People here sometimes ask me about the things from the USA that I miss. Other than people—you can make new friends, but you can’t make new old friends—I miss a random collection of bits of American life that, before I moved to the UK, I would never have thought would top the list. This time of year, I miss pumpkins.
For the twenty years I lived near San Francisco, I made a pilgrimage each October to the pumpkin farms in Half Moon Bay. You can’t beat the view, with the Pacific on one side—you know Hawai’i is out there somewhere, if you could see just a little farther—and fields of orange pumpkins on the other, with the foothills behind.
A few years ago some friends from England came with us on our annual pumpkin expedition during a year they spent in San Francisco. They said there probably weren’t as many pumpkins in all of England as there were in the first field we saw. Not the first farm, mind you, merely the first single field.
We didn’t give our custom to just anybody. We had our favourites, skipping the ones that offered pony rides and haunted houses and that had invested significant capital in professionally-painted signs. We only went to farms that looked like farms, with the sample pumpkins propped on bales of straw (you match the sizes of the ones you want against the priced samples to figure out what yours will cost) and a farmer in a straw cowboy hat who’d look at your whole wheelbarrow-load of pumpkins and say “Oh, just give me a twenty”.
Those British friends’ children (seen here in photos from our long-ago pumpkin trip), who were already learning at their American school to say garbage can instead of rubbish bin and to say bath the American way, rather than pronouncing it to rhyme with Goth—took to the process of pumpkin selection right away. One particularly liked what she called flat pumpkins—those would be the rotten ones that had collapsed into colourful messes the rest of us did our best to avoid stepping in.
If there is pumpkin picking there will be trick or treating soon after. We knew people in the US who decorated their houses more elaborately for Hallowe’en than they did for Christmas, while we just put out a few pumpkins by way of invitation and then dished out the candy when the doorbell rang. In ten years in the UK, we’ve had a total of about 5 children come by trick or treating. There’s no reason that they should trick or treat here, of course. It’s not a UK custom, as was forcefully put to me by a friend who doesn’t like the idea. “My son wants a robot costume and I have to find something. And buy all the sweets. It’s your fault,” she said. “You Americans, exporting Hallowe’en.”
It never occurred to me to export Hallowe’en. Given that any sweets given out here are presumably made here (or wherever British sweets are made, because surely few British people give away imported American candy) and the decorations, masks, and costumes, if you go in for sto’-bought costumes, are probably made in China, there’s not much in it for the US either way.
Those British children—they of the flat pumpkins—took to trick or treating in a big way. They were pretty small at the time and didn’t immediately understand what was going to happen, so once they got into their pirate costumes, we had them practice once on us. Ring bell; say “treat or treat”; get candy. Once is all it takes. When they’d been to a few places in the neighborhood, and their father had had enough and brought them back, the smaller one informed us solemnly that “real pirates would go to all the houses”.
The pumpkins that we used to buy for display on the front porch weren’t any good for eating. I’ve seen complaints in the UK press about those wasteful Americans who throw away 90% of the pumpkins they buy rather than eating them, but that’s because the varieties grown for decorations aren’t very good to eat. You might as well condemn us for not snacking on the Christmas tree after it comes down.
Over here, alas, I can’t afford many pumpkins anyway. The money that would half-fill the trunk/boot of my car in Half Moon Bay would buy me no more than a couple of small ones here, so I skip the pumpkins most years. I can sometimes find canned/tinned Libby’s pumpkin but only in the latter half of November, possibly a good thing because it costs so much you have to start saving for it in advance.So I’m not too disappointed to find that my new friends tend to say “no, thank you” to my pumpkin pie and opt for the pecan pie I also offer; the idea that pumpkins can turn into a nice dessert is exotic here. That’s okay—all the more for the rest of us! But if my old friends were here, they’d appreciate a good pumpkin pie, and I’d happily share mine with them any day. They’re worth their weight in pumpkins.