The Sociology of Pumpkins
H. Bradford, 9/25/2016
For the first time in eight years, I am not in school. You might think that after all that time I would be a professor, doctor, or lawyer, or at the very least well on my way to becoming one of those things. Nope. I’m just a pretty ordinary person. Not particularly accomplished. Two master’s degrees, two bachelor’s degrees, student debt, and the growing paranoia that if I am not in school that my brain will start to decay into mush. I can see it now. It looks a lot like a Jack-o-Lantern left on a front porch until the following March. Just a mushy, discolored, vaguely orange, puddle of goop on the steps. That is my brain. No, I must rage against this. I must learn new things. I must not forget the old things. Rage, rage against the dying of the light. Write about things. Write about sociological things. Write about pumpkins. Most of the history in this piece is derived from a book that I just read called Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon, by Cindy Ott. While the book provided a pretty good history of the pumpkin, it did not have much theoretical analysis of pumpkins. I suppose most people don’t consider the theoretical implications of pumpkins. So, here is it, a sociological analysis of pumpkins. My late night rage against my dying life. You know, since someone has to write about pumpkins…sociologically.
I learned about this in my undergraduate course on Social Psychology. Basically, according to Eviatar Zerubavel (a name that sounds more like a Final Fantasy villain than a sociologist) we are a part of thought communities which think a certain way about the reality around us. Our thoughts are shaped by cognitive schemas, or frameworks that pattern how we think about things. For instance, usually we view butterflies and moths as two separate things. We lump colorful, pretty, slender, diurnal insects into the category of butterfly. As the same time, we lump plump, hairy, dull colored, nocturnal insects into the category of moth. Each of these categories have a shared social meaning. Women get butterfly tattoos, but probably wouldn’t get a tattoo of a moth. Gardeners attract butterflies to their gardens, but don’t particularly want to attract moths to their lights. There are social organizations to protect Monarch butterflies, but one would be hard pressed to even name a single species or family of moths. Moths and butterflies, as social concepts, are examples of cognitive schemas. They are social objects with some shared meanings. Thus, if a fat, dull colored insect flutters by at night, it may get lumped in the moth category. A brightly colored Luna moth might perplex some people, but generally this lumping and splitting happens without incident. Things are more complicated with gender or race, wherein cognitive schemas have a greater political and social consequence. When we think of female we might think: pretty, weak, emotional, passionate, illogical, breasts, long hair, pink, or thousands of other thoughts that create a framework of how we think of women. Of course, this pigeon holes people, creates difference, divides people, justifies oppression, and ignores all of the gray in-between areas.
Compared to gender or race, pumpkins are pretty benign in terms of power, but not devoid of it. The first European colonists to the United States came here with pre-existing ideas about fruits and vegetables. As such, they classified pumpkins variably as cucumbers, melons, or squash. Botanically, it is true that a pumpkin is in the same family as cucumbers, melons, and gourds (Cucubitaceae), but socially we make distinctions. Further, even in the scientific sense, these things are divided by families. In a pre-scientific taxonomy world, the lines between melons, squash, gourds, and cucumbers were blurry. Today, pumpkins are viewed as something special and separate from squash, and certainly not a type of cucumber or melon. Botanically, a pumpkin is, in fact, a squash. Socially, a pumpkin is above a squash. No one promotes squash spice lattes or squash pie Blizzards. Even as a child, I was dubious that my mom’s squash pie was as good as a pumpkin pie. There was something psychologically different about eating a squash pie compared to its pumpkin counterpart, though this is likely because the squash came from the garden instead of a can.
With that said, the pumpkin became more than a squash sometime in the mid 1800s. This is around the time that Halloween and Thanksgiving became popularized as holidays. It is also a time when the U.S. was moving away from its agrarian roots to a more industrialized society. The pumpkin emerged as its own entity because of its symbolic value as an icon of plenty, harvest, and rural America. It also possessed symbolic value as an icon of the North (especially New England) during the Civil War. The South traditionally used sweet potatoes in pies and desserts, rather than pumpkins. Abraham Lincoln even made pumpkin pie the national dessert. Thus, pumpkins were viewed as a food of anti-slavery and a food that represented American history (even though pumpkins were not idealized by colonialists). It is a similar symbolic value that makes it popular today. It is an icon of fall, rural living, simplicity, and nostalgia. It is also a Thanksgiving symbol and symbol of America. As such, in our American thought community, the pumpkin exists as something more than an winter squash. Of course, there are other factors that allowed the pumpkin to become a social object that is apart from and above squash, cucumbers, and melons.
Use Value is a Marxist term which basically means that an object is valuable based upon its usefulness. For instance, a pencil is valuable because it can be used to write. A tree has use-value if it provides fruit or shade. For most of the pumpkin’s history, it was valued for its use-value. To colonists, it was useful as a food during lean times. Since pumpkins store well, it could be eaten through the winter. It was also used to feed animals. Even as pumpkins became more popular in the 1800s, they were still used for pies and desserts. Pumpkin farming was not a profitable venture, as even at the end of the 1880s it was still one of the least profitable vegetables-worth about 1/10 of a cent per pound. In Marxist terms, pumpkins had use value as a food, but very little exchange value as a commodity. Yet, in the early 1900s, something changed. Perhaps owing to decline of rural living, there were pumpkin shows and pumpkin growing contests as rural life became a spectacle. Pumpkins also had value as Halloween decorations. In the earlier half of the 1900s, pumpkins started to become more profitable as demand increased and canned pumpkin made its use in foods more convenient. Today, 87% of pumpkins are grown for decorations. Ornamental pumpkin farmers net about $691 per acre, a modest amount, but still useful in providing income to small scale farmers. Pumpkin festivals inject money into local economies through tourism and farms themselves are autumn tourist attractions. Thus, in the last century, pumpkins have largely shifted from having high use value and little exchange value, to higher exchange value and little use value.
McDonaldization of Society:
The commodification of the pumpkin can be connected to a trend towards the McDonaldization of society. George Ritzer coined the word McDonaldization to describe the rationalization and homogenization of society. This process is the result of four trends: calculability, predictability, control, and efficiency. A McDonald’s restaurant generally has a standard menu with uniform, predictable service and regimented workforce. Part of the process of a pumpkin becoming a pumpkin (in the social sense) rather than a winter squash was increased control over the production of pumpkins. Because most pumpkins today are used for decorations, they must possess qualities which make them predictable, controlled, calculable, and efficient. For instance, if a farmer grew off colored, lop-sided pumpkins, they might not appeal to consumer visions of what a pumpkin should be. The classic or standard pumpkin is the Connecticut Field Pumpkin, which is an heirloom pumpkin from the 1700s when pumpkins were still considered melons and cucumbers. There are several varieties of pumpkins that have been developed from the Connecticut Field Pumpkin, made specifically to appeal to consumer visions of what a pumpkin should be. Autumn Pride, Casper, Paint-a-pumpkin, Spooktacular, Ghost rider, and Spirit are examples of pumpkin varieties that have been developed because their size, color, and shape conform to consumer expectations. Varieties like these have been bred to remain orange longer and have sturdy stems for carrying. That is, they can be relied upon perform in a predictable, controlled, calculable, and efficient manner.
On the non-decorative end of the spectrum, the predictability of pumpkins is more pronounced. In order for something to become a commodity, the item in question must have a predictable supply, be transportable or exchangeable, and be profitable to sell. The industrialization of food made food products more transportable, predictable, uniform, efficient, inexpensive, widespread, and plentiful. Consider pumpkin pies before industrial agriculture and food. A person would have to either grow their own ingredients or purchase them locally. Then, these ingredients would be assembled over the course of hours. Pumpkins require cutting, gutting, steaming, and peeling. With the advent of canned pumpkin, a pie could be made easily and cheaply, with more predictable results. Efficiency, control, predictability, and calculability made products more uniform, which generally appeals to consumers. For instance, Libby’s (which accounts for 85% of the canned pumpkin market) uses their own variety of Dickinson Pumpkin for the canned pumpkin pie. Dickinson is a variety of squash that they developed themselves. These pumpkins actually look more like butternut squashes, but since they are only seen in their canned form this hardly matters. The company uses fields near their factory to make transportation easier and utilizes smaller contracted farms near their Illinois factory to supply them. Libby’s provides the seeds to the contracted farmers, but hires other farmers to harvest the pumpkins with machinery that they supply them. Then, pumpkin loaders are used which can loan a ton of pumpkins onto trucks within 20 minutes. These are dumped directly onto conveyer belts that move the pumpkins into their factory. This is all a very predictable, rational, and efficient process. At the same time, as a labor practice, rationalization increases profits by extracting more surplus value from workers. If workers are trained minimally, complete tasks as quickly and efficiently as possible, with few mistakes and high output, their labor creates more value for the producer.
According to Pierre Bourdieu, a person’s status in society depends upon their capital. But, unlike Marx who viewed capital in a strictly economic sense, Bourdieu believed that capital could exist in a social sense as well. Of of these forms of social capital is cultural capital, or knowledge, attitudes, education, and skills a person possesses. The original colonists viewed pumpkins as a low class food or the food of primitive people. They denigrated the pumpkin as rustic and uncivilized. By disassociating themselves with the pumpkin, really, they were asserting their difference and superiority over Native Americans. Later, Europeans looked down upon colonists for eating pumpkins, again as a sign of their backwardness. The foods that one eats is an example of cultural capital. That is, anyone who is affluent or powerful should not be eating pumpkins. The conventions of what one eats and does not eat is a form of cultural capital. Eating the wrong foods could be a sign of one’s race or social class. To be with the “in club” of those with power, one must adopt their tastes and habits. Of course, access to economic capital often determines what one eats. A poor rural person may have no choice but to eat pumpkins. A Native American might have genuinely liked to eat pumpkins as there was no negative social sanction for eating them.
Today, things have changed and pumpkins are no longer looked down upon. However, we are in a society wherein obesity and unhealthy eating habits are a sign of poverty. Thus, eating healthy foods is a sign of greater cultural capital. Eating a pumpkin soup or pumpkin and quinoa salad is more respectable than eating a hotdog and fries. Thus, on one hand, pumpkin could be seen as a sign of cultural capital. On the other hand, because pumpkin spice has proliferated across various fast food and coffee shop chains, it has come to be seen as common. It is viewed as both feminine and white….and ordinary. Things that are feminine have traditionally been looked down upon, though whiteness has usually been viewed positively in our racist society. Perhaps, the lovers of pumpkin spice are not doing whiteness right. In our globalized pluralistic society, a truly educated and elite white person should seek out exciting, exotic, ethnic and interesting foods. A taste for the unknown and an adventurous palate are signs of cultural capital. While the pumpkin spices: nutmeg, ginger, cloves, and cinnamon are certainly exotic, as they come from far off places, they have become too ubiquitous to be seen as ethnic. A person who likes pumpkin spice is therefore seen as provincial or commonplace, much like how pumpkin eaters of the past were looked down upon. It is also looked down upon for being feminine. Rape, unequal pay, unpaid labor, sex work, sexual harassment, and domestic violence are all easier to justify if women aren’t viewed as worthwhile to begin with.
Hypermodernity and Consumption:
Simon Gottschalk argued that we are living in a hypermodern society. Hypermodernity is characterized by such things as extreme individualism and hyper consumerism. He also observed that there is a certain narcissism and megalomania embedded in hyper consumerism. This megalomania is evident in the use of superlatives such as better, bigger, best, most, fastest, etc in advertisement. Hyper-consumerism itself is characterized by extreme individualism that stomps out social considerations. I think that the best illustration of this is the phenomenon of the giant pumpkin. The giant pumpkin originated in the late 1800s as a spectacle at the world’s fairs. In 1903, the record sized pumpkin was 403 pounds. In 2010, the record holding pumpkin was 1,810 pounds. To obtain pumpkins that size, they must be overwatered, overfed, pruned, and shaded. The pursuit of the giant pumpkin is an inherently individualistic pursuit as it is done to test the boundaries of size, win prize money, and obtain attention. The ecological and social costs of the inputs, such as fertilizers and water use, for a pumpkin that will never be eaten and can hardly be moved, is not even considered.
Perhaps applying hypermodernity to giant pumpkins is a bit of a stretch. However, I do remember watching this TV show back when I was a child. The show was called Amazing Stories, and in one episode, a woman purchased some special pumpkin seeds from a traveling botanist (which sounds like an awesome job!). She became obsessed with growing a giant pumpkin, but is cruel to everyone around her. She is miserable about having lost the contest so many years in a row and convinced that she will finally win. Indeed, she grows an enormous pumpkin. However, she has no means to tow it. She drags it behind a vehicle, destroying it along the way to town. Even though the pumpkin is disintegrated, she is convinced that it is still the largest pumpkin. In the end, she sees that everyone bought the special seeds and that everyone else successfully brought their perfect pumpkins to the contest. She is a loser once again, left with nothing but the tattered remains of her dreams…and the pumpkin. The episode really spoke to me as a child. I remember it after all of these years. In any event, her jealousy and megalomania drives her destroy her pumpkin and herself. Blinded by her hyper-individualism, she can’t fathom that perhaps the seeds were a trick or notice that others may also be growing pumpkins. In a way, we live similarly, trying to assert our individual existence through Pinterest projects, the things we buy, or our facebook photos. Our giant pumpkin is the identity we cultivate. The water and fertilizer are the things we buy. In this way, the pumpkin is a symbol of hypermodernity. Okay, maybe it is still a stretch…
I am sure that I could think of other sociological theories or ideas to connect to pumpkins. It is actually a fun little exercise and a bit of a challenge to think back at some of my coursework. Perhaps I could connect pumpkins to Foucault’s power-knowledge, as who has the power to decide what a pumpkin is? Scientists have a monopoly on defining a pumpkin. To some degree, the food industry has power to determine what pumpkins are. Pumpkin contests define the rules to what a pumpkin is or is not. For instance, a pumpkin must be 80% orange to count as a pumpkin in some contests. Maybe pumpkins could be examined from a feminist perspective. Peter Pumpkin eater had a wife that he put in a pumpkin shell to control her! How about the fact that women must haul their kids to pumpkin patches for photo opportunities. Or the fact that women are looked down upon for our taste pumpkin spice candles, lattes, ice cream, etc. I say, there should be no shame. Take back the Spice! Really, the sociological possibilities are as endless and complex as a long tangle of pumpkin vines.