Pumpkin Carving and The Annual Fall Harvest Scramble

Master pumpkin carver James Parker shares the ups and downs of this year’s pumpkin harvest and his plan for carving 100 jack-o-lanterns for Halloween night. These pictures are sure to inspire!

If ever there was a pumpkin harvest destined to fail, it would be the fall 2011 crop. We had challenges everywhere —Southwest droughts, New England hurricane-spawned flooding, and a cool, wet summer out west. The midwest states were, for the most part, spared the wild weather ravages but high demand from adjacent regions of the US threaten to make supplies tight for pumpkin patches and grocery stores in their home states. So far things have gone as well as can be expected given the circumstances; supplies are matching up well with demand and rerouting product to affected areas has not been too costly. Supplying pumpkins for Halloween is always something of a scramble (particularly in the last two weeks), and we expect this season to be bit crazier than normal.

It seems everyone is an optimist when it come to pumpkin forecasting. I suppose it is difficult to predict how many pumpkins are in a given field when they are still green (which they were for longer than normal this year in California) but even right before harvest when the fields are peppered with a golden orange, the number of bins a farm will produce is, at best, a guess. Since it is our job here at the global buying office to fill in gaps in supply, Charlotte (our pumpkin buyer) is at crunch time, dutifully redirecting the remaining supply to regional distribution centers who two weeks earlier were saying, “We’re fine, we have plenty of local supply.” Pumpkin buying must also be exacting — like Christmas trees, jack-o-lanterns have no value after the holiday so the goal is always to buy just enough but not too much.

From my office I track the ebb and flow of the pumpkin harvest season with the intensity of a day trader watching the stock market. I do this to stay ahead of the investment I will need to make to fund my once- a-year art form: pumpkin carving! I have a curved stairway that leads to my front door that I swear was built with Halloween and pumpkin carving in mind, so I buy (or preferably grow) about a hundred pumpkins and carving squashes a year. Like most of the commercial growers this year, my home crop was poor; the cool, wet summer produced mildew on my vines. The plants recovered but the pumpkin growth was stunted; as a result my harvest yielded only 20 mostly small specimens.

Here on the Central California coast there is a wide selection of places where pumpkins are grown and sold. My annual circuit for supplemental pumpkin buying includes a farm in Castroville, a farm stand in Moss Landing, a Pumpkin patch in Soquel and, honestly, anywhere I see them being sold. Aside from carving I find the range in size, shape and texture within the same varietal types fascinating. From tall and thin to squat and round, every pumpkin is tempting but as a dedicated (or crazy as my wife refers to me) carver I have some favorites:

  • Cinderella: Also known as the “Rouge De Temp,” this red, scalloped, slightly flat squash is far and away the best for carving. The thin soft skin, string-less seed cavity and great contrast between the inside color (bright yellow) and outside red really make it a joy to carve.

  • Jarradale: Also a squash, the Jarradale is grey blue on the outside but perhaps the richest most vibrant orange on the inside of all the squashes I carve. The Jarradale is a little harder to carve because the fleshy part is so thick (it is also great for soups) but what’s interesting about it is the exterior will disappear at night because of the color and all you will see is the brightly lit interior (like a face floating in the dark).

I will also carve white and regular jack-o-lanterns and a wide variety of smaller squashes and gourds but I will mostly use Cinderella, Jarradale and similar varieties.

This year comes with a special bonus for me: Halloween falls on a Monday, which means I have all weekend to carve. If the weather cooperates I will set up my array of tools in my front yard so I don’t have to carry the finished works too far. To carve you need three basic tools: a scraper (for removing the seeds and gunk on the inside), a saw (for making the initial cuts), and a knife (for detail carving). I have a collection of small, medium and large tools to match the size of the pumpkin I’m carving.  The weather is generally cool here around Halloween so I start carving as much as two days out. I have tried several forms of preserving my carvings and have found simple water to be the best. I keep a garden hose nearby to spray the finished carving inside and out thoroughly; this seems to keep them for several days.

I have spoken to many growers throughout the country who marvel at the absurdity of growing pumpkins. Mainly for their unpredictability but also in the case of jack-o-lanterns for their poor food to biomass ratio (I also save and roast my seeds). To them I always say “phah” — the pumpkins I carve are turned into rich compost that helps to feed my flower and pumpkin garden the following summer; adding to the health and vitality of my soil.  Beyond that it is impossible to put a price on cultural traditions. For my neighborhood at least, Halloween kicks off the season of community — a time for all of us to reconnect. Halloween is not just about candy, crazy costumes and decorations. It’s about family, friends and traditions. I don’t mind scrambling every fall; for me pumpkins are more than worth it.

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