Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Myth of the Pumpkin

With the trending demand for locally-grown produce, we often hear of "artificial" fruits and vegetables—produce that was grown with hormones, pesticides, selective breeding, or some other invention of the agriculture industry. And we sniff our noses in disdain. 

We tell ourselves that we would never dirty our mouths with volleyball-sized tomatos—or, heaven forbid, something as unnatural as a "Grapple™." We scorn the bagged lettuce, the orange-in-the-plastic-mesh. We wag our fingers at those rascally agricultural companies and their monster-sized farms, and proudly we tote our reusable grocery bags to the local farmers' market. Then we each take a sip of our Pumpkin Spice Lattes™, and in doing so we indulge in the same filthy lie that we publicly denounce!

Yes, my friends, the pumpkin is a lie.

A big, fat liar.
My US Size 10 shoe, for comparison.

First of all, most of our so-called "pumpkin-flavored" treats contain no actual pumpkin; but that's a different problem altogether.

The greater deception, much less well-known, is that the pumpkin itself is a man-made invention. The only "wild pumpkins" are Cucurbita feotidissima, or the "most fetid gourd," a stringy and foul-smelling gourd native to the Southwestern US and Mexico. Actual pumpkins are a cultivated variety of Cucurbita pepo and Cucurbita moschata. In other words, they're gourds that have been selectively bred to be orange and round; any distinction between "pumpkin" and "gourd" is totally arbitrary. 

The only difference, really, is that these basketball-gourds can't survive without human care. They require far too much water, and they're much too vulnerable to certain hostile elements. They're like Henry David Thoreau; they make a show of being "real" fruits that can survive on their own, but they still need someone to bring them a sandwich—er, plant food—on the weekends.

Now, to clarify, I don't object to the cultivation of certain traits in plants. That's simply agriculture. If we don't grow produce to meet our needs, why grow it at all?

What worries me, though, is how far removes we are from our food. This is another trending topic, yes, but the usual argument is: "We don't know where this meat came from." More troubling to me is the following thought: "We don't know what this fruit is, even though it's an integral part of our seasonal culture."

Our schools teach students about xylem and phloem, and angiosperms and gymnosperms, and cells and chloroplasts—but they don't say a peep about the plants that comprise large parts of our daily lives. History and biology are so segregated that to teach the natural history of a plant is unthinkable. Such esoteric, detail-oriented stuff is better left to colleges of agriculture, they say. But I would argue that knowledge of one's surroundings has an intrinsic value. Even if a person isn't going to cultivate gourds for a living, s/he ought to know about the world in which s/he lives. 

Otherwise, if we're living in ignorance of the natural forces that power our society, who is to stop the big agricultural companies (which we oppose so fervently, right?) from fooling us in an even bigger way?

If we can't recognize that pumpkins are not relatives of gourds, but are gourds themselves, what is to stop some company from passing an engineered fruit as a real one? Not an obviously-fake "Grapple," but, say, an "American Apple Squash." They'll introduce it gradually, subtly—and before long, we'll be eating "apple squash pie" alongside pumpkin pie as a national favorite? It's a matter of control, and it seems to me that natural history is our best defense.

1 comment:

  1. Very good, Joey! Your views on Curcubits have reminded me - why do we carve pumpkins? It's a very new-world thing. Turnips, now that's old school. This year I hope to see at least one turnip jack o'lantern gracing the steps of Old Morrison!

    Your points about attitudes concerning "where plants come from" have potentially inspired a class topic. I'll see how it comes together!

    Also - "most fetid gourd". Great name.