What You Didn’t Know About Pumpkins

Pumpkin image by Kristin Molinaro

There are many nice things about living in coastal California, but all of them come with trade-offs. One of those trade-offs? We don’t have an “autumn” here. Not really. We only get two seasons a year: wet and dry. The only reason leaves turn brown and fall off around here is because the drought is killing thirsty plants.

That’s why it’s nice to see some ceremonial signs of fall in the decorations people put up for their houses or businesses. The easiest and most common of these, of course, is a decorative pumpkin. Between the jack-o’-lanterns of Halloween, the pumpkin pies of Thanksgiving, and the Pumpkin Spice Lattes of Starbucks, we Americans have made fall “the season of the pumpkin”. Since I’m feeling festive this week, I think it’s time to examine our favorite winter squash a bit more closely and see what unusual facts I can find.

The name “pumpkin” is actually Greek

My Big Fat Greek Wedding screenshot from In Every Movie

“I told you every word was Greek!”

Wait… that doesn’t make sense. Pumpkins are indigenous to North America. They were domesticated in Mexico more than 7,000 years ago. Surely, they would have a name based on some Native American word, right?

The word “squash” clearly has Indian roots. The Massachuset Indians referred to the family of vegetables as askutasquash. However, early European explorers did not adopt the Indian name for this particular large, orange member of the squash family. Instead, French explorers who visited North America and encountered this unusual round squash thought it looked like a “large melon”. The French called them “pompons”. This French word has a Greek root: “Pepon”, which means “a large melon”.

So a Greek word for melons became a French word that was misapplied to a squash, and that French word was picked up by the English as “pumpion” because of course the English couldn’t be bothered to pronounce things correctly. Eventually, “pumpion” evolved into “pumpkin”.

Pumpkin Spice Lattes don’t contain any actual pumpkin

Pumpkin Spice Latte image from Neatorama

That’s right! The favorite fall drink of many Americans doesn’t quite contain what most of you think it contains. It turns out that somebody tracked down the actual ingredients in a Pumpkin Spice Latte from Starbucks and found that it only contains a pumpkin-flavored syrup.

Honestly, I’m not all that surprised. As somebody who has worked an espresso machine for years, I can tell you that putting specialized ingredients in somebody’s coffee drink takes some time and effort. In many cases, that time and effort is worth it, but when it comes to a drink that you will be making 200 million times, you want a standardized, easy procedure that you can quickly do without thinking over and over again. What could be easier than “squirt a pump of this syrup in there”? Still, I imagine some people will be rather unhappy with this revelation, especially when you consider…

American farms grow more than a billion pounds of pumpkin a year!

Pumpkin patch image by Harald Bischoff

That’s $141 million worth of pumpkins harvested every fall. Illinois alone supplied 496 million pounds of pumpkin in 2008. Other major pumpkin producers are Ohio, Pennsylvania, and California. Only a small number of these will wind up as jack-o’lanterns or decorations; most will be processed into pies, soups, breads and animal feeds.

The largest pumpkin on record was grown this year by California farmer John Hawkley, with his prize-winner clocking in at 2,058 pounds! The most common decorative variety of pumpkin, the one we think of when we picture pumpkins in our head, is the Connecticut field pumpkin, but there are many others. The varieties you will most likely find in your pumpkin pies are Butternut Squash, Winter Crookneck Squash, Golden Cushaw Squash, and Long Island Cheese Pumpkins.

While we’re on the subject of eating pumpkins…

Pumpkin flowers are edible

Pumpkin Flower image by Vishalsh521

When we think about eating pumpkins, we usually think of taking that pumpkin pulp and baking it into our pies or breads, or we think of crunching on those pumpkin seeds. We don’t usually imagine eating the flowers of the pumpkin plant, yet if you wanted to put them in your salad or cook them in your soup, you would be getting a good source of both calcium and vitamin C!

There are many ways to cook pumpkin flowers, if you are so inclined. Here’s a recipe for fried pumpkin flowers. Here’s one for a pumpkin-flower sauce. This country-style recipe uses corn meal and eggs to make a pumpkin flower breakfast. Want a pumpkin flower recipe using prawns, fish sauce, and dill? If that’s your thing, here you go.

If you plan to give these recipes a try, here’s some helpful hints. First, if you are growing your own pumpkin plant, only use the male flower (the one with a pollen-covered stamen). The female flower will grow into a pumpkin. Second, use your flowers quickly, preferably the day you pick them. They don’t last long in the refrigerator. Also, be sure to soak them to remove any dirt, and clip off the stamen and collar before you cook them.

Learning all of these unusual facts certainly gave me a new perspective on the humble pumpkin, as I hope it did for you. I say we all give this symbol of fall some respect this year.

Or... fire it out of an air cannon. I guess that works, too.

Or… fire it out of an air cannon. I guess that works, too.

Please Calm Down About Ebola

An Editorial

Ebola image from the CDC and Cynthia Goldsmith

Earlier this week, a blogger I follow discovered a fake news story that was being passed around on Facebook, claiming the new Ebola vaccine (there is no such vaccine yet) was being used to implant microchips into unsuspecting victims (there is no way such a microchip could fit in a vaccine needle). It just goes to show how easy it is for somebody to make a fake news website that looks legitimate in order to spread misinformation. I will never understand why some of these people do that. Is it some kind of prank? Do they just want attention? I don’t know.

What I do know is that legitimate, mainstream media sites have been obsessively reporting on the Ebola outbreak in west Africa for weeks, with coverage recently shifting to “An American got the virus! Everybody panic and freak out!” Even the candidates in the upcoming midterm elections have started talking about the disease. The U.S. government has taken to rerouting planes from west African countries to keep the disease at bay.

This mystery disease with a strange name has caused a nationwide panic. It doesn’t help that the list of symptoms – “fever, severe headache, muscle pain, weakness, diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach pain” – sounds exactly the same as a bad case of food poisoning. Is it any wonder, then, that fake news stories about Ebola might go viral?

The truth is that all of this panic is unproductive. We are not about to be hit by a new incarnation of the Black Death. The odds of you personally falling sick from Ebola are so minuscule, you might as well be afraid of being eaten by a shark while struck by lightning in a golf course water trap. Even if you are in the same room as a person who has the disease, you would not get sick unless you somehow mix body fluids. So I guess, just don’t play with his or her IV?

"That had better be a clean needle!"

“That had better be a clean needle!”

Seriously, Ebola is one of those diseases that will not spread through the air or water. The only people in the United States who have been exposed to the disease were in direct contact with a single Ebola patient who had just returned from Liberia, and he only got the disease because he was helping to treat a pregnant woman who happened to be an Ebola patient. Only three people in the entire world have died from Ebola without having been to Africa: one person in the United Kingdom, and two in Russia. All three of them got the disease due to a laboratory mishap.

Yet the massive, media-driven Ebola panic has forced the U.S. government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to take time out of their busy schedule monitoring for actual public health threats to talk about the risk of my cats getting infected with Ebola!

Yes, I did say media-driven panic. This panic was created by the news media, albeit unintentionally, and I will stand by those words. The news media of today has been forced to adopt a completely different business model in response to our new, digital age, and I watched it happen as a journalism student. Where it used to be that most Americans got their news from newspapers or television, today 66% of people who own smartphones or tablets get their news from a news app on their device of choice, according to the Pew Research Center. This means that news organizations depend on online and mobile advertising to help pay their expenses. Those online and mobile advertisers base how much they are willing to pay for ad space on how many people click on the headline and read the story.

This means news outlets have a direct, financial incentive to follow whatever news trend is getting the most clicks on Facebook, Twitter, or Google News. This leads to a race to “follow-the-leader” as soon as somebody’s story starts getting a spike in attention. Somebody, somewhere, wrote a story on Ebola that got tons of clicks, and so now everybody is reporting on every new development and every detail about the disease in the hopes their own Ebola stories will also get tons of clicks. Thus, it seems to the average, uninformed reader that this disease they had never heard of had appeared out of nowhere and was creating headlines. The news media never meant to start a panic, but that is what has happened.

It’s not like journalists like this pressure to “report the Facebook trend.” Earlier this month, an editor from the Wall Street Journal spoke at Cal Poly about journalism ethics, saying “The truth is still number one. Don’t publish anything until you know it to be true…It’s not fair or right to publish rumors… As we embrace new technology, we must be guided by core standards.”

News Reporter image by Jonut

In any case, the real tragedy is that worrying about whether or not you (or your pet) will fall victim to Ebola distracts us all from the real problem: Why Ebola has become such a big problem in Africa in the first place. Ebola has spread through west Africa and infected thousands because of poor infrastructure and poor sanitation.

Many people in the rural African back-country (where the outbreak probably began) depend, in part, on hunting wild animals to survive. This puts these people at a higher risk of contracting Ebola than anyone else in the world. Indeed, Ebola has appeared several times in Africa before, though this year’s outbreak is the largest by far.

So, what do you do if you are sick in rural Africa? You have to go to a poorly-funded, understaffed health clinic that does not have access to such basic necessities as bleach and rubber gloves. The doctors and other patients then contract the disease, and it starts to spread. People in these rural villages have no soap or running water to wash their hands. Thus, it is far easier for the disease to spread from person to person than in the United States, where we take basic sanitation for granted. More people get sick, then go to those same health clinics.

Repeat over and over again, and you have an epidemic that starts to attract attention from national governments and international health organizations. Doctors try to keep the disease from spreading by taking patients to isolated treatment centers where they can get treated more effectively, but this unintentionally spreads panic in the rural villages that are affected by the outbreak. All these locals know is “Men in white coats are taking sick people away and they don’t come back! Everybody run and hide!”

One reporter for PBS who went to Sierra Leone reported that “It felt like being in a war zone where the enemy is invisible.” He described overcrowded hospitals, a lack of qualified doctors and nurses due to so many falling victim to the very disease they were trying to treat, and even undertakers who were overwhelmed with work. The survival rate in these conditions for Ebola patients is only 30%. That’s not beginning to include people who are sick from other diseases or conditions that are dying because they can’t get the treatments they need because of the Ebola outbreak.

Even so, there is hope. The World Health Organization reports that Nigeria is now “free of Ebola”. Though there is no Ebola vaccine yet, there are reports that one might be ready for testing by January. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made a huge donation to help those who have been affected by the disease.

Then again, a bridal shop in Ohio that a woman just happened to visit before being diagnosed with Ebola had to undergo a (completely unnecessary) UV sterilization to convince customers it was safe to shop there again.

Picard facepalm image from Imgur

If you want to help Ebola victims, you can donate to Doctors Without Borders, who have been actively working to help treat patients in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.

Four Not-So-Well-Known Facts About California History

The Flag of California

My home state of California is the home of more than 10% of all Americans, living in a state that stretches as far north as Pennsylvania and as far south as South Carolina. Within its borders are some of North America’s tallest mountains, vast, fertile valleys filled with some of the nation’s most productive farms, one of the world’s hottest deserts, and miles of coastline with one of the world’s rarest climates.

Today, in honor of my home state, I’ve decided to talk about some not-so-well-known facts the history of the land I call home. For example, did you know…

California had an incredible diversity of indigenous cultures

Chumash canoe image by Robert Schwemmer

When we think of Native American cultures, we usually picture the buffalo hunters of the Great Plains, or the famous Southwestern tribes like the Navajo, Apache, and Pueblo peoples, or the forest-dwelling east coast farmers like the Iroquois, Cherokee, or Powhatan. However, the Indians of California receive very little attention in our history books and our popular culture.

This is a real shame, because prior to European contact, California was home to more than 500 Indian groups, speaking more than 100 languages! California had the highest population density north of Mexico, with a population that was able to sustain itself off of California’s abundant natural resources without the need for agriculture. Those who lived near the coast, like the Chumash people who lived in the Central Coast area where I live now, would support themselves with the abundant sea life just off shore. Those who lived further inland would ensure good hunting and gathering every year by taking advantage of something Californians of today fear – wildfires. They would intentionally start forest fires to fertilize the soil and make room for the fresh growth that deer and elk love.

Tragically, very little survives of this rich history. Some groups, like the Chumash, were able to preserve some of their culture over the generations. On the other hand, there were groups like the Yahi, who are now completely extinct. The only reason we know about the Yahi is because their last surviving member, Ishi, was able to impart the knowledge, history, and culture of his people to anthropologists at UC Berkeley before he died. Who knows how many groups went extinct without an “Ishi” to preserve their history? Today, there are numerous archaeologists hard at work in California trying to learn what we can about this gap in our history.

California is the only U.S. state to have been invaded by Argentina

Hippolyte Bouchard, the Argentine captain who once made Californians quake in fear.

Hippolyte Bouchard, the Argentine captain who once made Californians quake in fear.

In 1810, Revolution in the streets of Buenos Aires led to Argentina’s War of Independence. The war did not stay confined to Argentina for long. On land, Argentine general José de San Martín led campaigns in Chile and Peru, while at sea the French-born Argentine naval commander Hippolyte Bouchard attacked Spanish forces as far away as the Philippines, Hawaii, and, yes, California.

On November 20, 1818, Argentine ships were spotted approaching Monterey Bay. The Spanish authorities evacuated the civilians to the Soledad Mission, and prepared the cannons of the presidio (Spanish fort). That night, the first ship anchored just offshore, only to discover at dawn that they had accidentally parked just within cannon-fire range.

Whoopsie daisy!

Whoopsie daisy!

The first ship was quickly forced to surrender, but Bouchard did not give up. Landing about four miles away, he led his men up to the presidio, and after a brief fight, he captured it, raising the Argentine flag. For the next nine days, the Argentinians ransacked the city, looting everything they could use and killing all the livestock they could find.

Eventually, they left Monterey, and began a campaign against various targets along the California coast – Point Conception, Santa Barbara, and San Juan Capistrano. Each time, Bouchard’s forces would attack, steal what they could use, destroy what they couldn’t, and leave. Californians naturally started referring to Bouchard as “California’s only pirate”. By the end of the year, Bouchard had moved on to targets further south, putting an end to the Argentine campaign in California just as quickly as it had begun.

California under Mexican rule was politically unstable

Capture of Monterey image from The Bancroft Library

This fact is actually not all that surprising when you consider that Mexico itself was quite politically unstable. From 1821, when Mexico won its independence from Spain, to 1848, when the United States formally defeated Mexico and annexed California, there were 40 changes of government in Mexico! Mexico had gone from being a monarchy to a federal republic to a centralized dictatorship, with rebellions and coups and three different constitutions. Is it any wonder that some of that chaotic mess rubbed off on California?

At first, California was pretty insulated from all the trouble down south. Things started to heat up when some groups started trying to curtail some of the power of the Roman Catholic Church. In California, much of the Spanish colonization effort had been in the form of missions built and run by Franciscan monks along the California coast, where priests would convert the natives to Christianity and train them in Spanish cultural ways. In 1826, Governor José María de Echeandía tried to break up the missions, declaring the Indians there to be free to leave if they so chose and become full Mexican citizens. In 1831, a new governor, Manuel Victoria, tried to reverse course and restore the missions, but he was overthrown in just less than a year by an uprising by local Californians led by Pío Pico.

Pico tried to declare himself governor, but Los Angeles refused to accept him. He resigned after only 20 days in office. Taking advantage of the confusion, Agustín Zamorano led a rebellion in northern California and took control there. Meanwhile, Echeandía launched his own government in southern California. Finally, order was restored when Mexico sent Jose Figueroa to take over as California’s governor and finish the dismantling of the mission system, breaking up church lands into large, secular land grants called “ranchos”.

After Figueroa, California had two governors in a row who were so unpopular they were quickly deposed in military coups, with the last coup bringing Juan Bautista Alvarado to power. Alvarado was basically running an independent regime at this point, but still claimed loyalty to Mexico. This arrangement didn’t please everyone. He failed to get the support of southern Californians for his rule, and Mexico wasn’t willing to lose control of California. Mexican authorities sent their own pick for California’s governor to Los Angeles, leading to a Californian civil war between Alvarado’s supporters in the north and loyalists in the south. Alvarado won, but tensions remained high, and eventually Mexico tried to send another expedition to reclaim their rogue territory.

This led to one of the most laughable moments in California history. A U.S. Navy officer sailed into Monterey, thinking that the U.S. was at war with Mexico, and was able to capture the presidio. Once he realized his mistake, he tried to apologize to Alvarado, but Alvarado had already fled to his rancho. This left the Mexican military commander that had been sent to reclaim California as the only authority figure available.

Even this didn’t end the chaos. At the Battle of Provedencia, the Mexican forces were defeated by Californian rebels, and Pío Pico returned as governor. Pico wound up sharing power with Jose Castro, with the line between their domains drawn through San Luis Obispo. The net sum of all of this chaos and fighting was that California was weak and divided when the United States decided to take it by force when it declared war on Mexico in 1846. Even with American troops marching in, California still found itself struggling with civil unrest, as some U.S.-born residents of Sonoma decided to declare an independent “California Republic” and raised a flag with a bear on it over the town barracks, giving rise to what would become the official state flag to this day.

Los Angeles is an oil boom town

Oil Pump image from California Air Resource Board

New York City has been America’s most populous city since the American Revolution. Chicago has been in the top five U.S. cities since 1870. Los Angeles may be the second-most-populous city today, but it has only held that rank since 1990. In fact, it wasn’t even in the top five until 1930! How did this city by the sea turn into the behemoth it is today? It has to have been Hollywood, right? Everybody wanting to live near the greatest stars, to dream about making it big as a movie star?

Actually, the reason L.A. is so big today has less to do with black-and-white films and more to do with black gold.

That’s right, not only was Los Angeles built on oil, it continues to be a major oil producer to this day! The oil derricks are just all well-hidden behind clever construction – an office building here, a fake island there. Many traces of the city’s current and past oil sites have been hidden from public view. Back in the city’s oil heyday, though, people were much less secretive about it.

Oil pumps image from Gizmodo

The first oil discovery in Los Angeles was in 1892, when prospectors Edward L. Doheny and Charles A. Canfield found a well near where Dodgers Stadium is located now. Most of the oil was concentrated in the hills just northwest of Downtown, but there was oil to be found all the way down to the beach.

Oil pumps image from USC

Even private homeowners got in on the action, digging their own wells on their property. Even today the Beverly Hills Unified School District supplements its income with money from an oil pump on the Beverly Hills High School campus. By the 1940s, though, new residents started to complain about the noise the derricks made and the ugliness of their appearance, leading to many wells being closed and the ones that still operate being camouflaged. It is a testament to how well-hidden the current oil wells are that I lived in Southern California for two years, and I had no idea. I only learned about this “secret” oil history many years later. It is a testament to just how much our history books leave out.

Congratulations to Amy Orvin, winner of the Cat Flag giveaway. Thanks to everyone who participated!