September 11, 2008

CONTACT:  Pamela Bartholomew
Agritourism Coordinator
(615) 837-53488

Pumpkins: Not Just for Halloween, Anymore

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Time was, a day or two before Halloween, you would pick up a pumpkin on the way into the grocery store. Come All Hallows Eve, you’d carve a face on it, stick a candle in its belly, and throw it out the next morning.
No more. Thanks to Martha Stewart and more recently, numerous cable television channel decorating shows, the idea of adorning one’s home for every season has taken hold. The harvest season is now elaborately celebrated with live or perishable décor like pumpkins, mums, Indian corn and cornstalks, gourds and straw bales.
Mums, currently available in Tennessee retail outlets, at farmers markets and on many farms, can often be tended carefully enough to return for future years of fall glory. Pumpkins, on the other hand, remain temporary treasures. If you know how to spot good pumpkins, you can get the most out of your purchases. The shape or size of a pumpkin has no bearing on how long it will last, but there are other strong indicators.

First off: you know that part of the pumpkin commonly referred to as a handle?  Well, it isn’t.  It‘s the stem, and you should look for pumpkins with stems that are still green, firmly attached to the pumpkin, and at the very least, one or two inches long. A stem that’s already brown and withered, coming off or absent from the fruit, or even just cut too close will leave your pumpkin vulnerable to the elements.  A pumpkin with a stem that has already fallen off is an indicator that the pumpkin is already beginning the process of breaking down.

That’s why you should never pick up or carry a pumpkin by the stem, even though it seems natural to do.  If you detach the stem from the pumpkin, you’ve affected its longevity.

It should go without saying that a pumpkin that has withering, mold, or any soft spots is already decomposing.  Inspect the whole pumpkin carefully before buying it. On the other hand, if a pumpkin still has a touch of green on it, it’s fine, and the same goes for warts. Warts on pumpkins are caused by a virus that doesn’t cause any harm to the quality of the fruit. It’s just a matter of taste whether you think warts on a pumpkin add “character” or not.

Next, think about how you want to use the pumpkins you buy. If you’ll make a trip to your local farmers market or go directly to a local pumpkin patch, lots of options will be available.

Hybrid varieties with names like Howden and Magic Lantern are uniform, bright orange globes with sturdy dark green handles.  The “meat” of these pumpkins is relatively thin, making them easy to cut through. Giant varieties like Atlantic Giant or Prizewinner have lots of “curb appeal” and are surprisingly easy to carve.

Lumina, Casper and Snowball are smooth-skinned white pumpkins ranging in size from small to medium, good for painting, decorating and cutting. You’ll see these at elegant dinner parties or other special occasions used as table decorations. When carved and lit with a candle, they really glow, and carving away the outer white skin into a pattern reveals a beautiful orange-pink flesh underneath. They also serve well as rustic vases to be filled with seasonal flowers or autumn leaves.

Another way to prolong the use of your purchase is to paint rather than carve. Several varieties are especially good for those who prefer decorating to decapitating or consuming their produce. L’il Ironsides is a smallish pumpkin with an incredibly tough skin—which gives it an extra long shelf life.  The smooth skin is great for painting. Its size and hard shell make it perfect for indoor decorating right on through Thanksgiving. Don’t even try to carve it—you’re liable to break your knife.
When choosing produce for a large display, use a variety of pumpkin colors, shapes and sizes to guarantee texture and interest. 

The Australian Blue, or Jarrahdale pumpkin, is truly a blue color. It’s a medium sized, often flattened fruit. One of the most beautiful pumpkins seen in the last few years is an old French variety called Rouge Vif d’Etampes, or Cinderella. It’s large, somewhat flattened and deeply ridged, with an almost neon red-to-pink and orange color. A Tennessee standard is the Cushaw, or Sweet Potato pumpkin, which adds a great touch to a collection of fall produce. It looks nothing like a pumpkin—striped in green or gold and shaped like a fat, curvy gourd—but according to the experts, it has the most “pumpkin” taste of all.

The bonus of all these varieties is that they’re all “true”—not hybrids—so they’re good to eat.  Most pumpkins are edible, but many hybrids bred for carving tend to be bland or have little flesh. 

Names like “Sugar,” “New England Pie” and “Winter Luxury” are giveaways for small sized, old varieties still perfect for both cooking and carving. Don’t try to use a pumpkin as a lantern one day and then use the rest for cooking the next, however; you should cook pumpkin the same day that you cut it.

Get the most out of your purchase. Choose pumpkins carefully. Decorate with your pumpkins through the fall, and then, as the season ends, choose some of the best ones for pies and other dishes.  Pumpkin freezes well and will substitute for squash and for sweet potatoes in recipes. 

Beginning about Labor Day and up through Thanksgiving, pumpkins are an American symbol of abundance and thankfulness. After Thanksgiving, they’re just plain delicious-- a source of nutrition and flavor that can last until another year’s crop comes in. To locate Tennessee pumpkins and other autumn décor, visit .