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October 19, 2019

Last week, as I walked into our regular grocery store, I was greeted by a large chalkboard sign that read NOW SERVING PUMPKIN SPICE LATTE. This particular store houses a coffee shop inside the building.

I stepped to the counter and was greeted by a young barista who asked, “Would you like to try our pumpkin spice latte?”

“Just a regular coffee with half-and-half cream,” I responded.

This week, I noticed a marquee in front of an auto parts store that read, PUMPKIN SPICE MOTOR OIL. Go, figure!

I wonder about this current fad of flavoring coffee, beer, and even cookies with pumpkin spice. Olivia Waxman reported on the trend in the October 2, 2017, issue of Time magazine.

Waxman revealed that in colonial America pumpkins were considered the food of last resort. It was seen as a primitive member of the squash family. The term pumpkin eater was a derogatory reference to a poor, ignorant farmer, as in the nursery rhyme “Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater.”

According to Waxman, the rise of the lowly pumpkin to a symbol of autumn occurred when nostalgia for farm life made the orange squash a treat in urban America. Then, in 1844, Lydia Marie Child wrote the popular poem “Over the River and through the Woods.” She concluded her verse with a cheer for pumpkin pie. Pumpkin pie, pumpkin bread, pumpkin muffins, and pumpkin cookies became seasonal favorites.

By the twentieth century farmers discovered that roadside pumpkin stands, pumpkin patches, and pumpkin festivals would draw the city folks out to the country. In 2016 sales of pumpkin flavored products generated more than $400 million, an all-time high.

Each year, Clare and I go on an annual pumpkin search. Four years ago, we were late getting started on our venture. We wound up buying pumpkins from a grocery store. The next 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. In our town, St. Matthews Episcopal Church and Trinity Methodist Church have been preferred locations through the years.

Five years ago, 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. This year we will again search for two large bright orange beauties for our front porch and seven smaller ones for 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 Great Pumpkin 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. Across the country San Mateo County, California, hosts the World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off. In 2013, Gary Miller of Napa, California, won the competition with a 1,985-pound pumpkin. A man from Rhode Island was the first grower in the world to produce a pumpkin weighing over 2,000 pounds, a feat achieved back in 2012. In 2014, John Hawkley, 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.

In 2016, another Rhode Island native took home the top American pumpkin prize when he weighed a 2,261.5-pound pumpkin at the Frerich’s Farm Pumpkin Weigh-Off, the most prestigious pumpkin growing competition in America. However, the world record was set last year by an enormous 2,623.5-pound pumpkin. This monster was weighed and certified as the heaviest pumpkin ever grown at the Giant Pumpkin European Championship in Ludwigsburg, Germany. The record-setting grower was Mathias Willemijns of Belgium. I wonder how he transported the squash weighing more than a ton from Belgium to Germany. I’ll be interested to see if the record can be returned to the United States this year.

Pumpkins are actually a squash. The variety usually cultivated for its massive size is the Atlantic Giant. When asked his secret for growing the gigantic squash, one farmer 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 has always been 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.

By the way, I have on good authority that pumpkin spice latte contains no pumpkin at all, only the spice.

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