Topsham, Devon November 20th, 2000 Help! We have a major crisis on our hands. The Monday before the last Thursday in November, and we can't find any tins of pumpkin in all of Exeter and surrounds. And believe me, we've scoured the area. This is very serious, I assure you.
Watty's, a traditional Exeter city centre deli where we -- and other ex-pat Americans living in the Westcountry -- have purchased this essential item for the past twenty odd years, changed hands recently; we were shocked to discover that as a consequence they no longer stock tinned pumpkin. 'We might be able to get something for you next week,' they suggested hopefully but unhelpfully, clearly clueless as to the seasonal necessity of this important product. At our local Sainsbury's, we can now purchase any number of excellent and previously hard-to-find items from around the world -- lovely jars of melanzane sott'olio, a range of superb vinegars and oils, biscuits roses from Champagne, truffle paste and truffle oil, Mexican chilies, Thai fish sauce and curry pastes, Japanese noodles, Sardinian flat bread, tinned chestnuts (excellent for the stuffing) and much, much more. You name it, the world's your oyster in British supermarkets these days. So can you believe it: no tinned pumpkin. A quick call to other supermarkets as well as to specialist food shops in our area resulted in the same negative response allied with a profound ignorance of the immense annual importance of this basic ingredient. Tinned pumpkin, never 'eard of it, wot's it for? Yet we've been living here for more than two decades and have never experienced such a cataclysmic culture shock before. The world is supposed to be getting smaller, we live now in a global village. For goodness sake, we can get pressed cow's udder from the Valle d'Aosta DHL'd to us next day (thanks to Esperya). So what in the world is going on?
Now before my foodie friends exhort us get off our butts and make our pumpkin pie from scratch, let me explain: for a good ol' simple American boy like me, pumpkin pie just ain't the same unless it's made with tinned pumpkin. One year Kim, who has long struggled with this particular American specialty, decided to have a go and make one from scratch: it couldn't be any worse, I think was her peculiar English reasoning. So she got a pumpkin (admittedly not difficult at this time of year), duly cut it up, cooked it, sieved it, etc etc: what a ridiculous palaver, I thought; it won't be any good at all, I was convinced. OK, OK, I admit that when it came right down to it, the pie was just fine (a little stringy, too light in colour, if we're being ultra critical, as we must be in such important matters). But it simply was not, I tell you, what pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving ought to be (it's that unmistakable smooth, cold texture of pumpkin pie straight out of the fridge, combined with the glorious scent of spices, and topped of course with lots of whipped cream, that for many of us is the real taste of Thanksgiving -- and that, I maintain, comes from tinned pumpkin allied with using -- wait for it -- tinned evaporated milk).
Understand: this is not gourmet food; it's comfort food, it's family food. It's about the tastes that you remember from childhood (and pass on to your own children). Indeed, I think it is sometimes hard for British friends to understand what Thanksgiving is all about: a secular holiday that centers around a basic and universal primeval urge to gorge -- yes, eating in outrageous and uncouth quantity is part of the experience -- born from a time of hardship; a celebration of survival, of simply being alive; of eating until quite literally you can eat no more because who knows what tomorrow might bring? Who knows indeed.
And so we enjoy foods that the rest of the year we never consider eating, each of us with our own family traditions and recipes: stuffing (nothing varies more from household to household; nothing is more important than this essential centerpiece to the meal; certainly stuffing, for us, is far more important than the turkey itself); strange foods like candied yams (bathed in lashing of butter, brown sugar and, sometimes, marshmallows!); mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce and apple sauce (admittedly better homemade than out of a tin); gravy, lots of it, thickened with flour and stock from the giblets; carrots in dill, butter and vinegar; creamed onions (but not a sprout in sight). And of course pumpkin pie and pecan pie (sickeningly sweet but also an essential), and in our house, lemon meringue pie too.
Perhaps it's because I chose many years ago to live a long way from my family; perhaps it's because I'm an ex-pat who has lived down here far longer than I've lived anywhere else in my life; yet at this time of year, and at this time only, we crave -- indeed need -- the tastes of foods that may be good or very good or perhaps to some even yukky, but which we absorbed, like milk from our mothers, in our earliest days and years and as we grew up, and so have become a very part of our being, of who and what we are.
And tinned pumpkin -- for me and many others I suspect -- is simply one of those tastes.

Copyright © Marc Millon 2000


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Copyright © Marc and Kim Millon 2000