In an article at SAPIENS, archaeologist Stephen E. Nash discusses the difficulty of interpreting prehistoric life due to the fact that artifacts made of perishable materials are so rarely preserved to be found. It’s a quick, fascinating read, but what jumped at me was this image of a split-twig figurine that Dr. Nash shared:

Denver Museum of Nature & Science
Figurine of a deer or bighorn sheep, accession number DMNS/A1291.1, by Denver Museum of Nature & Science via SAPIENS (Dolores Cave near Gunnison, Colorado; c. 2,500 BCE; split twigs)

Found in Dolores Cave near Gunnison, Colorado, and at 4,500 years old it’s apparently the oldest and easternmost example of an artifact style found in dry cave environments across the American West. It’s unknown whether the figurine had ritualistic (or magical) uses or whether it was a child’s toy.

Regardless of what its function was, the figurine is an intriguing example of Stone Age material culture. Like Dr. Nash points out, much of the coverage of prehistoric cultures concentrates on artifacts made of nonperishable materials—stone, bone, shells, metal, or the like. It’s exhilarating to see something that could basically have been the equivalent of a twig toy horse.

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?

Space Archaeologist Discovers Potential Viking Site in Southern Newfoundland

A team of archaeologists has unearthed a potential new Viking site in Newfoundland, Canada with the help of satellites. Dr. Sarah H. Parcak, an archaeologist, space archaeologist, and Egyptologist, lead the effort to take infrared images from space to find new archaeological sites.

Newfoundland with Viking Activity
Newfoundland with Viking activity. Map by Eppu Jensen on the basis of Canada Newfoundland and Labrador relief location map by Flappiefh on Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

According to The New York Times, while searching the coastlines from Baffin Island (in the Canadian territory of Nunavut, west of Greenland) to Massachusetts, she found

“hundreds of potential ‘hot spots’ that high-resolution aerial photography narrowed to a handful and then one particularly promising candidate — ‘a dark stain’ with buried rectilinear features.

“Magnetometer readings later taken at the remote site […] showed elevated iron readings. And trenches that were then dug exposed Viking-style turf walls along with ash residue, roasted ore called bog iron and a fire-cracked boulder — signs of metallurgy not associated with native people of the region.

“In addition, radiocarbon tests dating the materials to the Norse era, and the absence of historical objects pointing to any other cultures, helped persuade scientists involved in the project and outside experts of the site’s promise.”

Point Rosee is approximately 700 km (approximately 400 miles) away from L’Anse aux Meadows, the only currently confirmed Viking site in North America. The Norsemen staying at L’Anse must have traveled further south, though, because butternuts and worked pieces of butternut wood – which are not native to Newfoundland – were found among the Norse objects at the settlement.

CBC News reports that evidence of a Norse-like hearth and 8 kilograms (approx. 16 pounds) of bog iron was found at Point Rosee during a dig in 2015. It isn’t yet known for sure whether the site was a temporary base camp or a settlement, or whether it even was associated with Vikings. If confirmed, Point Rosee would be the second known Viking site in North America.

The evidence is still clearly on the scant side. Digging at Point Rosee is to resume this summer, so maybe they’ll find more.

As a sidenote, isn’t it so cool that we now have space archaeologists?!

Gift Exchange

160111elephantGift exchange is part of festive celebrations for many people in the modern world, including many traditions whose gift-giving season has just passed. In the pre-modern world, though, gift exchange was often a vital part of social, political, and economic life.

The essential principle of gift exchange is reciprocity. Giving someone a gift obliges them to return a gift of equal value. In the modern market economy in which every item can be assigned a monetary value, this is cause for anxiety (and comedy) over gift-giving, but in earlier societies value was measured in other ways. The value of a gift often depended on the prestige of the person giving it. Since gifts were reciprocal, they created a relationship, of which the gift acted as tangible proof. The modern taboo against asking the price of a gift (“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”) attempts to reinforce this kind of value in a monetized world.

Continue reading

Serpent Mound

Serpent Mound, located in Ohio in the United States, is an enormous earthwork built on a grassy plateau above Ohio Brush Creek. It is one of many large earthworks in North America, but it is unusual in representing an image when seen from above. This image has been interpreted as a snake swallowing an egg.

151123Serpent
Serpent Mound, photograph by Eric Ewing via Wikimedia

The date of construction is uncertain, but recent research suggests that Serpent Mound was created in the last few centuries CE when the river valleys west of the central Appalachian Mountains were occupied by a people known to modern archaeologists as the Adena culture. We have no way of knowing what they called themselves. The Adena were a sophisticated culture at the center of a trade network stretching north beyond the Great Lakes south to the Gulf of Mexico. One of the distinctive features of their culture was the construction of large earthworks, many of which served funerary purposes, but may also have marked ceremonial centers or areas for gathering and trade.

Continue reading