Legends of the Fall: The Plight of the Pumpkin
A long-suffering vegetable lauds the harvest, wards off vampires and nally ends as a pie
In the United States, fall kicks off with a hulky man in a helmet sending a lemon-shaped pigskin careening into the air. But here in Austria, it’s with the sweet Sturm offered at every turn, as careening takes off on a far more personal level.
Americans have their lager, but it just isn’t in the same league as the strong seasonal gemischter Satz at the Austrian Erntedankfeste, the harvest festivals found in cities, towns and villages across the country that run throughout September and October.
Here the tables are laden with the fruits of the land, from Wein to Wildschwein. Among the most beloved are the pumpkins. Austrians can make just about anything from a pumpkin, from roasted seed snacks and luscious soups, to breads, casseroles, cakes and the legendary pumpkinseed oil that is a national trademark.
Where the Germans love their Kraut, to the Austrians, it’s Kürbis all the way. And the season starts as summer ends, lasting through the autumn months.
Americans love pumpkins too, but more selectively. They harvest their first pumpkins for Halloween in late October and carry on until the fourth Thursday in November, where they are transformed into pies for the great feast that is Thanksgiving Day.
So while fall holidays mean bountiful supplies of food lubricated with alcohol, the intrepid pumpkin reveals the cultural divide, but also some surprising similarities between these two faraway lands.
Festivals of food
In rural Austrian towns, villagers follow a brass band that trumpets the Erntekrone (harvest crown) into morning mass. After church is Frühschoppen, a community picnic with Bratwurst und Bier, and as the day progresses people move on to the seasonal speciality Sturm, a lightly fermented grape juice, similar to hard cider.
An urban harvest festival is a bit grander. In Vienna, tractors block traffic in September, pulling a massive Erntekrone made of golden grape leaves onto Heldenplatz. Beside the grandiose Hofburg Palace, lads in Lederhosen waltz with farmer’s daughters in Dirndln to the um-pah-pah of a brass band. Over 300,000 visitors this year got a real taste for Austrian countryside, savouring specialties like Emmenthaler cheeses, Wildwurst (sausages made from venison, rabbit, and other game meats), seasonal wines from the neighboring hills, and, or course, Styrian pumpkinseed oil.
This is where the vegetable steps into the spotlight. At Erntedank pumpkins are everywhere, in all forms imaginable, roasted or braised, stuffed or strained, as a Marmalade or a Raclette. This amazes American expats who see the main draw of the round orange squash as the raw materials for the flickering Jack-o’-lanterns that light the front porch for trick-or-treaters on Halloween.
Pumpkins on display
Short for All Hallows Eve, Halloween is an excuse each 31 October for Americans to dress up, party and give children candy. Last year, the nation spent almost $8 billion on costumes, décor, and treats, making Halloween the second largest commercial holiday after Christmas.
But Halloween is an ancient festival, first appearing in Ireland as Samhain, when the worlds of the living and dead overlapped and mischievous ghosts went abroad causing mayhem. To guide the good spirits, they lit bonfires and lanterns carved out of the thick-skinned seasonal favorite – the pumpkin.
Until the late 1990s, Halloween was virtually unheard of in Vienna. But marketers discovered the Austrian capital, bringing ghostly décor to the schools and "sexy or scary" costume contests in the clubs. Not all Austrians are thrilled: According to a 2010 survey by the Humaninstitut in Klagenfurt, 50 percent of respondents see Halloween as simply a money-making scheme that threatens the rituals of All Saints’ Day the next morning, when Austrian families gather to visit the graves of their closest relatives.
Fear not, dear Austrians! The pumpkins were there all along. Jack-o’-lanterns originated with All Saints’ day and All Souls’ Day with the carved pumpkins representing Christian souls in Purgatory. In his book Holidays and Holy Nights, Christopher Hill writes that "Jack-o’-lanterns were carved out of turnips or squashes and… used as lanterns to guide guisers [today’s trick-or-treaters] on All Hallows’ Eve."
Resourcing the ritual
American expats are often determined to carve their pumpkins, and every year, a handful stumble onto Franzlbauer’s, in Hintersdorf (literally, backside village), Lower Austria, a pumpkin oasis an hour outside of Vienna. By a two-metre tall orange pyramid, a life-size alligator made of white gourds and a horny-squash cactus, a huge "Willkommen Am Hof" is written in pumpkins welcomes visitors to the farm.
In the courtyard, papa of the patch Franz Hascher, a tall bristly-blonde Austrian, serves up Kürbisnockerl and pumpkin beer. His family inherited the farm in 1965, but it wasn’t until 2000 that Franz was introduced to planting pumpkins by an American friend – go figure. His first harvest yielded five different types. Since then, he’s has gone a little Kürbis-crazy, proudly producing about 400 dark-green and striped, kiwi-sized and spiky, curvy and spotted, and classic round varieties.
Celebrating Thanksgiving in the U.S. is typically a private affair, where family and close friends feast on turkey, yams, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce, apple and pumpkin pie. In a commercial country, it’s one of the least encumbered holidays, neither religious nor political, and about good fellowship and counting our blessings. At school, kids dress up as pilgrims with a paper bonnets, but the celebration has little to do with "befriending" the Native Americans. People conveniently forget what philosopher Stephan Evans calls "a toast to genocide".
Vienna’s inherent morbidity, as described by cabarettist Georg Kreisler, "Death must be Viennese", should make it the perfect European hub for Halloween.
A ghostly haunted trail could start on the "Widow Express", or Tram 71, and run through the Zentralfriedhof – Europe’s largest cemetery, with over three million interments including Vienna’s V.I.P.s from Beethoven to the rock star Falco.
For now, homesick Americans can find respite at carving workshops at the 15th Pumpkin Festival am Himmel. Horrors are sure to ensue with each attempt to wield a carving knife after enough glasses of Sturm. Let the harvest havoc begin. Prost!
Franzbauer Pumpkin Show: through Oct.
Haselbacherstraße 39, 3413 Hintersdorf
Pumpkin Festival am Himmel: 26 – 27 Oct.
19., Himmelstraße 80