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October 28, 2013

MIKE LUNSFORD: Pumpkins: Good for the fork and the (carving) knife

My wife and I are fairly frugal; we are budgeters and planners. In the fall, we set aside what we’ll need to heat the house and pay the doctor and buy sensible shoes for school. I think we’re going to have to open an account for pumpkins, too.

I know, that’s an exaggeration — writers are known to do that — but we do spend a lot of money on pumpkins each fall. We love them, not because we are just avid carvers of jack-o’-lanterns and makers of pies, but because we admire their colors and shapes and sizes. Visitors to our place will find pumpkins near our doorways, on my cabin porch, adorning the straw and mums under our poplar tree, and sitting near the cedar archway we have in the front yard. We buy them at roadside stands, grocery stores and hardware centers. We’re suckers for a good pumpkin sale. …

Pumpkins are, essentially, the final fruits (somewhat of a biblical term; they are actually vegetables) of the year, so tossing them over the back hill in the waning days of fall for the deer to eat means winter can’t be too far away. We have had rogue pumpkins grow wild on our hillsides where the shrunken heads of old jack-o’-lanterns and their decorative mates have been disposed of the fall before.

But I have never felt I’ve had the proper amounts of sun or garden space to try to grow them myself. As a result, we get our pumpkin fix off local dealers; I’m sure they’re glad to see us coming.

Pumpkins are actually squash (I thought they were gourds, but they all come from the same family, as do zucchini). They contain healthy amounts of lutein and alpha and beta carotene, and are great sources of vitamin A (essential for our eyes and immune systems). I remind myself of how good they are for me while I eat the pumpkin pies my wife so graciously and expertly provides to our household. I am always certain to apply vitamin-enriched whipped cream to each slice as well.

Although pumpkins are grown all over the world, they are native to North America; seeds have been found in Mexico that date back some 9,000 years, and the first Europeans to get lost, then find their way here, discovered pumpkins already being cultivated and eaten. Pumpkins get their name from the Greek, “pepon,” which means “large melon.” The French adapted the word to “pompon,” and from there the British referred to them as “pumpion.” Colonists took it a step further and began to refer to them as pumpkins.  

Pumpkins are, of course, commercially grown, and Indiana is amidst a belt of states that leads the nation in their production. After pie-baking, the most obvious use for them this time of year is for the carving of jack-o’-lanterns, something my sister and I used to co-op with my mom at the kitchen table years ago. With a layer of newspapers laid down to catch the mess, my mom, wielding a butcher knife as expertly as Mother Bates, would get the proceedings under way by sawing out the top of the pumpkin for us.  

My daughter and son (and now daughter-in-law, a carving rookie who found “gutting” a pumpkin repulsive until she joined our clan) carry the tradition onward, often laboring away on October Sunday nights after a big dinner has been cleared from our old oak table. My wife adds to the occasion by roasting and salting the pumpkin seeds afterward, a treat that my daughter stuffs into the side of her face like the late Tug McGraw’s chaw.     

Jack-o’-lanterns, like many other customary trappings associated with Halloween, have an interesting origin. The dictionary — usually my favorite resource — gave me virtually nothing on them, so I turned to a number of websites, including that of the History Channel, to get my information on the tradition. The story most often repeated about the origins of the decoration comes from Ireland with the tale of “Stingy Jack.”

It’s told that Jack was so cheap that after he invited the devil to have a drink with him, he refused to pay the tab. Instead, he convinced Old Scratch to turn himself into a coin to pay for the drinks, then pocketed the money, keeping it next to a silver cross to hold the devil at bay. Jack eventually let the devil go in exchange for keeping his soul out of hell, then tricked him again for another 10-year delay from the fiery furnaces. When Jack did die, he obviously was unfit for heaven, but the devil wanted no part of him, either, instead opting to leave Jack to roam the earth with nothing but a lighted coal to show the way. Jack placed the coal in a carved turnip, and thus the jack-o’-lantern was born. The Irish, then the Scotch, made it traditional to carve frightening faces into turnips and potatoes to scare old Jack away from their doorsteps. The custom came to America in a wave of immigration, and has been with us ever since.

Although jack-o’-lantern carving has become a bit more sedate of an activity at our house than it was years ago, it has also become more artistic. Daughter Ellen now goes to great length to buy extravagant patterns for her carvings, starting her career with rather uncomplicated cats and bats, then progressing to spider webs and ghosts. This year, she’s opting to sculpt Vincent Price.

We had tree trimmers at our place last week, and their bucket truck and chipper were parked in our narrow drive the same morning my wife had to back out of the garage and get on her way to the store. Not wanting to get too close to the equipment, she accidentally backed over two large pumpkins we had sitting along a flower bed. When she pulled forward, she couldn’t have flattened them any better had she dropped them from a parking garage roof.

It didn’t really matter that much; we had more than enough money left in the pumpkin budget to replace them. In fact, I think she bought another half a dozen.

Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at hickory913@aol.com, or c/o the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Go to his updated website at www.mikelunsford.com. His new book, “A Windy Hill Almanac,” has been released and is now available.

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