By Cindy Ott
At this year’s Topsfield Fair in Massachusetts, Ron Wallace broke the world record for the biggest pumpkin yet with a specimen weighing in at 2009 pounds. Photographs of Wallace next to this colossal body of orange flesh made headlines not only in the regional Boston Globe but also the nationwide Huffington Post. Yet every year in the popular press scenes of a pickup truck with its bed filled to the brim or a grown adult comfortably nestled inside a single giant pumpkin document the variety’s comically huge size.
While the giant pumpkin looks like a wonder of nature, it is just as much a product of history and culture, that is, as much an idea as a plant type. Americans have a great passion for agrarian life and a desire to perpetuate a rural identity, however fanciful that may be. Giant pumpkins are made up of not only plant DNA but also cultural values relating to a belief in the goodness of nature and in agrarian virtues.
If the appeals of gardening and the grand size were the only factors that motivated these growers, then a giant squash, which is botanically identical to the pumpkin, should be just as popular, but it is decidedly not. The World Pumpkin Confederation, an organization devoted to the sport of giant pumpkin growing, has a rule that for an entry to be considered a pumpkin, “the fruit must be 80% orange.” It categorizes the rest as squash. Most squash are barred from pumpkin competitions, even though it is essentially the same vegetable. Those competitions that make no distinctions between the two types are disqualified from joining in the major weigh-offs. There is no difference between a pumpkin’s and a squash’s genetics, cultivation, nurturing, and weight — only in the attitudes toward them. Squash compete in weight and girth but not in meaning.
To understand why a pumpkin means something different from a squash requires interconnecting the crops’ physical traits, market status, and uses. For hundreds of years, no one made such distinctions. People on both sides of the Atlantic thought about and used them interchangeably. Colonists considered pumpkin and squash food for desperate times and a symbol of a primitive way of life and of nature’s bounty. They derived their attitudes from the plant’s prolific and unwieldy nature and from its origins in the Americas, which many Europeans conceived as a vast wilderness. With increasing prosperity and a greater number and variety of crops available, Americans became more discriminating about what they ate in the early nineteenth century. Squash were the types they continued to eat at the table. The orange field pumpkin was the type they deemed least desirable because of its stringy innards and bland flesh, though some farmers kept them in production as cheap supplement for livestock fodder because they were so prolific and easy to propagate. Most varieties of winter and summer squash lost their vibrancy as a symbol of nature and a primitive way of life because they were so much a part of the modern world, appearing in markets and dinner plates on a regular basis.
Because the orange field pumpkin was divorced from antebellum America’s expanding marketplace and associated with an old-fashioned subsistence farm economy, it remained a powerful object to talk about nature and a rustic way of life, symbolism long associated with all forms of squash. The orange field pumpkin became the pumpkin only partially because of its natural attributes. It also became the pumpkin because of people’s ideas about it. Americans linked the orange pumpkin’s physical qualities, its economic standing, and its uses, to construct an image of a rural way of life that was the basis for popular views of the nation’s history and identity founded that still resonate today.
These historic themes live on among giant pumpkin growers who conceive of the pastime as a morally and physically uplifting pursuit. Pumpkins — historically the most common and least commodified field crop — give great symbolic weight to the growers’ endeavors, not to mention the simple pride in their ability to produce such physical tonnage. By propagating giant pumpkins, generations of growers like Ron Wallace have not only perpetuate a botanical species but also kept a sense of American agrarian identity alive.
Cindy Ott is Assistant Professor of American Studies at St. Louis University and the author of Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon. This post is excerpted and updated from Cindy Ott’s “Object Analysis of the Giant Pumpkin” in Environmental History (15 (4) 2010).
Environmental History is the leading journal in the world for scholars, scientists, and practitioners who are interested in following the development of this exciting field. EH is a quarterly, interdisciplinary journal that carries international articles that portray human interactions with the natural world over time.