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THE QUEST FOR THE GREAT PUMPKIN

October 19, 2014

Each year, Clare and I go on an annual pumpkin search. Two years ago we were late getting started on our venture. We wound up buying pumpkins from a grocery store. Last year our quest led us to James Cooley’s Strawberry Hill peach shed.

Our preference is to buy pumpkins from a church group that uses the proceeds to fund mission endeavors. St. Matthews Episcopal Church and Trinity Methodist Church have been preferred locations through the years.

Last Friday we found ourselves in Simpsonville on another errand. Quite by accident, as we crossed the railroad tracks, we happened upon the pumpkin patch operated by Holy Cross Episcopal Church. The workers there told me the proceeds would go to Habitat for Humanity. We came home with four large bright orange beauties and six smaller ones. On Tuesday night we delivered pumpkins to our in-town grandchildren.

Every October television brings us the now classic animated film, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. Late in the month, the Charles Schultz cartoon character, Linus, begins his annual search for the most sincere pumpkin patch. Linus is the one and only true believer. He steadfastly clings to the hope that on Halloween night the Great Pumpkin will visit the selected pumpkin patch bringing Halloween gifts to boys and girls who really believe.

The Great Pumpkin, as Linus imagines him, combines the characteristics of a large pumpkin, a scarecrow, and Santa Claus.  Each year Linus, clutching his security blanket, skips trick-or-treating in order to wait patiently for the enormous benevolent fruit to rise from the pumpkin patch.  Each year, his undying faith subjects him to ridicule by his peers.

The good folk of Allardt, Tennessee, host an annual Great Pumpkin Festival.  Located just northwest of Knoxville, the small town, on the weekend of the festival, swells in size, not unlike the pumpkins that are entered in the contest that give the event its name.  In 2004, Wallace Simmons won the weigh-in with a mammoth 852-pound entry.  Wallace hauled his prize pumpkin over the Smoky Mountains from his home in Canton, North Carolina. The 2005 winner was also grown by Simmons on his farm in Canton.  It set a new festival record at 854 pounds.

Across the country in San Mateo County, California, Joel Holland of Puyallup, Washington, won the 2004 World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off.  His Atlantic Giant pumpkin, grown on the Pacific coast, tipped the five-ton capacity scales at 1229 pounds.  In October 2005, Holland again won the event at Half Moon Bay, California.  This year’s entry weighed exactly the same as last year’s winner, 1229 pounds.  The prize money is calculated at five dollars per pound, so Joel Holland was awarded $6,145.

Last year, 2013, Gary Miller of Napa, California, won the competition with a 1,985-pound pumpkin.

This year another resident of Napa broke the North American record for heaviest pumpkin with his prize-winning behemoth of 2,058 pounds at the annual Safeway World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off. John Hawkley won $13,358 — $6 per pound for his pumpkin plus $1,000 for a California record. His pumpkin was shy of the 238 pounds needed to break the current world record-holder in Germany at 2,296 pounds.

The California drought played a role in this year’s competition because pumpkin growers had to contend with state water restrictions. Most growers planted fewer pumpkins in order to comply with the restrictions.

The pumpkin weigh-off begins a week of events culminating in the Half Moon Bay Art and Pumpkin Festival. The celebration includes a Great Pumpkin parade, pumpkin pie-eating contest, costume contests, and a pumpkin carving competion.

Pumpkins are a kind of squash.  The variety usually cultivated for its massive size is the Atlantic Giant.  When asked his secret for growing the gigantic squash, Joel Holland credited specially prepared soil, abundant fertilizer, copious watering, and meticulous hand pollination.  Then he added, “I saved the seed from last year’s pumpkin.”

In our family, the main pumpkin activity was not growing large squash; it was carving jack-o-lanterns.

The name jack-o-lantern dates from seventeenth century England, when it literally meant a man with a lantern or a night watchman. By the early 1800s, jack-o-lantern had also become the popular name for a turnip lantern. Thomas Darlington in his 1887 volume The Folk-Speech of South Cheshire described the jack-o-lantern as “a lantern made by scooping out the inside of a turnip, carving the shell into a rude representation of the human face, and placing a lighted candle inside it.”

Irish immigrants brought the custom of carving jack-o-lanterns to North America. Because pumpkins were more available, they were used instead of turnips. In the nineteenth century pumpkin carving became a Halloween tradition all across the United States.

Our five children enjoyed the artistic endeavor each year even after they were self-conscious teenagers. The tradition continues even now that they are adults with their own families.  We usually purchased several large orange, well-shaped pumpkins and reserved a family night for the project.  Design sketches were drawn and redrawn until consensus was reached.  Adult supervision was required for the actual carving. After the seeds were removed from the pumpkins, Clare would toast the seeds on a cookie sheet and serve them with milk as our family night snack.

One year, Betsy asked, “Daddy, can we carve a girl pumpkin this year?”  Her four older brothers had been the chief designers in earlier years.  We all agreed that one of our pumpkins should be a girl.  We selected the largest, most perfectly shaped pumpkin. Betsy led the design team creating a drawing including puckered lips, long eyelashes, arched eyebrows, and earlobes with earrings.  The detailed pattern required a smaller, sharper knife, so the actual carving was up to me.  Carving a jack-o-lantern had always been a slapdash job for me.  Triangle eyes, triangle nose, crooked, snaggled-toothed smiling mouth, and slashed eyebrows were less than precise.

Betsy’s girl pumpkin took much longer to fashion than usual. We carefully cut away small pieces until the pumpkin had an unmistakably feminine countenance.  The project was successful, and the Jill-o-Lantern took her place on our front porch, illuminated from within by a votive candle.  Betsy dubbed her creation The Great Girl Pumpkin.

As Halloween approached the following year, Betsy asked, “Hey, Daddy, we need to have another Great Girl Pumpkin this year.”

Remembering the effort that went into the Jill-o-lantern the year before, I teased, “Betsy, I didn’t save any seed.”

“Daddy, even if you had saved seed, we couldn’t grow a pumpkin that was already carved. Besides, Mama toasted the seeds, and we ate all of them. But I’m not worried, I know you can do it again.”

Like Linus, our daughter is a true believer.

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