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October is National Pumpkin Month. There are plenty of ways to celebrate the gourd—whether or not you’re looking for a good scare.
Story by Erin Z. Bass
Fairytales are responsible for the word “pumpkin,” which first appeared in print in the 17th century. Pumpkins served as a magical coach in nursery rhyme long before becoming a symbol for the month of October. Today, foodies enjoy pumpkins’ ability to grow in the garden, add delicious flavor to a wide range of foods, plus stand as seasonal décor from Halloween through Thanksgiving.
Pumpkins are actually a fruit and a member of the gourd family. They grow on every continent except Antarctica. The top pumpkin-producing states in the U.S. are Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and California. In Illinois—where 95 percent of the nation’s pumpkins are harvested—the city of Morton is the self-proclaimed “Pumpkin Capital of the World.” That’s due to Morton producing 82 percent of the world’s canned pumpkin and its annual Pumpkin Festival in September—which spans more than a week and includes a weigh-off, decorating contest, parade, and pie-eating contest.
In northern California, Half Moon Bay calls itself the “World Pumpkin Capital” due to the area’s seaside harvest of pumpkins and annual World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off, now in its 46th year. Taking place during the Half Moon Bay Art & Pumpkin Festival, the weigh-off is like the Super Bowl for pumpkin farmers, who compete for the top cash prize of $7 a pound and $30,000 in total prize money. Four-time champion from Oregon Steve Daletas was the 2018 winner, with his mega-gourd coming in at 2,170-pounds.
Although Daletas was the winner in California, it’s a New Hampshire man who currently holds the record for the largest pumpkin in U.S. history: Steve Geddes took home the title last year at the Deerfield Fair. His enormous white pumpkin beat out the competition at 2,528 pounds.
The hobby of growing giant pumpkins has become so popular that there’s an organization to establish standards and regulations to ensure quality of the fruit and fairness of the competition: The Great Pumpkin Commonwealth (GPC) was established in 1993. While the hobby of growing giant pumpkins dates back to the early 1900s when the World’s Fair held giant vegetable competitions, initially there was no way to regulate weight from state to state or even country to country.
“The GPC was formed for the reason of coming up with fair standards of being able to weigh pumpkins no matter where they’re at,” says GPC President Gary Grande. “We can establish and ensure if we all have the same rules, the pumpkins can all be weighed the same way, and we can put them up on a ledger to see who’s the biggest.”
The GPC also maintains the Heavy Hitter Club of which Daletas and Geddes are now members. Grande has his own experience with growing in Denver, Colorado. His largest pumpkin came in at 1,386 pounds and was what he describes as “nice and orange.”
What makes a pumpkin grow to such giant proportions? The GPC says good seed genetics, good soil, having only one fruit per plant and good weather. Grande stresses the importance of starting with a good seed, but hard work and knowledge don’t hurt either.
“If you have a decent seed and give it the utmost of care, you have a good chance of going over the 2,000 pound mark,” he says, “but even if you do all those things right, Mother Nature can take it away from you. There’s an amount of luck that goes into it. Mother Nature has to be on your side for that year.”
Pumpkins come in more than 45 different varieties and many colors, from traditional orange to white, green, yellow and even blue. Grande says he’s seen every color, but “kids and spectators gravitate toward the pretty ones.” The deep red-orange variety that’s so popular for fall decorating is Rouge Vif d’Estampes or the “Cinderella” pumpkin. Legend goes that it was the prototype for Cinderella’s pumpkin carriage created by her fairy godmother. Bippity, boppity boo.
While the idea of a fairytale pumpkin is a charming one, pumpkins are more often carved with spooky faces leading up to Halloween. Jack-o-lanterns originated in Ireland, where turnips and potatoes were carved in early versions, but it was Americans who associated carved pumpkins with October 31. Each October, visitors to the New York Botanical Garden can participate in Spooky Pumpkin Nights and a Giant Pumpkin Weekend, when gourd decorating, pumpkin carving and the most monstrous pumpkins, courtesy of the GPC, are on display.
Americans have also taken the pumpkin-flavored craze to new heights, with coffee, cereal, pasta, cookies and even dog treats getting a dose of the gourd. Every single part of a pumpkin can be eaten, but it’s the inside and the seeds that are most popular. Pumpkin is also low in calories and has lots of fiber and potassium.
So, when you’re carving this year’s pumpkin, go beyond the spooky face and praise the pumpkin for its versatility, nutritional value and potential for magic. If you want to go a step further, plant a few pumpkin seeds in the garden and watch them grow. You may get lucky and produce a heavy hitter.
Plan A Trip
Pumpkin-centric fall festivals vine across the nation. Here are just a few opportunities to enjoy pumpkin season: