October 19, 2012
It’s pumpkin season. Pumpkins are everywhere. I remember a time when the appearance of pumpkins meant only two things: jack-o-lanterns and pumpkin pie. Although technically they really only meant jack-o-lanterns, since I’ve never known anyone to make pumpkin pie from a real pumpkin, only the canned stuff. Anyway it now seems like pumpkin is being used for everything. There’s pumpkin bread, pumpkin baklava, pumpkin rolls, pumpkin ice cream, pumpkin tea, pumpkin tacos, pumpkin torte, pumpkin tubesteak, pumpkin teriyaki, pumpkin chips, pumpkin guacamole, fried pumpkin, broiled pumpkin, coconut pumpkin shrimp, and at this time of year every Chines restaurant has a pumpkin pupu platter. I personally have tried over three thousand different pumpkin beers ranging from a pint of a pleasant porter to a powerful pumpkin piña colada. Anyone wondering why there’s an obesity epidemic could be forgiven for thinking our fall diet is producing a population of pumpkins.
Still the pumpkin deserves props. It’s featured in numerous fairy tales and nursery rhymes from Cinderella to Peter, Peter, Pumpkin eater. Well, okay, those are the only fairy tales and nursery rhymes where the pumpkin plays a part, but it’s a poignant performance. And there are pumpkin patches, there’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, and there are farmers who produce everything from petite pumpkins a mere fraction of a pound to monsters that are practically the size of pachyderms. There are pumpkin harvests and pumpkin festivals, and every year in Delaware there’s the Punkin Chunkin’, an event where pumpkins are propelled through the air. And of course there are still jack-o-lanterns everywhere. After Halloween was over I loved to take the top off my jack-o-lantern and smell the candle-roasted pumpkin flesh. And I still find the story behind them fascinating. According to various sources jack-o-lanterns originated as a Scottish tradition of children carrying candles in hollowed-out turnips. And if you’ve ever tried turnip pie you know it’s a good thing they switched to pumpkins, but that’s another story. The legend of the jack-o-lantern is that there was a man named Jack who was so evil Heaven wouldn’t take him and Hell was afraid he’d take over, so he was forced to walk alone through eternal darkness. But the Devil took pity on him and gave him a flame, which Jack carried in a turnip he had handy because, well, it’s not like he was going to make a pie with it. That’s the story, but every time I hear it I wonder what Jack could have possibly done that was so awful that neither Heaven nor Hell had a place for him. Okay, I can understand Heaven has some strict rules regarding entry, but I didn’t think Hell was that picky. Or maybe it is.
The entry to Heaven is often pictured as a large golden gate with a bunch of fog machines going full blast around it. For numerous reasons I imagine the entry to Hell as the front of the Copacabana. And Beelzebub is standing there holding the velvet rope saying, "Hitler, nice to see you, Pol Pot, come on in, guy who invented that thing that tells you how many people are ahead of you when you call customer service, so glad you could make it." And Jack gets to the front of the line and is told, "Sorry, we’re full." And so he just hangs out by the dumpster and after a while Beelzebub gives him a flame to keep him warm, and all Jack can do for eternity is wait and hope that Al Capone’s entourage will get bored and decide to go see what’s shaking over at Purgatory, which I’m pretty sure is somewhere near Rhode Island.