A Study in Buttery Bovines

When she was a little girl Caroline Shawk dreamt of being an artist. She painted. She drew. She sculpted childish figures with clay from the creek. By age twelve she had won her first art award for her fine wax flowers. Then in 1862 when she was twenty-two, she married a railroad worker named Samuel Brooks, and that was that.

Except it wasn’t. Within a few years she and her husband had moved to a farm near Helena, Arkansas and, an artist to her core, Caroline found a new medium calling to her. Many of the farm wives around her, in order to better attract customers for their butter, used molds to makes their product into simple decorative shapes. Of course Caroline thought she could do better and she began carving intricate shapes by hand.

It wasn’t long before people started calling her the Butter Lady, and wondering what weird, wonderful artistic butter piece she’d come up with next. Then in 1873, she read King René’s Daughter by Henrik Hertz and was so moved by the character of Iolanthe, she created a sculpture of the blind princess.

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Dreaming Iolanthe, A Study in Butter. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In butter.

Dreaming Iolanthe was a masterpiece. It was displayed, on ice, at a gallery in Cincinnati to a great deal of success. Even the New York Times took notice, with one critic writing that “no other American sculptress has made a face of such angelic gentleness as that of Iolanthe.”

Brooks created another version of her Iolanthe that exhibited at the 1876 world’s fair in Philadelphia, where she also participated in public demonstrations of her impressive, albeit kind of weird, skill. The artist went on to create great wonders, exhibiting her butter work in Washington DC and even in Paris. Eventually, she gained enough financial success from butter that she managed to transition to marble, but Caroline Brooks had inspired the imagination of countless (or at least a few) budding young artists, who took the fair circuit by buttery storm. So began the super weird tradition of butter sculptures at state fairs throughout the Midwest.

In the 1980s, another young girl who dreamt of creating her own form of art stood in the dairy building at the Illinois State Fair, her eyes wide as she took in the wondrous site of the traditional annual butter cow sculpture, and asked the question that was on everyone’s mind: “Can I ride the Ferris wheel now?”

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If you look closely you can see a state fair goer at the window in the background asking himself, “Can I go to the beer tent now?”

And folks, that young girl grew up to write about some of the weirdest things she came across on a weekly blog that was part history, part humor, and now occasionally, part butter.

Growing up in Central Illinois, I went to the state fair almost every year, and without fail, I felt myself drawn to the dairy building, to gaze upon each year’s buttery bovine masterpiece.

I don’t get to attend the fair this year, which is ongoing through this weekend, but I do have several dear friends, including my sister who knows me pretty well, who made sure I saw pictures of this year’s cow.

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An Illinois State Fair tradition since 1922.

I’m grateful to them. This has been a busy month for me, getting kids ready to head off into a new school year while preparing to launch my own unique art into the world with the release of my debut historical novel September 6th. I don’t know that my book will garner as much attention as the masterful works of the Butter Lady, but maybe someday the New York Times will take notice. A gal can dream, right?

I’d like to say a special thank you to my friend Dee Dee, who graciously agreed to let me share her photography talents on this post so that you, too, don’t have to miss this year’s Illinois State Fair butter cow.

Attack of the Hons

In 1924 a teacher named Jaime Garí i Poch discovered a curious drawing on a wall in the Cuevas de Araña, or Spider Caves, near Valencia, Spain. The drawing, which is as much as 15,000 years old, depicts a person on a rickety ladder, reaching up to gather honey from a beehive. It’s the oldest indication yet discovered that our ancestors were willing to risk life and limb and anger a swarm of stinging insects just to satisfy their sweet tooths.

Spider Caves honey harvesting
Sketch of Cueva Arana cave painting. By Achillea [GPL (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
As the second sweetest naturally occurring substance in the world (dates hold the top spot), humans have loved honey maybe as much as Pooh bears do, for millennia. Ancient Egyptians used it in medicines and rituals and, presumably, to feed those late night sugary cravings. The Promised Land in Exodus flows with milk and honey, and in the sexiest book in the Bible, Song of Solomon, the lover’s “lips drop sweetness as the honeycomb” and she has “milk and honey under [her] tongue.”

It’s not a great leap, then, to the use of the word “honey” as a term of endearment, which according to the OED happened around the middle of the 14th century. Honey has long held an important place in the human experience. It’s worth striving for. Kind of like love.

So, enter honey, honey pie, honey bunches, honey bunny, or any other nauseating honey-themed nickname you can dream up. And let’s not forget the ubiquitous hon or hun, depending on whether you are comparing your loved one to a gooey sweet treat or a war-mongering barbarian.

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I just don’t recommend calling your loved one a “Honey Bucket.” photo credit: magnetbox Honey Bucket via photopin (license)

And actually, I don’t mind the use of the word as a term of endearment. I have on occasion been known to use it when speaking to my husband or my children (when it can be either hon or hun, depending on the situation). My parents sometimes use it when speaking to me. It’s lovely that they do because it makes me feel treasured by some of the people who matter most in my life.

But when the checker at the grocery store, who is easily half my age, and who I have never met, calls me hon, I don’t like it. This recently happened to me and I posted about it on Facebook, polling the audience as to whether or not the incident should have bothered me.

The post generated a lot of comments, primarily divided along geographical lines. My friends who grew up in the Southern US or who live there now either defended the practice or said it didn’t bother them, while my more Northern friends took the opportunity to join the chorus of complaints. Others suggested that it was acceptable under only some circumstances, like if the person using the term were older, and not a man. It was an interesting string of comments, but I’m not sure I really got an answer to my question.

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It must be love. Photo via Pixabay.

Should it bother me? I don’t know. I’m generally okay with and appreciate cultural diversity, and as our world shrinks through electronic and economic connectedness, I suppose clashes over minor differences in mannerisms are becoming more common. In the grand scheme of things, this one isn’t so bad. I mean I’m not going to correct the young lady. But I also recognize that I’m allowed to feel what I feel and openly complain about it on social media. Because that’s what we do, right?

Of course it could be worse. Not every language has grabbed on to honey, honey pie, honey bunches, honey bunny, or hon as go to terms of endearment. My husband, who is conversationally fluent in French, refers to me once in a while as his petit chou, a term that apparently sets French hearts to fluttering and literally translates as “little cabbage.” I’m pretty sure if the young lady at the grocery store checkout called me that, I’d go a little war-mongering barbarian on her.

So what do you think, my wider Internet community? Should I have been bothered?

Tough Questions on the Way to School

On the way to school the other day, my ten-year-old, seatbelt clicked and settled into the back of the car beside his overstuffed backpack, asked me a serious question. “Mom,” he said. “If gummy bears were lifesize and fighting in a war under terrible conditions, and if they could regenerate, would they sacrifice their limbs so their fellow soldiers could eat?”

Obviously my first thought was: what?

But I am the lucky mom two clever and creative sons, so this was not the first time I’d been asked a question for which I couldn’t possibly fathom an answer. I moved quickly on to my next thought: What have I done wrong as a parent that this child would ask such a warped question? It must be his dad’s fault.

My son began to drum on his backpack, indicating that he was losing patience. That’s when I realized he wanted an actual answer, so I blurted out the first one I could come up with. “Yes,” I said, decisively. “I believe gummy bears would be heroic enough to do that.” Fortunately, we reached the school before he could ask a follow-up question.

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Gummi bears, marching off to war. Photo courtesy of Ronile via Pixabay

My husband hadn’t left for work yet by the time I got back home, so I decided to put the question to him, expecting to share a laugh about the strange things our kiddos come up with sometimes. Instead, without skipping a beat he said, “No. It would be unwise in a situation of deprivation because the gummy bears wouldn’t have the energy they’d need to regenerate. They wouldn’t be much use in battle without arms, now would they?”

I recognized immediately that this was a more thoughtful answer than the one I had given. Also that it really is his fault our sons are a little warped. Still, the question stayed with me, because even though his answer made a lot of sense, I couldn’t make it fit with the image of the Gummy Bear.

The first Gummi Bears were made by German confectioner Hans Riegel, a couple years after he set up shop in his kitchen to create the simple hard candies his wife then delivered to customers by bicycle. By 1922, the two-person candy operation was struggling and Hans came up with a great idea to save it. Gelatin-based candies were just starting to really hit the spot for European customers with products like gumdrops, Jujubes and Chuckles. Riegel decided to create his own chewy, fruity version in the shape of cute little bears.

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“Haribo” is a combination of Hans Riegel’s name and Bonn, the name of his hometown.

The bears were a hit and by 1939, the small candy-making operation, renamed Haribo, had grown to employ four hundred people and produce ten tons of gummy bears each day. Today the same company, still owned and operated by members of the Riegel family, produces enough gummi bears each year to circle the earth four times if laid out head to jiggly toe.

Haribo had some pretty lean years, too. During World War II, Han Riegel died, leaving the company in the hands of his two sons who both wound up prisoners of war. By the time they were released, the company was down to thirty employees and couldn’t produce enough bears to circle the earth even once.

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According to the cartoon, Gummi Bears bounce here and there and everywhere, which I suppose makes them good soldiers? These also look like they’re plotting something. photo credit: Werner Kunz Some macro experiments: Gummi Bears via photopin (license)

Fortunately, the Riegel brothers turned out to have pretty good heads for business and, if the theme song of Disney’s 1985 cartoon, The Adventures of the Gummi Bears, can be believed, gummies are pretty bouncy. The brothers soon turned the company around and were employing more people than ever, pushing their way into markets across Europe with a slightly squashier and friendlier looking bear.

By 1980, the bears had made it to America and though there are now several companies that have latched on to Hans Riegel’s brilliant idea, the world still has plenty of Haribo loyalists. And why not? Because these gummi bears, though brought low by the horrors of war, managed to fight their way back, to continue putting smiles on faces the world over.

So yes, I do still think that a sentient, life-size gummi bear, if faced with the awful privations of war, would do all it could to bring joy to those around it, even if that wasn’t the smartest thing to do. Gummi bears, after all, are known for being tasty and chewy and for making people happy. They are not particularly known for their wisdom.

Next question, please!

Rosewater, Wine, Sugar…and Tomato Sauce?

In November of 1493, intrepid Italian Christopher Columbus ruined pizza when, on his second voyage to the New World, he discovered piña de Indes, or Indian pine, which the Carib people called ananas, because it’s not a pinecone and they lived nowhere near India.

What he found was a spiky headed fruit that Spanish historian Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes, writing in 1513, called “the most beautiful fruit of any of the fruits I have seen” and what today we know (thanks in part to Columbus) as the pineapple.

Sugar hungry Europeans generally thought this discovery was pretty neat, and almost immediately they began attempting to cultivate the pineapple a little closer to home. That proved pretty tough, because a tropical climate is something Europe definitely doesn’t have.

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Charles II looking super excited to be receiving a pineapple. Hendrick Danckerts [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
It was the Dutch that discovered the trick first, probably because the Dutch West Indies Company had a stranglehold on the pineapple importation business. And it may have been economist and businessman Pieter de la Court who, by the late 17th century, did it best in his innovative hot house that kept the soil and air temperatures in the range most conducive to pineapple cultivation.

Of course De la Court is remembered today not so much for his pineapple cultivating prowess, but rather for his writings in support of a thriving free market and his general disdain for the Caribbean shipping monopoly held by the Dutch West Indies Company. It seems likely then that he may have succeeded with the pineapple out of spite.

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Gross.

Coincidentally, I assume spite is the same reason otherwise seemingly reasonable people sprinkle pizza with a fruit described by 17th century English Botanist John Parkinson as tasting “as if Rosewater, wine, and sugar were mixed together.”

I admit pineapple is not my favorite fruit. It’s fine for garnishing fruity drinks when you’ve run out of cocktail umbrellas, but I just find it too sweet unless it’s cut with something a little less cloying. And no, I don’t mean tomato sauce, cheese, and ham. Yuck.

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I can’t argue with this use of pineapple.

Actually, I think early pineapple enthusiasts in both Europe and America of the 18th and 19th centuries might have been on to something when they tended to see the pineapple as more decorative than consumable. Importing the perishable tropical fruit from the Caribbean was costly, often prohibitively so. If a host could get his hands on one to place in the middle of an elegant table display, it was sure to impress.

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I don’t know if the rumor is true, but I think I’d like to live in a world in which people used to rent pineapples in order to impress their friends.

The pineapple then became a symbol of hospitality, gracing not only table displays, but also frequently as a feature of art and design. And if the Internet’s favorite pineapple rumor can be believed, the fruit was even available to rent for a special occasion, only to be later sold to the extremely wealthy who could actually afford to eat it.

By the early 1900s, James Dole had come along and begun his Hawaiian Pineapple Company (later the Dole Fruit Company), which soon made canned pineapple widely available, for a long time supplying more than 75% of the world’s pineapple needs. And now it’s so easy to get hold of, we even put it on pizza. Just to be clear, by we, I mean people who evidently have no taste buds and who are definitely not me.

So really maybe James Dole should get the blame. I suppose I can let Columbus off the hook for this one.

A Shocking Rerun

In October of 1951, the beloved sit com I love Lucy aired for the first time and, according to the most extensive research I could accomplish in five minutes, became the first television show to air as reruns. Now nearly seventy years later, you can still probably catch them from time to time. And that’s good, because even a little dated, they’re still pretty funny.lucy

So to show my appreciation for the innovative thinking of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, and maybe also a little because it’s still November and I am not yet finished with my 50,000 word NaNoWriMo goal, I am going to participate in the noble tradition of the rerun.

Originally posted on November 20, 2013, this is my favorite practical history post about Thanksgiving. A fair number of readers have discovered this little corner of the blogosphere over the last four years, so for many of you this will be brand new old material. And those who have read and possibly vaguely remember it, will hopefully still enjoy a chuckle or two. Just no spoilers!

A Shocking Turkey Recipe

The holiday season is nearly upon us, beginning here in the US with Thanksgiving next week. And if, like us, you’re hosting family for the big day that means it’s time to make plans for your turkey. We tend to prefer the Alton Brown brine method at our house, but I bet a fair few hosts are thinking of getting up at the crack of dawn to continually check and baste their birds until they are roasted to golden brown perfection. Other more adventurous sorts may be considering rigging up a deep fryer and spending the holiday at the hospital being treated for third degree burns.

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Benjamin Franklin, reviewing his collection of turkey recipes.

But history suggests there may be an even better (and possibly more dangerous) way.
In 1750, before he famously tied a key to a kite string and invented the lightning rod, Benjamin Franklin hosted a Christmas dinner party. Interested as he was with exploring the properties of electricity, Franklin decided to educate and entertain as well as feed his guests. His theory was that by electrocuting his roasting turkey, he could produce a more tender meat.

And he wasn’t wrong. In fact, his discovery is still important to the meat industry today, but it did come at a the expense of some personal pain and humiliation. As he was setting up an electrical jack he had designed specifically to meet all of his poultry electrocution needs, the plucky inventor received a pretty good shock himself. The gathering of witnesses to the experiment-gone-wrong reported a flash of light and a loud crack.

Whereas I would have tried to pretend the incident never happened and certainly would never mention it again (Okay that’s not true. I’d totally blog about it), Franklin wrote about the failure to his brother just two days later. In the letter he describes in detail how the event made him feel, which was more or less bad. Numb in his arms and on the back of his neck until the next morning and still achy a couple days later, Franklin seems to have decided that electricity, though hilarious, is not necessarily something to trifle with (chalk up one more important discovery for Franklin). He makes no mention as to whether or not he felt tenderized by the experience.

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Benjamin Franklin, determined to carry on despite his shocking turkey set-back.

Now I can hear the objections already: “But, Sarah, that can’t be right. Benjamin Franklin was a friend to the turkey. He had great respect for it and even fought for its adoption as the symbol of the United States of America.” I hear you, Dear Reader. And I understand your concern. I, like many of you, was an American school child so I am familiar with that story. If you don’t wish to have your image of Benjamin Franklin as the great turkey advocate shattered, then feel free to stop reading at this point and assume that I’m just full of it.

But for those of you who want to know what’s what, I’m going to share the real story with you. Even though Benjamin Franklin was a part of the original committee charged with choosing a design for the Great Seal of the United States, he recommended a rattlesnake to represent the young nation. Not once did he suggest a turkey.

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Franklin also proposed this image of Moses and Pharaoh at the Red Sea for the Great Seal. Imagine the controversy that would have caused!

The idea that he did comes from an unrelated letter to his daughter written some years later when he was serving as an American envoy in Paris. To give some perspective, this was two years after the official adoption of the Great Seal, and six years after Franklin had served on the committee, again, making no mention of the turkey. He wrote the letter in response to his daughter’s question as to his opinion of the newly forming Society of the Cincinnati, a fraternity of officers of the Continental Army.

The society, founded in May of 1783, adopted for its symbol a bald eagle, claimed by some to look somewhat more like a turkey. Though Franklin didn’t oppose the society and eventually accepted an honorary membership in it, what he did not approve was the desire of some to make membership hereditary. This, he claimed, established an “order of hereditary knights,” which contradicted the ideals set forward by the newly formed republic.

But to openly mock or question the intentions of the brave men whose leadership had won the United States its freedom was simply not Benjamin Franklin’s style. Instead he focused on the turkey-eagle:

I am…not displeased that the figure is not known as a bald eagle, but looks more like a turkey. For in truth, the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird…He is besides, though a little vain and silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red coat on.

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I’m kind of partial to the bald eagle myself. photo credit: Thomas Hawk via photopin cc

I have to assume that despite his reference to the farmyard, Franklin would not wish the symbol of our nation or its high ranking officers to be the comically large-breasted domesticated flightless bird that graces our Thanksgiving tables. Perhaps he meant to suggest wild turkey, which is a full flavored, barrel-aged, American original that tends to give one courage. Or perhaps he meant the wild turkey, which hunters suggest is a slippery foe, difficult to sneak up on and evidently tricky to electrocute.

Whatever his true intentions, I think it is clear that though Benjamin Franklin was certainly a great American who helped to shape the United States and provide all of its half-blind citizens with bifocals, he could also, at times, be a bit of a turkey.

 

I hope you enjoyed this encore performance! Since next Thursday is Thanksgiving here in the US, I will be engaging in another grand tradition borrowed from the television industry and preempting my blog post for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. See you just in time for the December sweeps! That’s a thing, right?

Skinny Pants and Cupcakes: Everything a Young Republic Needs

By 1796 the United States of America had a Constitution, fifteen states, a snappy flag, and a growing political divide. It certainly wasn’t everything a young republic would need, but it was a start and the gaps would be recognized and filled in over the next many years by an industrious, inventive, and fiercely determined population. Perhaps more than anything else, what a new nation needs is an identity, the building blocks of a shared, unique culture.

And also cupcakes.

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What every young republic needs to have on its shelf. By Amelia Simmons, Hudson & Goodwin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
It would be another thirty-two years before Noah Webster’s thoroughly American dictionary made its way into the world to assert ‘Merican standards over an inherited language, but before that, in 1796, another American stepped up to fill in an important cultural gap.

That’s when Amelia Simmons, about whom little is known beyond her self-identification as “an American orphan,” compiled and published what’s believed to be the first American cookbook. Up until that point, cooks in the US with access to unique local ingredients like maize, turkey, and “pompkin,” had to settle for English cookbooks full of English recipes for pies and puddings that sadly aren’t at all what their names imply to the modern American palate.

In her book, American Cookery (plus a subtitle that’s almost longer than the book) Simmons includes many traditional English dishes and cooking methods.  She also includes several with an American twist, like squash and pumpkin puddings, Indian slapjacks, corn cakes, roasted turkey with cranberries, and “A nice Indian Pudding.”

And also cupcakes.

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A picture of chocolate cupcakes that was not taken by me, in honor of National Chocolate Cupcake Day, which is totally a thing. photo credit: jamieanne Chocolate Cupcakes With Fudge Frosting via photopin (license)

Though she didn’t coin the term (that didn’t happen until 1828 in a cookbook compiled by Eliza Leslie), Simmons did include recipes for both “soft cakes in little pans,” and “a light cake to bake in a little pan,” possibly the earliest written references to the cupcake.

I bring up the cupcakes because yesterday was National Chocolate Cupcake Day here in the US. If you forgot to celebrate, don’t worry.  National (plain ol’) Cupcake Day is still coming up on December 15. I actually didn’t celebrate, or at least not in the traditional way, which I assume is to eat a chocolate cupcake.

It’s not that I don’t like chocolate cupcakes. I think if you’ve read this blog for very long, you’ve probably seen plenty of evidence that I do. Still, when I saw the “holiday” was coming up, I began to wonder if a cupcake is itself really a thing to celebrate. I suppose I always thought of this compact little treat as celebratory rather than celebration-worthy.

Cupcakes are for birthdays and baby showers and blogiversaries. They express congratulations when someone wins the lottery, or snags first place in the national juggling championship, or finally lands that book deal. At this point in our history there are entire cookbooks containing nothing but cupcake recipes and bakeries dedicated to making nothing but these most celebratory little cakes. And if you have a few staple ingredients in your pantry, a coffee cup, and a microwave, the Internet will be happy to tell you how to solve that late night cupcake craving without changing out of your pajamas.

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Finally this non-coffee drinker has a use for all of these, but not until the next time I need to celebrate in my pajamas.

Cupcakes are for just about anything, really, which makes a day for celebrating them seem a little over-the-top to me, and a day dedicated to just one flavor of them downright silly.

So what I decided to do instead is to make National Chocolate Cupcake Day a holiday in which I don’t eat a cupcake. I spent the day remembering the time when this dessert was an occasional treat that meant something truly special, and even served to fill a cultural gap in a burgeoning nation. I reflected back on a time when a great cupcake was a little harder to come by and I could fit into my skinny pants.

It was a good day. In fact, I’m thinking I may abstain from eating cupcakes for a while, at least until I can fit into those skinny pants again. Or I get a book deal. Then I’d really have something to celebrate.

The Art of Pumpkinization

Between the years of 1503 and 1508 in Touraine, France, artist Jean Bourdichon, at the direction of Anne of Brittany, two times queen of France, spent a lot of time sprinkling pumpkin spice in the queen’s prayers. What the queen recruited the artist to do was illustrate Grandes Heures d’Anne de Bretagne, a book filled with prayers, monthly calendars, and religiously themed images.

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Who doesn’t love pumpkin? photo credit: Geert Weggen walk in fear via photopin (license)

For the work, the artist focused on painting more than three hundred plant species represented in the Royal Gardens, one example of which may be the first known illustration of the pumpkin, a plant native to Mexico and transported to Europe after the first voyage of Columbus to the New World.

And what that means is that in the course of about sixteen years or so, this one plant, with its basketball fruit, went from unknown to worthy of royal attention half a world away. It’s probably not hard to imagine why.

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It’s possible my local grocery store has gone a tad overboard on the pumpkinization.

Pumpkins aren’t exactly hard to notice, and as anyone who has ever allowed a Halloween Jack-o-Lantern to decay in his garden could tell you, they’re certainly not hard to grow. Archaeologists have found evidence of pumpkins as a food source as far back as 7000 BC in Mexico and there is a long history in Native American cultures of using pumpkin seeds medicinally for treatment of parasitic infections and kidney disease. Today they are touted as a sleep aid, heart healthy snack, anti-inflammatory, and cancer-fighting super food.

 
I don’t know if all those claims can be substantiated. What I do know is that at least in the United States, it’s not fall until every product on the grocery store shelf has been pumpkinized (which I’m confident will soon be a word defined by Miriam-Webster).

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Some products can’t be saved by any amount of pumpkin spice. But I imagine these aren’t any worse than traditional Peeps.

Each fall, stores are taken over by the pumpkin and its accompanying spices. No longer is pumpkin relegated to pies and prayer books, with the truly market-savvy adding more inventive (and often revolting) options each year, including: Pumpkin Spice Cheerios, Pumpkin Pie Kit-Kats, Pumpkin Pie Spice Pringles, Pumpkin Spice Chewing Gum, Pumpkin Spice Candy Corn (though to be fair, it is not the pumpkin spice that makes this product revolting), pumpkin spice pasta, liquors, yogurt, pudding, peanut butter, donuts, soaps, and shampoos. And every year I try an embarrassing number of these freshly pumpkinized products. Because everything is better with pumpkin, right?

So I think trend-setter Jean Bourdichon was on to something. He was bold enough to think outside the traditional religious artwork of his day and add to it the one thing that makes everything better. Or worse. But I suppose there’s no way to know until someone pumpkinizes it.