Make the Most of Your Jack O’Lantern

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Just don’t toss your jack-o’lantern after Halloween: it still has many uses. Source: William Warby, http://www.flickr.com

As you’re carving your jack-o’lantern for Halloween, don’t forget that you can use the seeds you collect.

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Roasted pumpkin seeds: a healthy treat! Source: www.kitchentreaty.com

Remove the filaments and rinse the seeds, then roast them with a little salt. Delicious!

But don’t roast all of them: dry some on a paper towel and store them in a paper envelope. You can use them to sow your own pumpkins next year.

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Don’t throw pumpkin flesh away: if  it’s still firm, use it! Source: www.kitchentreaty.com

Don’t forget too that pumpkin flesh is perfectly edible. You can make a whole host of recipes from your jack-o’lantern: pumpkin purée, pumpkin soup, pumpkin pie, muffins, bread… In fact, you can use any recipe that calls for squash, because pumpkin, after all, is just a big orange squash.

Of course, if you intend to use your jack-o’lantern in cooking, the flesh has to be in good condition and not starting to decompose, with no signs of mold. So don’t carve your pumpkin more than two days before Halloween. For the very freshest pumpkin flesh, carve it on Halloween afternoon. It will still be in perfect shape when you’re ready to cook the following day.

If you have to carve it earlier (up to a week earlier), you can help keep the flesh in top shape by coating it in vegetable oil. It really doesn’t matter which kind of oil: the important thing is to coat the exposed flesh with a barrier to keep fungus and mold off.

How to Compost a Jack-O’Lantern

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Put soften or moldy pumpkins into the compost pile. Source: www.missoulacompostcollectionllc.com

You don’t like pumpkin? (Probably because you have never tasted it!) Or the flesh has begun to soften, the first step in decomposition? At least don’t toss your jack-o’lantern into the trash (what a waste!). Instead break it into smaller chunks and put it in the compost bin. Pumpkin flesh is considered green matter, perfect for mixing with the fall leaves (brown matter) that are so abundant at this season.

Or just toss pumpkin pieces into your vegetable garden or flower bed and cover them with leaves. Mother Nature will take care of their decomposition.

How Pumpkins Became Jack-O’-Lanterns

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20171025A Wildcat Dunny, Flickr

How did the pumpkin go from being a field vegetable to a scary carved lanternl? Source: Wildcat Dunny, Flickr

This week thousands of people, young and old, will be carving a pumpkin for Halloween. Lit with a candle or a light bulb, the bland surface of the pumpkin will be converted into a figure of absolute horror—or a friendly face—that will be the star of the show on Halloween, the evening of October 31st. But where does this curious tradition come from?

It turns out it’s a fusion of New World and Old Word customs that lead to carving of pumpkins for Halloween. Read on to learn more!

Origins in the New World

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A field of pumpkins in the fall. Note that frost has killed back the leaves, but the fruits are mostly intact. Source:  Kam Abbott, Flickr

The classic pumpkin is a type of squash (Cucurbita pepo). It has been cultivated for a long time, with seeds of C. pepo starting to appear in archeological sites about 10,000 BCE and we can assume it was therefore being at least harvested by that time, if not yet cultivated. As squash did become cultivated, all sorts of varieties were developed, with large or small fruit, smooth or rough skin, as small as a golf ball or as large as a small car, round, oblong, curved or irregular, and unicolored, marbled or striped in a wide range of colors. Traditionally, the term pumpkin (from the Greek pepon for “large melon,” later “pompion” in French) referred to fairly large rounded squash, usually orange, although these days white pumpkins are not uncommon and even turquoise ones can be seen.

Growing squash spread throughout the Americas, to the point that, when the first Europeans arrived, squash were being grown just about everywhere they were able to grow. When French explorer Jacques Cartier visited what was to become Quebec City for the first time in 1535, for example, he found the fields of the region filled with “pompions.” It was, however, the Spanish explorer Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca (yes, you translated that correctly: his family name does indeed mean “cow face!”) who saw squash in Florida in 1528 and brought the first seeds back to Europe.

Squash of all kinds quickly became popular in the Old World, but pumpkins especially caught on in China and Hungary, where they’re still grown on a large scale. However, they’re generally used as fruits or vegetables, not as sculptures.

Growing Pumpkins

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You can tell this flower is a female by the rounded ovary at its base. Photo: RoRo, Wikimedia Commons

The pumpkin is a creeping plant and will even climb if there is a very strong support it can cling to. It’s an annual, sown in the spring when the soil has warmed up. All summer it produces orange male and female flowers (hint: the female flower is easily distinguished from the male, because it already has a small pumpkin-shaped ovary at its base). The fruits grow quickly and it’s not uncommon to find pumpkins weighing over 100 lbs/50 kg!

The pumpkin is considered a “winter squash”: that is, the fruit is eaten at full maturity, not when it is small and still seedless, as with summer squash like zucchinis. Pumpkins are harvested in the fall, usually in October. In other words, just in time for Halloween.

The pumpkin’s thick flesh is edible and notably used in soups and pies, although “pumpkin pie” is often prepared from other winter squashes and not always true pumpkins. The seed too are edible. A ripe pumpkin will keep for several months in a root cellar. Canned, they’re available all year long.

Vegetable Carving: an Irish Tradition

At first, there was no connection between Halloween and pumpkins … until Irish immigrants brought a very curious tradition with them to the New World.

20171025E Rannpháirtí anaithnid, Wikimedia Commons

Jack-o’-lantern made from a turnip in the pure Irish tradition. Source: Rannpháirtí anaithnid, Wikimedia Commons

They used to carve turnips into lanterns to protect their crops (and their homes) at fall harvest. Illuminated with a candle, these scary carved lanterns (jack-o’-lanterns) were supposed to ward off evil spirits who could spoil crops, make people ill or bring bad luck. And they were supposed to come out and wander the earth on “All Hallows Evening” (Halloween), that is, the night before All Saints’ Day … unless a few brightly lit carved turnips scared them away.

However, pumpkins are much easier to carve than turnips and, in the New World at least, quickly replaced the turnip as the ideal vegetable for carving. However, it was not until 1866 that the first reports associating carved pumpkins with Halloween were recorded. The tradition spread throughout the United States and Canada. In French Canada, the tradition is much more recent, dating only to the end of the 20th century. In Europe, where people are only just discovering North American Halloween traditions, carving pumpkins is still seen as something new and exotic.

Save Your Seeds

When sculpting your pumpkin this week, remember not to eat all the seeds, but to store a few for next year. Just clean and rinse them carefully, dry them in the sun for a few days and store until spring. Then you’ll be able to grow your own pumpkins for next year’s Halloween!20171025A Wildcat Dunny, Flickr