Saturday, October 5, 2013

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A Pumpkin Primer

Knucklehead, Orange Warty Thing, Wolf

This is not a joke or a riddle, honestly. Do you know how beets and turnips relate to our present day pumpkin carving tradition? I sure didn't. It seems the Irish used them during the festival of Samhain, meaning summer's end (October 31-November 1). Beets and turnips were the commodity vegetables of the day. They were hollowed out and then (usually) a diabolical face was carved on the front to emit light. Initially, burning lumps of coal were placed inside to create light. Later candles were substituted.

Green Warty Thing

There are a wide range of other-worldly theories on why the need existed in the first place. October 31st was believed to be very magical. The atmosphere was at its "weakest" point of the year on that night. So, the barrier between the living and dead was more easily breached, allowing people to honor the departed. Many felt this light would protect them as they walked about outside that night. Or, one's home might be protected from the spirits by setting the turnip or beet in a window by the door. See a tradition starting here?

Then there are the conflicting stories of "Stingy Jack" tricking the devil on different occasions with the same end result. As a punishment for his devious ways the devil gave Jack a burning ember to go forth into the night. It is said that Jack carved out a turnip, put the devil's coal in it and wandered the earth ever since. Jack-of-the-lantern became  "jack o'lantern".

One Too Many

When the Irish began immigrating to America they discovered pumpkins. I say "discovered" as pumpkins are natives to our side of the world. As you might well imagine, it must be a lot easier to carve a pumpkin than a turnip or beet. I didn't try it, but I'm pretty sure that must be the case.

Today's beautiful orange pumpkins are fruit, not vegetables. They are closely related to squash, cucumbers and melons. If you're tempted to grow them next year find a site with lots of sun, well-drained soil and be prepared to give the vine lots of elbow room. I mean that literally or they will clamber over their garden neighbors. If you're serious about larger pumpkins, select seed varieties that have been bred for that characteristic. Still, be prepared to fertilize and water regularly. Producing big pumpkins requires both the right genetics and continuous care.
Pie Pumpkins

Pumpkins are harvested when they have full color. Jack o'lantern-sized pumpkins (5-10 lbs. or larger) can be used for carving or baking. Hybridizers have done amazing things through selection and breeding to give us today's beautiful "gourds" with colors we never saw as kids.

Happy Samhain to all!

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