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.

05 September 2009


Milk Thistle enjoys wide human use throughout the world as therapy for livers taxed or damaged by disease, such as hepatitis, or chemical/drug exposure. Its cousin, the Musk Thistle, grows in my backyard and enjoys many of the same benefits.

Many thistles end up on "noxious weeds" lists. Such lists largely indicate that the "weeds" are simply contrary to local agricultural interests, and say little about whether or not the plants are actually useful to humans in other ways.

I hope you enjoy my time spent with the "noxious" Musk Thistle in my backyard.