Monthly Archives: November 2019

Wednesday Weed – Pumpkin

Pumpkin (Curcubita pepo)

Dear Readers, on the days after Halloween the streets of East Finchley are strewn with sad pumpkins. They have had their moment of glory, illuminated as they were with tea-lights or candles, and now they are just waiting to be thrown into the garbage or popped into the compost bin. With any luck, their innards will have been turned into soup or pie-filling, and in some inventive households even the seeds will have been roasted. Sadly, the edible parts of most carved pumpkins end up in the bin. At least they will rot down in landfill, unlike the many plastic skeletons and skeins of artificial cobwebs that adorn every tenth hedge in these parts. If I sound  a little curmudgeonly, it may be because it seems like every celebration these days is a reason for buying tat, and having cleared out Mum and Dad’s bungalow this year, I know how much of it ends up in landfill, for all our best intentions.

Pumpkins as a Halloween tradition are a relatively new thing  in the UK: in some parts of the country, turnips and mangoldwurzels were used to make lanterns for Halloween, but the whole caboodle of trick or treating, dressing up as a werewolf and eating bucketloads of chocolate has gradually developed over the past few decades. Pumpkins are originally from North America, and are a symbol of harvest time and Thanksgiving: this might explain why there are so many recipes for pumpkin pie, pumpkin stuffing and a thousand other pumpkin-based foodstuffs on US and Canadian cookery websites. When Starbucks starts selling its ‘pumpkin spice latte’ it’s time to start thinking about buying Christmas cards, though I was relieved that a ‘pumpkin spice latte’ actually tastes of cinnamon rather than pumpkin.

Not all Halloween pumpkins are edible!

Pumpkins are members of the squash family, but their flesh is unusually rich in Vitamin A and beta-carotene, in spite of being 92% water. They are amongst the oldest domesticated plants, with fragments that are between 5,500 and 7,000 years old being found in Mexico. The pumpkin has both male and female flowers, and throughout history the plant was pollinated by the squash bee (Peponapis pruinosa). The species has especially hairy legs, an adaptation to help carry the extra-large pollen particles that the pumpkin produces, but, like so many bees, it has been affected by the broad-spectrum pesticides used in commercial agriculture. Honeybees have been used in some places to replace the native bees, although studies have shown that the squash bee is much more efficient. In other areas the plants now have to be pollinated by hand. The range of the bee exactly matches that of the native range of the pumpkin and related squash species, so the insect and the plant have evolved together over millions of years.

Squash bee (Peponapis pruinosa). Note the hairy legs! (Public Domain)

We’ve talked about recipes made from the flesh of pumpkins, but whenever I go to Obergurgl in Austria, there are desserts which feature both pumpkin seeds and a heavy, fruity green oil made from them. In particular, there is an ice-cream sundae which features ‘brittle’ made from the seeds, and a sauce featuring the oil, which is often described as coming from Styria, a region in the south-east of the country. It is surprisingly delicious, with a nutty taste. The seeds themselves are often dried and salted as a snack.

Photo One by Wolf32at - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12563418

Pumpkin seed oil (Photo One )

When I went to the RHS Autumn Show a few years ago, there was an exhibit showing various autumn vegetables. One of them was a pumpkin that was easily the size of a Mini Cooper. I thought that maybe it was a one-off, but soon discovered that the heaviest pumpkin ever grown was from Belgium, and weighed in at over two and a half thousand pounds. Giant pumpkin growers recommend horse manure, enhanced ‘green’ compost, frequent watering, and hoisting your pumpkin onto a pallet while it’s still small enough to handle. Dedicated giant pumpkin growers cosset their ‘babies’ for months at a time, refusing to take holidays during the growing season. There is also a trick to making sure that the plant doesn’t grow so quickly that it snaps its stem – if it does, it’s game over. You need a patch of ground at least 15 by 20 feet to grow your pumpkin, so let’s hope you either have a country estate or an allotment. If you’re lucky, you might get one to grow to the size of one of these beauties.

Photo Two by David.politzer - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=59736353

Giant pumpkins at a weigh-in in Ohio, 2009 (Photo Two)

One thing that you wouldn’t want to do with these giants, however, is throw them through the air. The smaller specimens seem to be fair game, however, for there is a tradition in the USA of ‘pumpkin chucking’ – firing pumpkins into the air with catapults, trebuchets or even cannons. As ‘pumpkin chucking’ is a bit of a mouthful, it is often known as ‘pumpkin chunking’, and such festivals usually take place after harvesting season. The Guinness Book of Records states that the longest ‘throw’ featured a pneumatic cannon with the dubious name of ‘Big Ten Inch’, which managed to propel an innocent pumpkin for over a mile and a half in the Moab Desert, Utah, in 2010. I only hope that no innocent person or jack rabbit was under the pumpkin as it landed – certainly no fatalities have been recorded, although a woman member of the TV production staff covering the 2016 event was hit in the head by a chunk of metal when one of the air cannons exploded. I note that insurance companies are reluctant to cover the events, for obvious reasons.  The pumpkin must be whole on leaving the throwing device for the attempt to count, and for this reason thicker-skinned varieties of the plant are preferred. This also presumably increases the risk of serious injury if you should happen to be under a flying pumpkin when it reaches the end of its journey.

All in all, I never cease to wonder at what human beings (mostly of the male variety) will get up to when left to their own devices.

Photo Three by Kevin D. Hartnell - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11982559

Pumpkin fired from a trebuchet in Ohio. You’re welcome. (Photo Three)

So, you can carve pumpkins, eat them, grow them to a ridiculous size, or fire them through the air. They also have a long tradition of medicinal use, for humans and for other animals. Pumpkin puree is said to be a good treatment for digestive upsets in dogs and cats, and raw pumpkin fed to chickens during the winter is said to prolong the egg-laying period. In humans, pumpkin was used to treat intestinal worms and urinary infections by Native American peoples, and the seeds of a closely related pumpkin species, Curcubita moschata (or butternut squash) were found to be efficacious in the treatment of tape worms in a Chinese study.

More East Finchley pumpkins

Sometimes, when I write about a particular plant, the very name of it starts to look a little odd with repetition. So it is with pumpkin. I can no longer look at the word without thinking that means a diminutive pump. Actually, the word derives from the Greek ‘pepon‘, meaning ‘large melon’, and, as is the way with these things, it evolved: in France, it became ‘pompon‘, in English ‘pompion‘, and then ‘pumpkin‘ in the US, where the word presumably became the accepted one across the Anglozone. Nowadays, most people recognise the big orange squash with the green top as a pumpkin, though in Australia the word apparently still means any winter squash. Let me know if this is true, Antipodean friends!

Photo Four By Infrogmation of New Orleans - Photo by Infrogmation, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4990747

A fine pile of pumpkins in New Orleans (Photo Four)

And finally, a poem. When I was in my early twenties, I worked for a while on a city farm in Dundee. It was my job to get up at the crack of dawn to feed the animals, and if ever I was late and hungover, the whole lot of them would start bellowing as soon as I turned the corner. I rather like this work by James Whitcomb Riley, because it brings back to me that feeling of being the only person in the world who is awake, and the peace that falls as the animals tuck into their breakfast. The farm being in Dundee there was often plenty of frost about, too. And it makes me nostalgic for those days of blackberry picking and jam making and harvest home. When we had an allotment, I remember Mum dealing with a glut of tomatoes with a glint in her eye, sleeves rolled up and apron on. ‘I should have been a frontierswoman, I’d have been good at that!’ she said. And indeed she would have.

When the Frost is on the Punkin

by James Whitcomb Riley (1849 – 1916)

When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock,
And you hear the kyouck and gobble of the struttin’ turkey-cock,
And the clackin’ of the guineys, and the cluckin’ of the hens,
And the rooster’s hallylooyer as he tiptoes on the fence;
O, it’s then’s the times a feller is a-feelin’ at his best,
With the risin’ sun to greet him from a night of peaceful rest,
As he leaves the house, bareheaded, and goes out to feed the stock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock.

They’s something kindo’ harty-like about the atmusfere
When the heat of summer’s over and the coolin’ fall is here—
Of course we miss the flowers, and the blossums on the trees,
And the mumble of the hummin’-birds and buzzin’ of the bees;
But the air’s so appetizin’; and the landscape through the haze
Of a crisp and sunny morning of the airly autumn days
Is a pictur’ that no painter has the colorin’ to mock—
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock.

The husky, rusty russel of the tossels of the corn,
And the raspin’ of the tangled leaves, as golden as the morn;
The stubble in the furries—kindo’ lonesome-like, but still
A-preachin’ sermuns to us of the barns they growed to fill;
The strawstack in the medder, and the reaper in the shed;
The hosses in theyr stalls below—the clover over-head!—
O, it sets my hart a-clickin’ like the tickin’ of a clock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock!

Then your apples all is gethered, and the ones a feller keeps
Is poured around the celler-floor in red and yeller heaps;
And your cider-makin’ ’s over, and your wimmern-folks is through
With their mince and apple-butter, and theyr souse and saussage, too! …
I don’t know how to tell it—but ef sich a thing could be
As the Angels wantin’ boardin’, and they’d call around on me—
I’d want to ’commodate ’em—all the whole-indurin’ flock—
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock!

Photo Credits

Photo One by Wolf32at – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12563418

Photo Two by David.politzer – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=59736353

Photo Three by Kevin D. Hartnell – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11982559

Photo Four By Infrogmation of New Orleans – Photo by Infrogmation, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4990747

 

 

 

 

At Halloween

Dear Readers, when I first moved to East Finchley I decided to take on Halloween as a project. I carved pumpkins. I bought bags of palm-oil free sweets. I found some  chocolate money that was so convincing that one small boy broke down in tears when he discovered it wasn’t real. Nothing really prepared me for the onslaught, though. In year one, I had to run to the greengrocers twice to stock up on supplies because so many children had visited. In year two, I thought I was prepared but gave up counting after 45 separate groups had rung the doorbell. By this stage I was sitting on a chair in the hall because I didn’t have time to get to the sofa before there was another party of witches or warlocks at the door.

But this year I am battening down the hatches. It’s not that I’ve turned into a grinch, but after the year that I’ve had, I feel a much closer connection with Samhain, the night when the veil that separates our world from that of our beloved dead is at its thinnest. In some traditions, people set places at the table for those who have gone, and this feels so right to me that I might even do it. At the very least, I want to make some time for contemplation and remembrance. As the sun sets, I spend some time just watching the garden.

The pace of the year has speeded up perceptibly. We are regularly visited by a young squirrel who is much less skittish than usual, though no less acrobatic.

The starlings fly in in huge numbers – when I arrive home after work, I sometimes see a couple of dozen sitting on the television aerials, whistling and chattering to one another, and no doubt complaining that the feeders are empty.

Some chaffinches have appeared, and some goldfinches, though whether they are local birds or Scandinavian visitors I have no idea. I love the mothy fluttering of the chaffinches, and the dapper black and white wing patterns on the goldfinches.

Chaffinch

Goldfinches

Mum loved birds. The last time that she visited me at Christmas, a great-spotted woodpecker turned up, and I tried to help her to see it through the binoculars. Her whole body swayed backwards and forwards as she tried to focus – she had peripheral neuropathy in her feet, which meant that she found balance difficult. To this day I’m not sure if she saw the bird or not, though she said that she had.  But then Mum was like that, never wanting to be a nuisance or to take up too much of somebody else’s time.

I thought that I knew about grief, but I had no idea. Some days, I feel as if I am carrying a rucksack of bricks. Sometimes, I have brain fog and can look at a spreadsheet and see nothing but hieroglyphics. Last week, a lovely young woman that I’ve been working with on a project mentioned that she was looking forward to spending Christmas with her mother, and it hit me that I would never, ever sit and open Christmas presents with mum again. I would never watch her dozing in an armchair with her paper hat askew. I would never see her take a plate of blinis and smoked salmon and capers and sour cream and meticulously arrange every forkful so that it held a little bit of each.

Time moves inexorably on. The leaves turn, the chaffinches are back,  the mediocre Christmas lights are already up on East Finchley High Road, waiting for some celebrity to come along and turn them on in a few weeks. When I was at the Royal Academy this week, I noticed that the Christmas lights on Bond Street are peacock-themed this year, and for a split second I wondered how I could get Mum from my house to see them, until I remembered.

Outside the light is fading, and there’s the excited hubbub of children’s voices. Nothing that has happened to me this year is outside of the normal. Elderly parents become ill and eventually pass away. It is the natural order of things. I have a job now, and my life is becoming more my own, after all those years of worrying. On the outside, you’d think I was doing fine, and so I am, mostly. But there are days when I could smash every piece of crockery in the kitchen with a hammer. It feels as if there isn’t any act large enough or dramatic enough to encompass how I feel, and so I soldier on, putting one foot in front of the other even when I don’t care one tiny bit where the road is going.

It seems to me that grief is a strange switchback of a process, with meanders and chicanes. It is not linear or logical. I can be distraught at 11 o’clock and elated by 11.30. I know that what helps me sometimes is not the cure on another occasion. Sometimes I want to wrap myself up in a blanket and watch Masterchef. Sometimes, I want to make carrot pancakes with hummous and crunchy vegetables for dinner. Always, I want to see what the plants and animals are up to, and this is my most consistent, most reliable cure.

Last week, I was putting the rubbish out, in tears, in the dark, when I felt a shadowy movement, and there, on the wall, was the fox. He walked past me and would have wandered into the house if I hadn’t discouraged him, so he sat down, had a quick scratch, and waited. I had nothing in the house but dried cat food, so I threw him a handful, and, as I sat on the step three feet away from him, he crunched through most of it, before disappearing under the door to the garden and going on his way. Such confidence! And I’m pleased to announce that his eyes have cleared up since the photo below, taken a few weeks ago.

For once, I didn’t reach for my camera. Seeing the fox took me out of me head, and my sorrow, and plonked me back into my body, and into the here and now. It occurred to me how much Mum would have loved the fox, and I felt as if I was seeing him for her. She lives on in me, both literally in my genetic make-up but also in the things that she bequeathed: my talent with knitting needles, my love of reading and writing, my skill with a white sauce. She is there in my gestures and my turn of phrase. She is both utterly, irreparably gone, and as close to me as the shape of my eyes. And as the streetlights flicker on, I know that this loss will become woven into my life, part of a larger, continuing story. I just need to be patient, and let the grief do what it needs to do.