It’s October, which means it’s officially OK for Americans to go crazy about pumpkin and pumpkin-flavored stuff.
I’m fascinated by the pumpkin craze, so I searched our archives for related stories. I came across this neat 1996 All Things Considered interview about the origin of the pumpkin. The transcript is copied below. Photo: iStockphoto.
DANIEL ZWERDLING, Host: And finally, to prepare you and your loved ones for Halloween, we have called Marjorie Cuyler [sp], author of The All Around Pumpkin Book, and we’ve asked her some of the pumpkin questions that undoubtedly you have been yearning to ask.
QUESTIONER: What is the origin of the pumpkin?
MARJORIE CUYLER, Author: The prevailing theory is that the first Indians who came to the Americas brought seeds with them from Asia.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: How long ago?
MARJORIE CUYLER: Thirteen thousand B.C.
QUESTIONER: What is the oldest pumpkin ever found?
MARJORIE CUYLER: The oldest evidence is actually in the mythology, in the Eastern part of the world. There’s a creation myth in eastern Indochina that the world was created from a pumpkin, and in Africa there’s some old, old stories about the pumpkin. There’s one about the devil dying and the pumpkin being born at that moment.
QUESTIONER: Why do we carve pumpkins at Halloween?
MARJORIE CUYLER: When the Europeans came to America, they brought certain customs with them. Certainly the ancient Celts had a tradition of carving turnips as part of the celebration of Samhain, S-A-M-H-A-I-N, which is a festival they held on October 31st to mark the end of the summer.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Turnips?
MARJORIE CUYLER: And they would carve turnips because they felt that after 30- the 31st, winter would begin and spirits would walk the Earth during the darkness of winter. And if they could carry turnips with lights, candlelight inside of them, these lanterns would keep the evil spirits away from the people.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: So how did carved turnips from the- from England get to be pumpkins carved in the United States?
MARJORIE CUYLER: Well, when the Europeans came to America, the Indians were very helpful in teaching them how to grow pumpkins in mounds that were included among the corn crops. And as the settler- early American settlers began to grow pumpkins they realized that they could be used for the purpose of carrying lights inside. So they just felt that pumpkins were a more efficient vegetable than turnips or beets.
QUESTIONER: What are some great moments in pumpkin history?
MARJORIE CUYLER: On January 21st, 1950, a man named Alger Hiss was sentenced to five years in prison. Now back in the ’30s, in fact in 1938, he had been working for the State Department, and while he had that position he passed secret documents to the communists. Now the man who accused him in the ’50s, in 1950, was an ex-communist named Whittaker Chambers. And in court Mr. Chambers produced microfilm of the papers that he said Mr. Hiss had given to the Russians, and Mr. Chambers had kept the microfilm hidden in a pumpkin on his farm in Maryland. And that’s quite a famous story, and it certainly put pumpkins on the map.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Marjorie Cuyler is author of The All Around Pumpkin Book. And for this evening, that’s All Things Considered.