October 24, 2010
Oh, Great Pumpkin, where are you?
It’s October: pumpkin harvesting time. I don’t think about pumpkins the rest of the year, but fall means carving and pie. Halloween and Thanksgiving. My view is too narrow; pumpkins are more important than those two activities and occasions to hundreds of thousands of people.
Not only can you cook a pumpkin, or fashion the large orange orb into a scary face to delight the trick or treaters, you can attempt to grow the most colossal in your community, or can build a boat to race on water, or gussy it up and mount it on a go-cart, or launch it into the air to see how far it will fly.
Pumpkins, you see, are quite the functional fruit.
Pumpkins are believed to have originated in North America; seeds from related plants have been found in Mexico dating back to 7,000 to 5,500 B.C. Native American Indians relied on the plant centuries before the pilgrims landed and “discovered” its virtues.
A good source of Vitamin A, eating, or sugar, pumpkins are usually smaller in size than the decorative ones and weigh less than 7 pounds. Most parts of a ripe pumpkin are edible, including the fleshy shell, the seeds, the leaves (I didn’t know this), and even the flowers, which makes sense as Italians have been deep frying zucchini blossoms for centuries.
Pumpkin also stores and freezes well; you can find tips on-line, but here are two: a 4-pound pumpkin yields 2 pounds raw flesh; 1 pound of raw peeled pumpkin yields 4-cups of pumpkin chunks.
An ingredient in recipes around the world, pumpkin can be boiled, baked, steamed, or roasted, chunked, mashed, pureed, made into soup, or stew, scones, fritters and frybread, rice and risotto, stuffed into ravioli or phyllo, and as a component in a tempura feast. The seeds are good as munchies. Pumpkin pie is thought to have originated when the colonists sliced off the top, removed the seeds, filled it with milk, spices and honey and then baked it “in the hot ashes of a dying fire.”
Pumpkins and Halloween
Halloween dates back at least 3,000 years to the Celtic celebration of Samhain (pronounced "sow-ain"), meaning "Summer's End,” held from sundown on October 31st until sundown on November 1st. On this night, glowing vegetable lanterns carved from turnips or gourds were set on porches and in windows to welcome deceased loved ones, but also to act as protection against malevolent spirits.
When European settlers, particularly the Irish, arrived in America they found the native pumpkin to be larger and easier to carve for Jack O'Lanterns, a term that appeared in 1827 but did not become part of the Halloween lexicon until 1866. Prior to that, carved pumpkins were just part of the general fall harvest season.
During the Halloween season, about 99% of the pumpkins grown for domestic consumption are earmarked for Jack O'Lanterns. Around Cleveland, two hybrids are consistently available and good for Halloween carving: Howden and Big Max, which are grown in Michigan and Ohio. Dark orange Howden averages 20 pounds in weight, and has thick walls and stems. Big Max is lighter orange in color, and has thicker walls than Howden. Perfect for making a trendy “pumpkin statement” on a front lawn, Big Max can grow as large as 200 pounds, although the average weight is 40.
Stephen Clarke of Havertown, Pennsylvania owns the bragging rights as “The World’s Fastest Pumpkin Carver” by chiseling eyes, nose, mouth and ears in 24.03 seconds on July 23, 2006 at Universal Studios in Orlando as part of “Food Network Challenge: Guinness World Records Week.”
If you’re stymied for ideas, check out Extreme Pumpkins “where strange pumpkins, pumpkin patterns, and alternative pumpkin carving techniques are developed and demonstrated.”
Other uses for pumpkin, or, what folks won’t do to a perfectly good Cucurbita.
There’s a festival for every thing on the planet, isn’t there? Pumpkins too are exalted from the Keene Pumpkin Fest in New Hampshire where an annual pumpkin “lobotomy” is held on the college campus, to Circleville, Ohio to Morton, Illinois, the self-declared “pumpkin capital of the world” to the annual Art and Pumpkin Festival in Half Moon Bay, California, which draws over a quarter million people.
Popular at these fests is the pumpkin weigh-in, when growers vie for the big enchilada crown. The world record might have been set this year on October 9th by Chris Stevens of New Richmond, Wisconsin, who won the Stillwater Harvest festival with his 1810.5-pound pumpkin. Said to be the world's heaviest ever, it has yet to be officially acknowledged by the folks at Guinness World Records, but the weight smashes the 2009 1,725 pound record.
What else do people do with these humongous pumpkins? Pumpkin boat racing is popular in Vermont, New York’s Central Park, Wisconsin, Nova Scotia, the U.K. and Germany, where The International Pumpkin Boat Championships are held.
In California, Manhattan Beach invented the World-Famous Pumpkin Race in 1990. Last year, over 10,000 attendees came to watch the gussied-up pumpkins compete on land in a side-by-side single elimination race featuring decorated Pumpkin RaceCars. This must be a hilarious event as there’s even a penalty for being in violation of the official rules. First, the cheater is immediately called out as a cheater. Second, the offending RaceCar is instantly destroyed by the Head Race Official wielding a large wooden mallet. Crowds cheer!
While we're on the topic of doing insane things with pumpkins: Punkin Chuckins are scheduled throughout the U.S. mostly in October and November. If you're not familiar with this autumn sport, it involves hurling pumpkins using air cannons, catapults, trebuchets, and pneumatic air cannons. Some pumpkin chuckers breed and grow special varieties in order to improve the chances of surviving a throw.
A pneumatic air cannon named “Big 10 Inch” holds the current world record by firing a pumpkin 4,623.43 feet during the 2009 Pumpkin Chuckin competition in Moab, Utah. In September 2010, the “Big 10 Inch” team returned to Moab from Pennsylvania and fired a 9 lb 12 oz LaEstrella pumpkin 5,545.43 feet — that’s 1.05 miles. This shot is still pending certification by Guinness World Records.
You can always bake a pie.
This past September, a new Guinness World Record for the largest pumpkin pie was set by the members of the New Bremen Giant Pumpkin Growers in Ohio, who baked a 20 foot diameter pie weighing 3,699 pounds. It was 3 inches thick, had a total volume of 132,300 cubic inches and 572 gallons, and used 3 lbs. of pumpkin pie spice, 14.5 lbs. of cinnamon, 7 lbs. of salt, 525 lbs. of sugar, 109 gallons of evaporated milk, 2,796 eggs, 187 No. 10 cans of pumpkin (1,212 lbs.), and required a specially fabricated pan. It was sliced in to 5,000 pieces to distribute among crowd.
The pie was just one element of the Pumpkinfest which featured the Giant Pumpkin Regatta, a race of carved-out giant pumpkins in the Miami-Erie Canal; a pumpkin pancake breakfast; and the Pumpkin Olympics when kids shot put 2 lb pumpkins and spit seeds for distance. Equally thrilling were the antique tractor display, beanbag tournament, and a concert by Free Rider, a regional band. A highlight must have been the Ohio State game which was shown on a giant "Bud" screen in the Crown Pavilion.
New Bremen is north of Dayton; the closest city you’ve heard of is Wapakoneta, birthplace of astronaut Neil Armstrong. Maybe being in the middle of nowhere accounts for their tomfoolery.
From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!