When pumpkins appear in front of the neighborhood grocery or at our Farmer’s Markets, we know autumn is truly here. The color alone is enormously seductive, but it is the countless childhood references that bring little twinges of joy to our hearts.
In Matthew White’s latest radio short story he talks about the glory of the pumpkin, and the memories this beautiful fruit conjures.
To listen to the podcast, click here or simply use the player below. Prefer to read the script? Scroll down.
Matthew White’s series of radio short stories is called The Shape of Things, and is produced by Robinhood Radio in nearby Sharon, Connecticut.
No matter where you go at this time of year, you see pumpkins. They are mounded in front of city grocery stores or laid out in neat rows at the farmer’s market. For any child, they bring about the excited anticipation of Halloween – their round, fluted forms blushing with that quintessential color of fall.
Their shape is iconic, easily replicated in elementary school with crayons or cut out from construction paper. With the start of each school year, it isn’t long until art classes begin with crafts preparing for Halloween.
Growing up, when the air turned crisp and fall began, we attended the Tri-State fair in my hometown in Texas. There, we would view the champion crops of autumn. Indian Corn with their rich, glossy multicolored kernels would join gourds in every shape and size, some covered in little warts. But the star of the exhibition was always the giant pumpkin. These mammoth beasts of botany seemed somehow impossible, but there they were, for all to behold.
It was October 1966 when Charlie Brown’s GREAT PUMPKIN first premiered on television. The promos leading up to it had every family I knew eagerly anticipating the special broadcast. Back in those days we didn’t have five hundred channels, we had three, so this television event was an actual event. It has become a Halloween tradition just as much as preparing a costume for the big night or carving the pumpkin.
There’s something visceral, even gory about carving a pumpkin. At least that was my memory of the first time I had the experience. First off, it takes a knife, an instrument not allowed for most children. Once the knife cuts away the “crown” of the pumpkin and it is lifted away, bare hands must be used to remove the wet and seedy muck. A large spoon is then employed to scrape away the internal remnants of the brain-like goop. Only then can one assess the design, which means plunging the blade into the face of the terracotta colored fruit to create eyes, a nose and a monstrous grin.
The smell of the process is also quite distinctive. It’s not like dissecting the similar, but quite different autumn squashes. The odor of a pumpkin’s innards being pulled out, smell only like pumpkin. It’s as if the golden orange color of the fruit and its unique and earthy scent are one.
Apparently gourds were some of the first domesticated plants, starting more than 10,000 years ago. The Maori carved gourds into lanterns more than 700 years ago. But the idea of lanterns created from gourds goes many hundreds of years back in human history and was done by many cultures.
It seems Jack-o-lanterns got their start in Ireland, with the carving of turnips, creating more of a moon-inspired face.
In America around 1850 the poet John Greenleaf Whittier, born in Massachusetts in 1807, wrote “The Pumpkin”. It goes like this:
Oh! – fruit loved of boyhood! —the old days recalling,
When wood-grapes were purpling and brown nuts were falling!
When wild, ugly faces we carved in its skin,
Glaring out through the dark with a candle within!
Shopping today at the local pumpkin patch one sees an infinite variety of shapes and sizes. On a single vine you can find sweet little rounds ones, tall blocky specimens shaped like Frankenstein’s head, or plushy squat ones that are wider than they are tall.
Cutting them from the vine is not an act for the weak. The stem that fed this fruit lo these many months is hefty and tough. The leaves and branches are scratchy and once the cord has been cut, the remaining stem adds to the character of the fruit, giving it a stubby topper or a rakishly dashing bit of style.
Enjoy this season and as the leaves turn from lush green to the burnished glory of fall, drop by your local market to buy a pumpkin, or better yet go to the farmer who actually grows them and pick your own.
Then, let the carving begin.