Being a vegetarian, I have perhaps a touch more reverence than most for the hardworking vegetable. Coming in all shapes and sizes, colours, textures and tastes these stalwart chaps are the unsung heroes of the shopping basket. They don’t ask a lot but give so much back in return. Okay, okay, I’ll admit it. I’m a Mega Veg Nerd™.
I think it’s fair to say that we all get a bit of veggie fever during the month of October. A very special chap suddenly becomes available in the fruit and veg aisle and almost instantly gets moved to the top of the most wanted list. We almost lose our heads somewhat over perhaps one of the most prolific legumes, the very king of veggies.
Today is all about the mighty pumpkin.
The pumpkin is a large member of the curcubita family, which also contains veggies like the butternut squash, marrow and courgette. The majority of pumpkins are grown in North America, which is where they were originally discovered. Pumpkins are surprisingly versatile, and widely used for both recreation and eating. Pumpkin pie is a staple dish at Thanksgiving, and people have been carving faces in pumpkins for generations.
When did pumpkin carving start?
Pumpkin carving is actually a pretty old tradition. In Britain and Ireland we’ve been cutting holes in veggies for hundreds of years, starting with things like the swede and the mangelwurzel (what a veg!) or the turnip. When our ancestors moved to America they were a bit miffed at the lack of nice produce to carve scary faces in, but then a clever chap somewhere discovered the pumpkin and a generation-spanning love was born for the bright orange squash.
Why are they called jack-o’-lanterns?
The term “jack-o’-lantern” is often thought of as an American one, but this is incorrect. It is actually a British name, and literally means “man with a lantern”. Starting in the 14th century, the name Jack was used generically to refer to lower-class men whose names were unknown. When you see a man carrying a lantern in a distance at night but you can’t make him out, he is literally “man with a lantern”, or “Jack of the Lantern”.
Jack-o’-lantern is also a nickname for the strange natural phenomenon known as “will o’ wisp”, a ghostly flickering light often seen hovering above marshland and peat bogs.
And there’s always the story of Stingy Jack.
Why do we carve pumpkins?
There is a old Irish folktale that tells the story of Stingy Jack, a disreputable miser who tricked the devil into paying for a round of drinks by turning himself into a sixpence. When the devil obliged, Jack put him in his pocket beneath a cross so he couldn’t escape. Jack told the devil he would let him out on the agreement that the he would not come after him for ten years. Begrudgingly, the devil agreed.
When ten years was up the devil returned for payback, but Stingy Jack somehow tricked him again by requesting the devil climb a tree to pick an apple. Once the devil was in the tree, jack carved crude crosses all around the trunk. The devil was trapped. Once again, a deal was struck. Jack could not be taken to hell upon his death.
When Jack did eventually pass away, he was rejected at the pearly gates by St. Peter, who did not trust the trickster. The devil was unable to claim Jack’s soul because of their agreement, so in the end Jack was given a lump of burning coal to light his way through purgatory. Jack carried the coal inside a hollowed out turnip.
In response to the story, Irish folk began carving turnips of their own and placing candles inside. They gave them scary faces and set them in their windows, believing that the lanterns would frighten away Stingy Jack and the other ghouls that wander the mortal realm on Hallowe’en.
Five things you didn’t know about pumpkins
1. The Guinness World Record for most pumpkins carved for Halloween was set on October 21, 2006 when 30,128 jack-o’-lanterns were simultaneously lit on Boston Common.
2. Pumpkins were once recommended for removing freckles and curing snake bites.
3. Technically speaking, pumpkin is actually a fruit rather than a vegetable. The name “pumpkin” comes from the Greek word “pepon,” meaning a large melon.
4. The largest carved pumpkin weighed more than a horse! In 2010, determined farmer Scott carved a pumpkin that weighed 800kg.
5. Pumpkins grow on every continent in the world except Antarctica (unsurprisingly!).