Creativity: A Pumpkin Saga

Thanksgiving brings back fond memories of family gatherings, football games, rampant gorging, furlough days, and procrastination (writing papers for students, grading papers for faculty). For me, though, one of the most poignant memories of Thanksgiving is a culinary failure of grand proportions (if you believe my husband).

We volunteered to host Thanksgiving one year when we were both still fisheterians (pesco-ovo-lacto vegetarians is the technical term), but we insisted, “No turkey.” None at all. We wouldn’t roast one and no one could bring one. But I promised everyone that there would be a feast—that no one would feel the least bit deprived. I considered doing what my Gran’mommy or my Mom or my aunts typically suggested as we all drooled over a holiday spread, “You could make a meal out of the side dishes and the desserts.” But they were joking—we’d have never tried Thanksgiving without a turkey or Easter without a ham or Christmas without one or the other or both.

I wanted a centerpiece, though—some dish that said, “amazing main course,” not “technically a side dish.” So I bought some cookbooks, and for once not procrastinating, began making practice meals weeks ahead of time, to see if my prep time matched the cookbook’s estimate, and to see if we actually liked the food. We had spanikopita (phyllo dough = too much work). We had several other meals I no longer recall, possibly involving tofu.

And then I found it. THE perfect recipe for a vegetarian Thanksgiving. Pumpkin lasagna! I know, right? It’s pumpkin! Like pie, but not! And lasagna! Who doesn’t love lasagna! Christopher Columbus was Italian, right? And if he hadn’t begun the deluge, the Puritans would never have washed up on Plymouth Rock and had to rely on friendly natives to survive*, right? Perfect.

I have to explain before I continue, that my husband nath is pretty much a fantastic audience for my cooking. He’s not a picky eater, except for his insistence that beets are carcinogenic, and he is very generous with praise and gratitude, for even simple meals.

He loathed the pumpkin lasagna. If you asked him, he would tell you, first, that it looked like baby poop. Years after this catastrophe, when we had our own baby, we learned more precisely that it looked like the poop of a breastfed baby. I had to agree that the color was unpleasant. He goes further and says the taste was even worse. In any case, it wasn’t what we had on Thanksgiving. If I remember right, we just went with the whole “side dishes make a meal” theory, and the next year, we let someone else bring a turkey.

Because in general I get pretty good responses to my cooking (except from my son, who’s nearly seven so his responses fall under a different category entirely*), I remember this failure fondly.

The willingness to fail, spectacularly, is an important part of success, right? And other than my husband’s lingering horror at the memory, the reason I remember the pumpkin lasagna is that for years, I’ve used it as an example in explaining the steps of creativity.

“What’s that,” you say? “How could creativity have steps? Isn’t it hard to define? Isn’t it just entirely subjective?” Hm. Yes and no. Well, actually, no. Not if you believe close to a hundred years of scholarly research on creativity, primarily in the disciplines of psychology, business, and design. Which I do, even though, in the humanities, I think, we would prefer to think of creativity as something utterly magical and un-analyzable, like faxes.

The basic definition is—get ready for the highly technical academic jargon—ready?—doing cool, new stuff with old stuff. You can say it all fancy-pants if you want—utilizing existing materials to produce novelty in a recognized activity, field or domain—but really, it means following enough rules to make sense, but doing something new within the framework of those rules. Or modifying the framework.

People who describe the stages or steps of creativity use some variation of the following list (much of which comes from an early researcher named Wallas, though he is rarely cited):
• Immersion (where you consider all the possibilities)
• Incubation (where you set your work aside and let your subconscious stew)
• Inspiration (when, like Archimedes, you have your “eureka!” moment—and bathrooms rank high statistically as places where we report getting inspired*, btw. But I shouldn’t say “we” because I would never report that, even if it were true, which of course it’s not)
• Verification (where someone whose judgment matters, for whatever reason, says, “Yes! Tastes great!” or “I’ll publish that!”).

So, as I describe to students and others, I immersed myself by scouring cookbooks for ideas and I practiced different meals. I waited between attempts. I was utterly charmed, and I thought, INSPIRED by the idea of pumpkin lasagna. But when we got to the verification stage? Huh-uh. Hold the phone, Horatio. Just say no.

Other creative projects have met with greater acclaim, including meals. Except for those of us aiming for a show on the Food Network, creativity in cooking falls under the category of what is called “Everyday Creativity.” Beyond a stroll down memory lane to window-shop the stores of holidays past, why does all this matter?

I am gobsmackingly inspired by another early creativity researcher, Guilford, who said, “If by any approach we could lift the population’s problem solving skills by a small amount on the average, the summative effect would be incalculable.” Creativity is a huge part of problem solving, and the more we understand the creative process, the easier it will be for more of us to be more creative. I believe that, and I’m working to put that belief in action inside the classroom and out.

Meanwhile, this Thanksgiving, we’re going out to eat. This involves very little creativity on my part, other than the initial immersion which involved, “What are all the ways we could celebrate? Cancel classes on Wednesday to start cooking early? Stay up until midnight cooking after being in classes all day? Get up at 3:00 a.m. to start cooking? Or, courtesy of my husband, go out to eat at a restaurant we love?”

So we’ll be at the Old Feed Mill in Mazomanie, Wisconsin, where I am confident the only pumpkins we’ll encounter will be filling a cornucopia or a pie. Creativity is important, but sometimes you need to rely on the utterly un-novel. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

*This is the Brady Bunch historical version. Other posts may deal with the question of historicity of shows I watched after getting home from school circa 1974-1978.
*Citation will be provided at some point.
*He recently listed “Culver’s” as his favorite food on a getting-to-know-you form at school. Sigh.

5 responses to “Creativity: A Pumpkin Saga

  1. My sympathethies lie with Bath on the pumpkin lasagna – I’ve had more than one encounter with culinary disaster involving pumpkins forced into dishes against their nature.

  2. Love your first blog – Happy T’giving!

  3. Heather Terrill Stotts

    Thanks for sharing your first blog with me. I love the pumpkin lasagna story and as a vegetarian who doesn’t have turkey for Thanksgiving, I can totally relate. Writing about creativity isn’t easy. I think you’ve done a great job here by providing a good example we can all relate to. I hope the Old Feed Mill offered something a little more tasty, albeit probably less creative, than the pumpkin lasagna disaster. Enjoy the rest of the weekend.

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