Pumpkin Spice as An Ancestral Issue
It’s getting to that time of year again. The nights are drawing in, and the heat of only a matter of weeks ago is a memory (thank goodness; I wasn’t coping, especially with the hot humid nights). Cooler, fresher mornings are making me consider putting the duvet back on the bed; we’ve had instead a sheet with a blanket on the top for most of the summer. I’ve brought in the most tender, temperature sensitive plants back into the house after their summer break in the garden; the scented geraniums and the dwarf myrtle will follow soon, once I’ve cleaned windows and window ledges. The two olive trees will come in after that.
After the dry summer, the trees are bright with berries and their leaves are beginning to change colour. In woods we visit, the smell of autumn has been hovering for some weeks. We’ve spotted fungi erupting in all sorts of places. Bird song has altered. Our lawn is littered with more poo from hedgehogs as they forage among windfall apples and snuffle the cat food I put out every evening. The males will be looking for places to settle for their hibernation, while the females and the youngsters continue to feed voraciously to fatten up for winter. We rarely see slugs or snails here, probably because the hoggies and the visiting ducks hoover them all up.
I like autumn, despite the melancholy. The first anniversary of my father’s death has slipped by; I toasted him with a pint of Guinness with dinner. All Hallows and associated festivals lie ahead in October; there is usually a service here to commemorate our beloved dead. Last year it was too raw for me to attend, and this year spaces at the service will be fewer than usual because of social distancing measures. I hope to attend, and remember with love those who have gone.
Over recent years I have noticed the proliferation of items for sale that have the scent or flavour of “pumpkin spice”, and the attending ridicule of women for liking it. It’s largely contemptuous dismissal by men, powered by an underlying unconscious belief that everything women enjoy as trivial and without real value. Pumpkins as Halloween food and décor are a fairly new thing in the UK; pumpkin spice is actually a much older thing indeed, and has little to do with the vast round orange vegetables. It’s a mix of the sweet spices like cinnamon, allspice, cloves and a few others, traditionally used for baking certain recipes. As a child, trying to get my mother to cook and bake more adventurous things, I got her to buy a variety of herbs and spices. One of those was something called Apple Pie Spice. At home, she opened the bottle and took a sniff; her eyes went misty for a moment and she said one word: “Mammy”. Not, as she explained a few moments later, her mother, but instead her grandmother, who had lived next door. My great grandmother, in fact. That single inhalation of scent had taken my mother back to childhood, and brought a much-beloved grandmother into the room for a moment. Mum was someone who hated nostalgia and rarely reminisced. She seldom talked about her childhood, or showed us old photos but in that tiny breath of mixed spices, she went back, almost bodily. She was back in her grandmother’s kitchen, helping her bake apple pies and other delicious treats. I have often thought that many of her memories from that time are probably deeply traumatic; the roof of their house was blown off by a falling bomb while they sheltered under the concrete thrall shelf in the pantry. Brothers, uncles, cousins, were away at war; desperate shortages of food at times meant that while they probably never went truly hungry, food was doubtless tedious and boring and precious. Mum in her later years talked about never having had teddies or other soft toys; she had a rag doll that someone made for her, but that was it. We gave her a zoo’s worth of cuddly toys, which she loved, but that early lack went deep. I suspect for many that lived through such times there are cavernous wounds, papered over with material comforts in later years.
Spices were once as precious as gold, and their use in food sometimes a matter of conspicuous consumption. Cardinal Wolsey went one step further, using saffron (still one of the most costly of spices) as a strewing herb. In humble families, a pinch of ground cinnamon in a simple apple pie was a way of giving the food an almost magical savour, a pinch of love. That’s why so many of the traditional Christmas foods are heavy on spices, because these were things you could not afford to use every day. They were brought out for the feasts of life, when those you loved had gathered close for that time. They enhanced both the flavour, the fragrance and the properties of the food. Most spices have beneficial effects; cinnamon is anti-viral and many are antibacterial as well. Sometimes added to disguise the taint of food past its best, they protected the health as well as adding to the taste.
In the case of pumpkins, the spice is added as pumpkins have very mild flavour. I’ve made pumpkin pie just the once; we held a Halloween party for my daughter’s friends, some of whom were American (we lived close to a couple of US airbases at the time). The kids looked at it, and because it was unfamiliar to most of the guests, declined to try any. The one American attendee said she didn’t like it anyway. I ended up eating it all myself over a couple of days. I rather liked it. But I think that if they were a vegetable that grew well where I live, I’d feel honour-bound to find as many ways of using it as possible, because of the hungry times in my ancestry. At the moment I am processing as many of the apples from our nine trees as I can, stewing with cinnamon and honey and freezing them for use in the winter when the trees are bare. Last year I didn’t do this; there was too much going on to worry about endless windfalls and waste. But as I add the spice to each batch, I think of the great grandmother I never knew, and of the line of faceless grandmothers going back centuries, and then I think of the younger women daring to have pumpkin spice coffee, defying the (mostly) men who would shame them for liking such a thing, and then I think, “You go, girls. You enjoy that spice. And devil take those who would use it to diminish you.”