24 September 2009

History Under A Harvest Moon

Posted by guest blogger, Laura

Though only a few days into autumn, already the air has cooled and farms around the country are preparing for the Harvest.

When I lived in the Garden State, harvest season was the highlight of the year. The last tomatoes are brought to the farm stands, the corn finishes ripening, and the bright pumpkins swell in the fields.

The Harvest, Robert Zund (1827 - 1909)

Few people ever consider the historical circumstances that allow us to enjoy these fruits and vegetables around the world today. Most people know that Amerindians cultivated corn (maize) for thousands of years, and introduced it to the Europeans who arrived on America's shores in the 15th century. However, corn wasn't the only "New World" vegetable to impact Europe.

For instance, though tomatoes are today considered an integral part of Italian sauces, the British and North American British colonists refused to eat tomatoes for years because they erroneously believed them to be poisonous (only the leaves are toxic). Anyone who has been hiking or enjoys the outdoors probably has heard that brightly colored berries are typically bad to eat. The vibrant fruit of the tomato made some Europeans nervous, so when Spanish explorers brought back seeds from Tenochtitlan around 1519, the British only cultivated them as decorative plants. Obviously since the Spanish had seen the Amerindians eat the tomato with no ill effects, the fruit caught on quickly in Spain, with Italy following closely behind. The myth of the poisonous tomato persisted among the British and Americans until less than 200 years ago.

Ripening Tomatoes 4, Cindy Revell (Contemporary)

Were you aware that the Irish didn't farm potatoes until recently? Native to Peru, the potato is first mentioned by Spaniard Pedro de Cieza de Leon in 1540, when he writes that the native peoples have, in addition to maize, another "plant that supports a great part of their existence: the potatoes...." After making its way around Europe, Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618) first brought the potato to Ireland when he planted them at his estate near Cork. The new crop gained so much in popularity that "cooking any food other than a potato had become a lost art. Women hardly boiled anything but potatoes" [Woodham-Smith, The Great Hunger: Ireland, 1962]. This dependence on the potato directly lead to the starvation of millions when the blight destroyed nearly all the potatoes in Ireland.

Gathering Potatoes, Jules Bastien-Lapage (1848 - 1884)

Perhaps the crop most associated with autumn is the pumpkin. We make pies and soups from it, roast the seeds, and even fry the blossoms. While pumpkins today are grown on every continent save Antarctica, they are believed to have been first cultivated in Mexico thousands of years ago. In addition to using pumpkins as food, Amerindians would pound the tough rind into strips and weave it into mats. Colonists first created the pie when they hollowed out a pumpkin and filled the inside with milk, honey and spices, then set the squash in the fire to cook.

Gathering Pumpkings: An October Scene in New England, ca. 1860

In the spirit of harvest, I'd like to share my very simple pumpkin soup recipe that I enjoy making with fresh pumpkin, then serving in the shell.

3 tbsp. butter
2 cups cubed fresh pumpkin
1 tsp. salt
1 tbsp. sugar
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1/4 tsp. ground pepper
3 cups chicken broth
1/2 cup fat free half and half.

I cook the pumpkin in a pan (to soften it), then place all the ingredients in a blender (I'm sure a food processor works as well). I then return it to the pan to continue simmering for about 20 minutes. Some people pour the soup back into the pumpkin and bake for a little while - it keeps the soup warm.

I'd like to thank the lovely Stephanie and "Ninja-hot" Mark for graciously allowing me to sully their otherwise excellent and informative blog. When not annoying my friends or searching for decent beer, I write drivel over at The Angry Historian.


Mark Lee said...

I am so making this soup tomorrow. My son and I were shopping yesterday and I bought a pumpkin. I had no idea what I was going to do with it. You've save me having to actually research something myself.

Also: I love this "harvest time," and your long look at the sources of a few traditional American foods. I hope this is the first of many blog postings from you.

Laura, the Hungry said...

I am so happy that there is finally one comment. :D

Let me know what you think of your pumpkin soup. There are several other recipes out there that suggest adding bacon, mussels, or apples for a different taste.

Jen said...

So interesting Laura! I had no idea! :) And thanks for sharing the recipe- wishing I would have had that for dinner instead of pizza. lol ;)

Stephanie said...

Laura, you have elevated our blog to a new level with your historical expertise. I really enjoyed reading this, especially since this is my favorite time of year for cooking. I love the east coast for all of its greens and squashes and roots during the harvest months.

Here's a fun fact I heard the other day: Did you know that "winter squash" actually grows during the summer but is called winter squash because it stores so well throughout the winter months? I didn't know that.

Hey, have you heard of The Food of a Younger Land by Mark Kurlansky? You would love it! I'm reading it now. It's a culinary journey through early America and chronicles the eating habits of pre-industrial local people in every region of the country. So fun! There are recipes too like "Georgia oyster roast," "Kentucky spoon bread," and "Nebraska lamb and pig fries." Oh, the good 'ol days...

Laura, the No-Longer-Hungry said...

Thanks, Jen, for the kind words.

Steph - elevated? lol. I wish.
I didn't know why they were called winter squash. I will definitely sleep better at night now that I know this.
I'm about to google-book-search the book you suggested.

Stephanie said...

I'll send you a copy.