At Home With Vivian: Pumpkins!

Dear Great Pumpkin, I am looking forward to your arrival on Halloween night. I hope you will bring me lots of presents. – Linus van Pelt

I have to confess – I bought my pumpkins already. I couldn’t resist. Autumn is in the air. I smell pumpkin spice everywhere I go. I went to the store for milk and came home with three pumpkins and almost forgot the milk.

What is it about pumpkins that make us feel all warm and cozy? I can’t remember a Halloween when we didn’t have a pumpkin to carve. But, search as I might through my memory archives, I couldn’t remember where we got them. So I called my sisters. My kid sister was no help at all. “I don’t know. I don’t even remember carving one. We must not have celebrated Halloween much” said Johnette. We did, and I have pictures to prove it, although there are no pictures of pumpkins. So I called my older sister Brenda and asked if we carved Jack-o-lanterns when she was young.

“Yes we did!” Brenda said without hesitation. Where did we get the pumpkins? She first drew a blank, and then the memory started coming back. “There was a flatbed truck that used to sell produce. It parked on the back road between West Pittsburg and Pittsburg.” We had a lively discussion about old roads that used to be main roads that are now back roads when we lived in West Pittsburg. “You mean Willow Pass Road?” I asked. Brenda left California when she was 18, before she drove herself much. She replied, “I don’t know what the road is called. It’s the one that went by the old roller skating rink and past Ambrose Elementary school. You know, it passed O’Hara’s Flying A gas station.” In any case, our family got our pumpkins off the truck that was parked somewhere near the underpass on that road. By the time I was a teenager, Mom was buying our pumpkins from the grocery store.

Did you know that the first jack-o-lanterns were carved from turnips, beets, and potatoes? The website says that Jack-o-lanterns originated in Ireland from a legend about a man nicknamed “Stingy Jack.” According to the story, Stingy Jack asked the Devil to have a drink with him. Stingy Jack was clever, but also stingy. He didn’t want to pay for his drink so he talked the Devil into turning himself into a coin to pay for the drinks. After paying, Jack put the coin in his pocket next to a silver cross. This prevented the Devil from changing back into his original form. Eventually Jack freed the Devil under the condition that the Devil could not claim Jack’s soul.

When Jack died, as the legend goes, God would not allow such a disreputable person into heaven. The Devil could not allow Jack into hell. The Devil sent Jack off into the dark night with only a burning coal to light the way. Jack put the coal into a carved out turnip and has been roaming the Earth ever since. Hence, Jack of the lantern, or Jack O’ Lantern. On Halloween youngsters would pretend to be Jack, back from the dead, by going about in the dark with a vegetable lantern.

With the wave of immigrants from Ireland and Scotland in the mid-1800s, Jack o’ lanterns came to America too. Instead of turnips, youngsters discovered pumpkins which are native to North America. By the 1920s Halloween celebrations were popular in the United States. Today pumpkin carving is a multi-million dollar industry.

I read the “How to decorate for Halloween” section in a recent a home magazine. They had pictures of pumpkins painted like Frankenstein, vampires, ghosts, and zombies. Another magazine had patterns for making your pumpkin into a princess complete with a skirt and tiara. The magazine suggested that you buy special kits with ears, eyes and a nose to turn your pumpkin into a unicorn, a teddy bear, a cat, or a nerdy guy with big teeth and glasses. What happened to Jack?

Back in the day, we had pumpkins that looked like pumpkins! I remember carving pumpkins on the kitchen table with a steak knife. No fancy specialized pumpkin carving tools for us! The only other tool we used once in a while was an apple corer to make round eyes. Did you know that you can buy a thirteen piece stainless steel lengthening and thickening pumpkin carving tool kit, complete with a luxury handbag (orange, of course) for only $19.99 on Amazon? You can also buy a pumpkin painting kit at the big box store that comes with four bottles of acrylic paint, four paint brushes and Halloween themed stencil – for just $6.89.

I can understand not carving the pumpkin right away. I have vivid memories of carving my pumpkin a week ahead of time so it could look scary on the front steps. By the time Halloween arrived, the smiling pumpkin was frowning, wrinkled, moldy and smelled pretty bad. When the last “trick-or-treater” left, Mom tossed the pumpkin in the garbage can.

Remembering the stinky pumpkins, I had my children draw faces on their pumpkins (one for each kid instead of one per house!) with a permanent marker. They looked good on the porch. On the day of Halloween, usually after school, with newspapers spread over the kitchen table, the kids carved their pumpkins (with steak knives). They proudly set them on the porch with flashlights in them. “What? No flames?” you may ask. Yes, no flames. I luckily married a man who likes to cook. Our Jack-O-Lanterns became pumpkin pies.

The pies were pretty good and we were proud of them. But then we discovered that Jack-O-Lantern pumpkins are not the best pies for baking. They are actually bred to be carved. They are nutritious though, if a bit fibrous. The best pumpkins for baking are Sugar pumpkins.

While I was talking to Johnette, I asked her how her pumpkins were doing. She moved to a new home this year and decided to plant pumpkins for her grandsons. She made three mounds of dirt in her backyard and planted four or five seeds in each mound. How were the pumpkins? “They exploded!” Johnette laughed. She ended up with more than thirty pumpkins. Her grandsons were thrilled with their very own pumpkin patch. Next year Johnette plans to plant a variety of pumpkins, now that she knows they will do so well in her new yard. Sugar pumpkins for sure.

I like looking at the pumpkins sitting on my front porch. They are a harbinger of good times to come. It won’t be long until the weather cools, the rains come and then Santa arrives. All good things to look forward to. Don’t have a pumpkin of your own? Go out and buy one! Don’t be such a Stingy Jack.

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