Farms Finest: Carving pumpkins a long-lasting tradition | AspenTimes.com

Farms Finest: Carving pumpkins a long-lasting tradition

Joni Keefe
Special to The Aspen Times

Cody Slight helps at the Niemann's Pumpkin Patch in New Castle.

The Halloween tradition of decorating with carved pumpkins is a long-practiced custom. The soon-to-follow Thanksgiving Day is made complete with images of corn husks, gourds and colorful Indian corn. Yet the fall pumpkin remains the seasonal king of all, and creating jack-o'-lanterns has a long history.

History records say the Irish carved scary-faced window lanterns out of potatoes and turnips to frighten away evil spirits, especially one named Stingy Jack. After immigrating to the United States, they brought this tradition with them, and they found that the nearly hollow, round pumpkin made a perfect jack-o'-lantern.

Only a small percentage of the pumpkins are actually grown and used for the purpose of fall decorating. Most are raised to become canned food products. The top pumpkin-growing state is Illinois, where a town called Morton proudly considers itself the world's pumpkin capital.

This is because the Libby's canning plant is based there and produces 85 percent of the world's canned pumpkin products. Nearly all of the pumpkins are harvested in October, and the small-town factory is bursting at its seams at this time.

Nationwide, traditional fall festivals celebrate using pumpkins during October with creative combinations of haunted houses, music, pumpkin-launching contests, jack-o'-lantern carving, pie eating and anything else that could possibly include this seasonal garden fruit. Yes, that is correct — it is considered a fruit, not a vegetable.

For the children, it is a special time to create long-lasting memories. Few can forget what cutting into a pumpkin is like, removing the slippery glop inside, carefully cutting out features and then roasting the seeds. To see the newly created personality, glowing in the dark, was all the evidence needed to make scary Great Pumpkin stories seem real.

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For adults, pumpkin time offers up a special event, and for a few, this is the equivalent of going to the Super Bowl. What I am referring to is when giant pumpkins are entered into competitive events, vying for winnings and bragging rights.

The move from the field to competition involves a team of forklifts, harnesses and trucks, carefully delivering the gigantic, bulky mass of orange to its destination to finally be weighed on a 5-ton, digitally precise scale. One slip with the awkward and hard-to-grip cargo, and you will be left with a shattered pile of squash.

The Guinness Book of World Records states that the heaviest pumpkin weighed in at 1,118 pounds, 5 ounces. That was in 2011, and it was grown in Ontario. More recently there are several new heavyweights out there, and they are making this one look like a lightweight.

The granddaddy of all records happened this month in Napa Valley, Calif., as it celebrated pumpkins and not its renowned grapes. At this contest, a mammoth tipped the scale at 2,032 pounds. This was at the 23rd annual Giant Pumpkin Weigh-Off held Oct. 12 and hosted by Uesugi Farms, breaking last year's ton-shattering weight of 2,009 pounds at the Topsfield Fair in Massachusetts.

The winning Napa Valley grower proudly said his pumpkin would travel to New York City to be a star in a series of media events. For his gardening expertise, he earned more than $14,220 and a bonus of $1,500 for breaking a California record. An additional $1,600 might be received if another fruit does not exceed this record weight before Nov. 1.

If heavyweight-pumpkin bragging rights inspire you, take look at The Great Pumpkin Commonwealth website at http://www.greatpumpkincommonwealth.com. This is a renowned group promoting the hobby of raising giant pumpkins. You will find every kind of event imaginable on this site along with growing tips. Or, if high-action events are more your speed, check out the National Geographic video "How Far Can Your Pumpkin Fly?" The link is http://on.natgeo.com/15oUF9X.

With our increasing local expertise on composting and using climate-battery greenhouses, we might consider our own high-altitude competition in October 2014. If vodka can be made from potatoes, just imagine what we could brew with 1-ton pumpkins.

For another local thought, who knows the inside story on those roadside pumpkins showing up yearly along the Fryingpan from Basalt to Ruedi? Send me an email if you know about this Johnny Appleseed for pumpkins and how it started.

Joni Keefe moved to the Roaring Fork Valley after a career in landscape design. She is passionate about local food and agriculture. For more information, her website is Farmsfinest.com, or follow her on Twitter. Connect at joni@farmsfinest.com.