- Author: Dustin Blakey
What's the dilemma? My kids tell me I have to dress up for Halloween this year, and they won't accept yet another year of me going as a “Farm Advisor” or “a dad.”
My ongoing goal at Halloween has been to have the absolute minimal costume that will allow me to pass muster with the girls, but save what little adult dignity I may have. Each year this gets harder.
I think I've decided on being a mad scientist this Halloween. I already have a lab coat and some safety goggles. (Even mad scientists care about eye protection.) A mad scientist needs a project to work on. Since a nuclear-powered cannon that shoots glowing, radioactive pumpkin pie filling wouldn't do much to help my daughters' chances of scoring a giant cache of candy, I thought I'd come up with some clever alternative to carving pumpkins. After all, nobody likes cleaning up the 20 pounds of pumpkin guts contained within a 10 pound pumpkin. Especially dads who inevitably end up with the job.
The traditional place to start would be vegetables. In the 19th Century, the Scots and Irish used root vegetables common to them. Potatoes (until the Great Potato Famine), rutabagas, and turnips were often carved with scary faces. Going “old school” will probably end up being the least messy alternative, but to be honest, I don't think you will inspire kids with a rutabaga. Especially since they can't easily be made to glow ominously.
One of the better ideas I found was using watermelons instead of pumpkins. This allows you to make green goblins and other creatures. The family can eat the easily carved pink flesh scooped out of the melon which is a nice bonus. Other melons can be carved for even more bizarre creations. I can't stand to eat them, but cantaloupes look like they could be made into some nightmarish monsters.
Plants in the cucumber family like melons and squashes (and pumpkins) generally work well since they have a tough skin and if even their core is not hollow, it is usually soft enough to scoop out. Unusual shaped squashes can lead to inspired designs. A butternut squash turned upside-down looks remarkably skull-like, even if it would be a bit of a chore to hollow. Thankfully there's paint!
If your jack-o-lanterns look like they need some little friends, it's possible to carve large bell peppers into heads, but you won't be able to light it with a candle without it wilting quickly. This leads me to an important observation about lighting jack-o-lanterns.
Pumpkins and winter squash have great flexibility with means to light them. Small tea candles are fine for a flame-based light system, but more creative produce options like melons won't do so well with candles.
If you're clever you can use LED lights to light a jack-o-lantern, but I think glow sticks are the best way to illuminate all your Halloween carving projects. The same large glow sticks you give your kids to wear trick-or-treating are perfect for larger fruit like pumpkins and watermelons. For small items like muskmelons or peppers, use those small bracelet types. You can often find a ten-pack of these inexpensively.
Glow sticks are nice because they stay cool, give you a range of creative colors, don't burn you as you try to set them inside, and won't start fires. With all the ninjas, vampires, ghouls, and zombies out on Halloween, the last thing you need to worry about is open flame.
Instead, be on the lookout for a madman in a lab coat handing out Atomic Fireballs to unsuspecting children.
- Author: Dustin Blakey
Since Halloween is just around the corner, it seems like a good time to discuss an autumn favorite: pumpkins.
Since humans began farming, there has been a continuous process of improving plants and animals for domestic use. It's remarkable what we can accomplish through a good breeding program. For instance plants like corn are so different from their wild progenitors that they cannot survive on their own without humans planting them. We even have thornless blackberries!
Crops and livestock seem like good choices for improvement, but what would inspire someone to breed an irritable, pocket-sized dog? Fortunately for you readers, I have a theory about where Chihuahuas come from: someone was obviously looking for a way to make barking Jack-o-lanterns for Halloween.
It seems to me that any amateur obsessed with fitting a dog in a Jack-o-lantern would consider two methods: either
- Miniaturize the dog; or
- Make the pumpkin bigger.
Clearly those with a sense of humor chose to make a smaller dog. Everyone else bred giant pumpkins.
Other than that time I accidentally left the gate in the back yard open when I was 11, I really don't have any background in canine genetics, so let's just talk about giant pumpkins instead. This is a garden blog, after all.
The pumpkin is the perfect plant to inspire creative thought, after all the inside of a pumpkin does resemble gooey brains. After you scoop out all that “gray matter” you are left with a hollow cavity that's just aching for something to be put inside. And what would be scarier than a barking Jack-o-lantern?
Before you run out and try to be the first person to patent the amazing barking pumpkin, I feel I have to warn you about the difficulty involved with the endeavor.
First, the Chihuahuas will tend to climb out since most won't appreciate being left alone in a damp pumpkin. Second, people have been highly successful at growing huge pumpkins; in fact, the world record is 2,032 lbs! But it turns out their hollow cavity isn't a whole lot different from a regular pumpkin and you'd have a hard time carving in a scary face. Clearly, we're not quite ready for barking pumpkins. (However progress continues.)
Modern Jack-o-lanterns (the non-barking kind) are an old European tradition with an American twist. The original Jack-o-lanterns were carved from potatoes or turnips, which were more common in the British Isles than virtually anything else.
The story goes that there was a fellow named Stingy Jack who was partying with the Devil. Jack didn't have any money to pay for his whiskey which is why he was hanging out with Satan in the first place. So being resourceful, he talked the Devil into turning into a coin to pay the tab. Poof! So far so good, but being stingy, Jack decides to pocket the coin instead of paying, which trapped a very unhappy Satan. Finally it's agreed that Jack will let the Devil go for the promise to not pester him any more about mooching booze off everyone.
It shouldn't surprise you to find out that Stingy Jack dies soon thereafter. Maybe it was a pickled liver? In any case St. Peter tells him he's too evil for heaven so Jack heads on down to Hell. When he arrives the Devil remembers Stingy Jack and doesn't let him enter Hell, either.
I'm no expert in this sort of thing, but, according to the Internet, the in-between space between Heaven and Hell is pretty dark, leaving Jack to wander in the darkness. Anyone that's stubbed their toe in the middle of the night knows that getting around in total darkness is anything but quick and easy. Well, to speed his departure the Devil tosses him a hot coal that Jack places into a potato to keep from burning his hands. So now we carve Jack-o-lanterns and try to scare impressionable, young children each Halloween to commemorate this important occasion.
In researching this post, I discovered that pumpkins weren't exactly the rage in Ireland, which is why we don't hear of the great pumpkin famine. But when these immigrants came to America they quickly upgraded to pumpkin Jack-o-lanterns for obvious reasons.
It was fortunate that Native Americans were growing and improving pumpkins for centuries as a food crop. Without pumpkins Halloween would be as scary—and awkward—as Grandparents' Day.
Naturally, if you're going to have pumpkins all over the place, it's just a matter of time before some genius on a candy-induced sugar rush is going to find a need to make pumpkins bark.