Pumpkintime Oct25

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It’s that time again, Charlie Brown! Time to pick your yearly pumpkin, the one that will finally be your best jack o’ lantern ever. But a good pumpkin picker is an informed pumpkin picker – so allow us to throw a little pumpkin history and pumpkin-farming science your way, plus some pumpkin options you may not have heard of – hey, who ever said a Halloween pumpkin has to be orange?

First things first – pumpkins aren’t a vegetable – they’re actually a fruit. Their name originates from the Greek word pepon. The word moved through cultural shifts in language, into the French pompon, the British pumpion, and the word we know today, the American pumpkin. And they’ve been around since around 5500 BC – although they weren’t carved into Jack O’Lanterns until the early to mid 1800s.

The traditional color for a pumpkin, as you likely already know, is orange – and the typical size ranges from a pumpkin so tiny that you could tuck it into your jacket pocket, to pumpkins that tip the scale in the hundreds of pounds. Most of the pumpkin itself is edible, and is often a staple of North American autumn menus.

They’ve made plenty of appearances in popular culture, too – some of the most familiar being Cinderella’s carriage, the Pumpkin Juice beverage from the Harry Potter movies, the pumpkin atop the torso of the headless horseman in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and of course the cartoon Peanuts’ yearly visit from the esteemed Great Pumpkin.

But this time of year, it’s mostly about the pumpkin as that perfect Halloween accessory. Grown at farms across the country, picking the perfect pumpkin is a yearly custom that most of us look forward to – never mind that Jack O’Lanterns actually started with people carving designs into…

… turnips.

Steve Fouch, one of the owners of an American Halloween mecca called Jacob’s Corn Maze, keeps things almost as simple as those good old days with Jacob’s special Halloween-ready pumpkins.

“We grow a variety of pumpkin called Hannibal,” he says, “these are pumpkins that grow in the 20-25 pound range, pretty consistently. They are appealing pumpkins, because they’re just the right size of pumpkin that people enjoy for decorating and carving.”

carved pumpkins“Hannibal” pumpkins are thought to be best for carving stars, witches, Marios, and Oogie-Boogies.

While a quick internet search reveals at least 30 different varieties of pumpkins, Jacob’s only grows the singular Hannibal variety of pumpkin for their Halloween customers (“that’s the only one we grow – it’s a very solid pumpkin,” Fouch says.)  Around a thousand of them, to be more precise – that’s the amount of pumpkins that Jacob’s estimates they sell every Halloween.

Other farms and vendors offer a more artistic approach to your Halloween pumpkin-choosing. Jim Spencer, who co-owns a popular Midwestern destination called Pond Hill Farm, oversees the pumpkin-growing each year and explains that he thinks people sometimes get a little stuck on the traditional orange pumpkin, which can keep them from seeing the “bigger picture” of pumpkin options.

“There are actually a lot of really neat pumpkins,” Spencer says. “Our specialty pumpkins include White, Blue, Green, and something called a ‘Cinderella’ pumpkin, which is more flat than a typical pumpkin and ranges from a very bright orange to pink. The’Cinderella’ – its botanical name is Rogue de’Vampes – is probably my favorite pumpkin – it’s a French Pumpkin, it’s quite beautiful with its flattened shape.”

Coloured pumpkinsGet creative – pumpkins aren’t just orange anymore.

While Spencer certainly doesn’t discourage people from purchasing the orange pumpkins that are thought of as the gold – erhm, sorry, orange – standard for Halloween decor, he suggests that they perhaps try one of the more unusual pumpkin varieties, which can both add color to your Halloween display – and food to your table.

“We grow around a dozen different kinds of pumpkins,” Spencer says, “starting with the miniature pumpkins – the Baby Boo and Baby Bear varieties. We grow pie pumpkins, Giant Pumpkins, and, of course, the usual Jack O’Lantern pumpkins – this year, as far as varieties, we’ve got Gold Medal, Gold Rush, Wolf, and the Howden Biggie.”

Spencer also explains that all of the specialty pumpkins are extremely good for eating as well as for Halloween carving.

“You can make them into good soups or pies, and you can also roast them, like a winter squash,” he says.

(Jack Skellington soup with a side of roasted Crazy Face, anyone?)

His favorite pumpkin activity, however, doesn’t include ovens or knives, but does involve a bit of gardening expertise. And no, you won’t have room for this particular hobby on the roof of your Brooklyn loft or Camden flat.

“I like to grow Giant Pumpkins,” he chuckles, “our biggest this year was 500 pounds. Last year’s was 300 pounds. So we’re learning as we go – and I’m hoping for a 1,000 pound pumpkin next year.”   – Kristi Kates