Thursday, December 02, 2010

Survivor

I love to imagine what they looked like: overgrown amber "pears" hanging from dead trees, large silver-laced leaves twining in and around the brittle wood. The trees were carefully girdled, killed by slicing into the cambium layer around the entire tree. Once the trees died, members of the Seminole tribes would plant squash seeds around the base of the tree, and these vines would climb the tree and fruit in the air. Up there, the fruit was less likely to rot than if setting on the damp soil.


The Seminole pumpkin fascinates me. It's a beautiful fruit, tawny colored like a butternut and similar in flavor, with a deep orange, very smooth flesh. Also like the butternut, it belongs in the C. moschata species, a vigorous species that deals well with heat and even humidity. I grew it this year up trellises, and my only regret is that I didn't plant it earlier in the season, for when I had to pull the vine out for my winter veggies, it still had fruit on it yet to mature. But it's beautiful, and tasty, and grows really, really well here, and there's a lot more to the story behind this pumpkin.

Serving as a primary food source for the Creek, Muskogee, and Calusa peoples (collectively identified as Seminole) for at least five hundred years in Georgia, Alabama, and especially Florida—it is documented by Spanish visitors upon their arrival to Florida—the Seminole community passively bred the pumpkin to be long lasting and hard-skinned. "If they opened one in October and saved the seeds, rodents would have probably gotten them. Or insects or fungus. So they would eat on them throughout the fall and winter, and the longest keeping ones would be the last to be eaten. The best keepers provided the seed by unintentional selection" (Dr. Bradshaw, cited by Freeman). Both the high protein seeds and the flesh served as an important winter food. The Seminoles used the pumpkin in cornbreads, a version of frybread, and dried the flesh to use in throughout the year. The food was so important that, according to some sources, its loss caused devastation:

"When Chief Chekika was tracked down and killed by the U.S. Army after his raid on Indian Key, his body was hung from the trees of a small hammock west of Miami. To add further emphasis to this act, all of the Seminole pumpkins hanging from the trees in the hammock were shot to the ground. More than symbolic, this was a most effective way to cause starvation among these Everglades renegades." (Campbell)
That story caught me and wouldn't let go. And so I continued to explore it, and I haven't found much that I'm sure is reliable. There seems to be discrepancies surrounding the 1840 Indian Key raid and whether or not many claims surrounding it are true. However, all accounts do make some of the same claims, that the raid occurs right in the middle of the Second Seminole Wars, that the government of Florida at the time had a $200 price tag on the head of any dead Seminole, and that in this raid, between seven and thirteen white people and no Native Americans died. I'm no expert in any of this; all I can say is that a lot of fear and anger seems to have fueled everyone involved.

One person who died in the raid was a Dr. Henry Perrine. About him, I can find plenty of solid information. In fact, on Google Books, I even found this:





In this petition, Dr. Perrine seeks to establish a township in southern Florida, where he'll cultivate tropical useful plants to test their suitability for American agriculture. His enthusiasm shines in this paragraph from the text.





Congress granted Perrine his request; however, because of the climate of war, Perrine and his family didn't stay at his township long, but instead attempted to find safety at Indian Key. There, the raiders killed him.

I wonder what Perrine could have accomplished if his history had turned out differently. I wonder what would have happened if Seminole heads didn't have price tags. It's a sad story for everyone.

Except, perhaps the pumpkin. The pumpkin survives.

9 comments:

ann said...

Christina, you're amazing. I love this post! We're taking a year off from curcubits in the hope that it will help alleviate some of the pset problems we've been having, but maybe what we should really be doing is growing them up a tree!

Christina said...

Hi Ann: Thank you! Rotating out the cuke-family for a year sounds like a great idea, but perhaps trellising somehow could help too. Hey, I wanted to let you know I'll be heading out your way come June--I hope we can meet up.

altadenahiker said...

I'll never think of it as just the humble pumpkin again. History through food, wonderfully done.

PerennialPlate said...

Very cool site. Thanks so much for connecting us to our food... and our history. I love Seminole pumpkin.. but never knew about its lineage.

Sophie said...

Love that story. Its funny because today i bought a pumpkin here in Sierra Leone, a beautiful big green butternut shaped one. When i brought it home all my neighbors were inquiring, 'ahh you know this one' surprised because i was a stranger to so many foods here like kasava and potato leaf.
I love the way a vegetable becomes naturalized in countries it is not native to, part of the farm and part of the menu all over the world till you forget its origin.

Christina said...

PerennialPlate: You're welcome. I am just fascinated by good stories, and food seems to have so many of them. You're doing fascinating things there in the frigid wilds of Minnesota too--once upon a time, I lived in Wayzata . . ..

Sophie: Food currents. Let's trace them and see what stories they offer. Congratulations on the kickoff of your new blog.

Barbie said...

And would you believe that HERE in Florida this is probably the hardest of squash to find? It pains me that no one here grows it and I can only find seeds that are 'bread like the seminole pumpkin' grrr... Where did you get your seed?

Christina said...

Hi Barb, and welcome. I'll happily send you some seeds, if you're interested. I got them from a Florida member of Seed Savers.

Annie Haven | Authentic Haven Brand said...

Wonderful share