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Cinderella's Coach and Other Pumpkins

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

What leads lawyers to write fabulous fables? And why were they so interested in pumpkins? , Washington Irving (1783-1859), a New York legalist, penned The Legend of Sleepy Hollow but, being American and therefore sharing citizenship with the pumpkin, a peculiarly American fruit, he had some excuse. Perhaps he suspected his fellow legal eagles would not let him off so easily, though. His real name was Geoffrey Crayon. He only chose to write as Washington Irvine.

Not so the creator of the tale of Cinderella, French lawyer Charles Perrault. After some 25 years as secretary to a leading politician, he published eight fairy tales, the Comtes de ma mere l"oye (1697, Tales of Mother Goose) which included "The Sleeping Beauty," "Red Riding Hood," and "Cinderella."

It is in Cinderella, of course that a pumpkin, quietly resting in the kitchen garden, is scooped out and magically transformed by Cinderella"s fairy godmother into a magnificent gilded coach. In this vehicle Cinderella, dressed in her beautiful new duds, rides to the prince's dance party. She captures the royal son's heart only to be forced to flee before midnight, when the pumpkin coach -- and her dress -- return to their original form.

Of course, all turns out well in the end as you can see if you watch the Disney version of the Perrault tale, made over fifty years ago. It includes a pair of very funny mice, Gus and Jaq, and a mean cat, as well as Cinderella's fairy godmother helping transform her goddaughter while singing the song "Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo."

But here are a couple of interesting things for you to think about: First pumpkins are, as we said earlier, from America. They cannot have arrived in France much more than a century or so before Perrault penned his tale. So the lawyer must have been a gardener also. Or perhaps, like many Frenchmen, he loved his food. One French food book has, among other pumpkin dishes, pumpkin pudding, pumpkin with cheese, pumpkin salad, pumpkin soup, pumpkin souffle and sweet-sour pumpkin -- but no pumpkin pie.

Secondly, pumpkins are ready and ripe at this time of the year. It can be pretty chilly at night, when Cinderella takes off for the prince's party. Was she dressed for it? Not exactly, at least in the Disney version, but then this is a fairy tale. Anyway, whoever said a girl had to dress sensibly, especially in fashionable France?

Wes Porter is a horticultural consultant and writer based in Toronto. He has over 40 years of experience in both temperate and tropical horticulture from three continents.