Today’s post can be heard on the public radio show Crop to Cuisine, hosted by Dov Hirsch.
Irish myth tells of Jack O’ Lanterns originating with a man called “Stingy Jack,” who tricked the devil several times and got away with it. The devil, it seems, was gullible in those days. But after he died, Jack found that heaven didn’t want his soul and, still snitting over the swindling, hell didn’t want him either.
Doomed to wander the earth, Jack carried a glowing ember in a hollowed out turnip to light his way. Thereafter known as “Jack of the Lantern,” and “Jack O’ Lantern,” he and a host of evil spirits roamed around frightening people.
To stop this menace, people in Ireland and Scotland began carving spooky faces into turnips and potatoes, placing them in windows and doorways to drive off ghouls. In England, large beets were used, which if you ask our President is a very scary vegetable.
Thus the Jack O’ Lantern was born, and immigrants bringing this tradition with them to the United States found the pumpkin, a fruit grown in the Americas for thousands of years, to be perfect for carving.
Tall or squat, thick skinned or warty, other vegetables just can’t hold a candle to the giant gourd. It even comes in designer colors of green, yellow, red, white, blue, or tan, if you’re looking for haute décor.
Take the screaming red Rouge vif d’Etamps, reputed to be the prototype for Cinderella’s carriage, which I don’t understand. Though large in girth, it’s not a tall pumpkin. In fact, it looks more like a wheel on its side than a stately conveyance. But on porches the crimson fruit is a delight alongside ornamental corn, dried flowers and apples.
Ghostly white Lumina, zombie-grey Jarradale, or misshapen Red Warty Thing are guaranteed to give your guests a fashionable fright. Or add a novel touch with Batwing, a small-to-medium sized orange globe with black bottom. Little pranksters love tiny, white Baby Boo or orange Jack be Little minis, perfect for smaller hands.
If you grew pumpkins, harvest them when they’ve turned a deep uniform color, and have a hard rind. The skin should be firm and resist denting when pressed with a thumbnail. Our recent cool down, though it may have killed the vine, won’t harm the fruit but when frost or freeze threatens, harvest all ripe pumpkins.
To keep bugs and disease at bay, cut the fruit from the vine with a pruner, leaving four inches of stem attached to the pumpkin. Though tempting, don’t carry the fruit by their stems – those squash are heavy and your stem might snap off.
Cure your pumpkins by placing them in the warmest room of your house, leaving them for 10 days to harden their skin. Once cured, they can be kept in a cool, dry area for up to 3 months.
If you’re shopping one of the delightful you-pick pumpkin farms or farm stands, choose pumpkins that are unbruised, have sturdy stems and are without mold. Those with flat bottoms sit better for display, but don’t overlook the possibilities for using a listing gourd for carving a lazy goblin.
Once your pumpkin is picked and safely home, keep it fresh and ready for the big night with these tips:
Wait to carve it until one or two days before Halloween.
Immediately after carving, smear petroleum jelly over the interior and cut surfaces to lock moisture in.
Pumpkins will wilt in three days; perk yours up by soaking it in water, and prevent mold by adding one teaspoon of bleach per gallon.
After you’ve carved that gruesome specter, give it a fresh scent by sprinkling pumpkin pie spice on the lid, where heat from the candle or bulb will release the aroma. Your trick or treating ghosts and ghouls will enjoy the potpourri scent as well as the candy.