Taste of Life: Proposal to Yerawada school favoured jam made from pumpkins grown in its backyard

Wives of several members of the Agri-horticultural Society were keen to help Reformatory School in Yerawada to take up the project to make and sale jam made from pumpkins grown in its backyard

Wives of several members of the Agri-horticultural Society were keen to help Reformatory School in Yerawada to take up the project to make and sale jam made from pumpkins grown in its backyard. (Getty Images/iStockphoto (PIC FOR REPRESENTATION))

Pune: In January 1912, after the children from the Reformatory School, Yerawada, won several prizes at the annual flower show organised by the Agri-horticultural Society, Poona, a proposal was sent to the school suggesting the making and sale of pumpkin jam. Even though the school annual report for 1911-12 did not specify who sent the proposal, it mentioned that wives of several members of the Agri-horticultural Society were keen to help the school with the project. They had volunteered to share their recipes for pumpkin jam and preserves. A group had offered to bear the initial cost for advertising the product.

This was not unusual since the Reformatory received support from various organisations in Poona. The work in the book-binding section, for example, was running on fund provided by the Poona United Service Library, according to the school annual report.

A pumpkin is a vernacular and typical term for a cultivated orange and round mature winter squash of species and varieties in the genus Cucurbita that has culinary and cultural significance. Depending on the vernacular, its colour and shape may vary. Cultivators of Cucurbita maxima and Cucurbita pepo were popular in the nineteenth and twentieth-century Poona.

It grew in gardens, farms and near the banks of rivers in Deccan, and was used as bait during amateur fishing. A small piece was cut out from a side opposite the stalk and small hooks attached to strings were put in the hole, hidden in the pulp of the pumpkin, after removing the seeds. The pumpkin was kept afloat by two boards, placed on its two sides, and moored to the riverbank by a stout cord. The motion of the pumpkin on water signalled that the fish fell for the bait.

In Britain, efforts were made in the nineteenth century to make people aware of the value of pumpkin as an article of diet during the winter, for use in soups, pies, or as a preserve. But in India, it was a desired fruit in native and European kitchens since cooking and baking with it was easy. Stewed pumpkin was a popular dish as was fried pumpkin. Butter, jam and preserves using pumpkin were often made. Pumpkin bread was a delicacy. Pumpkin pies were toothsome and pumpkin pudding was relished. As an adjunct to boiled rice or plain puddings made from rice, it was simply delicious, as it was likewise for tartlets, or indeed any of the many uses to which preserves were put.

In the mid-nineteenth century, peaches, pears, and apples were scarce in Deccan, and the principal fruit for the Europeans was the faithful pumpkin. The time when pumpkins ripened was a cause for general rejoicing. The crop of pumpkins was always to be relied on. Several houses contained a wagonload of pumpkins. Cookbooks published during that period show that pumpkins were a popular gastronomic dependence as the splendid apples and strawberries were in the early twentieth century.

Pumpkin and vegetable marrow formed the foundation of a cheap and wholesome jam along with cucumbers and tomatoes. Two forms of preserve were usually made from the pumpkin – one to represent preserved ginger or lemon and to be used with the dessert; the other to be used as an ordinary domestic preserve.

Although these preparations were not extolled to the extent of comparing them to confections of rich luscious plums, or ripe juicy apples, they were wholesome and palatable, and an excellent and economical substitute, in seasons of scarcity. Even during the interwar years, the failure of the apple crop, and the scarcity of European plums suitable for making preserves to use during the winter, were a source of concern to many, and they filled their jam-pots with an excellent substitute made from pumpkins.

Europeans in India ate a great deal of jam. But they mostly ate the pumpkin variety flavoured with strawberries, – and called it strawberry jam. Not everyone was happy with this “adulteration”. How dare they force pumpkin jam, under the name of strawberry jam, down the throats of the people, wondered the critics.

On August 8, 1887 “Allen’s Indian Mail and Official Gazette” reported that “’An Anglo-Indian’ wanted to know where in London he could obtain genuine curry powder and paste and ‘real’ mango chutnies. He had returned from Poona a few months ago and said that the articles he had been getting hitherto under those names bore no resemblance to the articles accustomed to use in India”. The news report was an advertisement in disguise which suggested the gentleman try W Newson and Co on Jewin Street in London. The firm had opened a branch in Calcutta in the early 1840s and was a well-known name among the Europeans in India. It was then planning to open two more stores in Bombay and Poona. “The cheap chutnies sold at home as mangoes are composed of vegetable substances – marrow, pumpkin, or refuse of rhubarb stalks – in fact, of anything but mangoes, the delicious flavour of which fruit it is impossible to successfully imitate. The majority of so-called curry powders are equally adulterated and spurious”, the report mentioned, and declared that good chutnies and good curry powder must be made of the very best materials and spices, cunningly and cleverly compounded, and Messrs W Newson and Co guaranteed their Indian condiments to come up to the highest standard that the most seasoned Anglo-Indian palate can desire.

Dr Louise Purington of Boston, national superintendent of health and heredity department of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, in 1904, called attention to the alarming fact that every article used in the household culinary economy in the US and Britain was adulterated in some way. Strawberry jam, for example, was guiltless of strawberry, being composed chiefly of pieces of pumpkin coloured with aniline dyes, he wrote in various articles over two years.

Purington’s criticism of pumpkins being used in jams reached India pretty soon. Some cookbook authors and self-proclaimed “conscience keepers of the society” had been campaigning against the adaptation of native cookery and manners by the Europeans living in the country for several decades. Pumpkin jams and preserves, and the use of pumpkin as a base of other fruit preserves were a topic of ridicule and criticism for them. Purington’s articles fuelled their distaste for the fruit.

The proposal sent to the Reformatory School, however, seemed to have ignored this reprove and wholeheartedly endorsed pumpkin jam. “So many households were deprived of a cheap and wholesome jam solely through ignorance of its quality, and the method of producing it; hence if the Reformatory produces pumpkin jam, the demand is sure to be great”, read the proposal.

But the Reformatory School, after a series of discussions, decided to not take up the offer. The annual report did not give any reason.

W Newson and Co opened their store in Poona in 1892. It shut down in a couple of years.

Pumpkin is still used as a base for jams and ketchups. .

Chinmay Damle is a research scientist and food enthusiast. He writes here on Pune’s food culture. He can be contacted at chinmay.damle@gmail.com

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