Second only to fireworks and the old Victorian tradition of lighting actual candles in a dead pine tree (the stuff of California nightmares), the Halloween jack-o'-lantern tops the list for ways to make your local fire department squirm. Anything that involves an open flame inside an easily tippable gourd placed near anything remotely combustible (a house, for example) is cause for concern, especially in a world that legislates whether or not you can eat an orange in your bathtub. So you go to the farmers market and spy myriad options for your Halloween aspirations. What do you choose? We've developed a handy primer to help you gauge your gourds and select to purpose.
The numbering is not indicative of best-to-worst. As with most decorating decisions, you pick your pumpkin based on your practical limitations (space, tools, allergies and carving skill) and aesthetic preferences (classic, pumpkin-gone-wild, Martha Stewart-esque or contrived festiveness to jump-start what you hope will be a better holiday season).
5. The Fairy Tale Pumpkin: This heirloom classic, along with its cousins the Cinderella a.k.a. Rouge vif D'Etampes (translation: very red) and the green-blue skinned Jarrahdale, practically scream fairy tale. Whether it becomes the magical carriage variety or something out of Grimm is up to you. It has a cavernous chamber on the inside, but carvers should be aware that the side walls are very thick. The toy saw that comes with so many carving kits won't be long enough to slice through it. Avant-garde carvers who create glowing friezes on the surface of their gourds should also look elsewhere. It's not that it's not carvable, it's that you'd end up ruining the thing that makes this pumpkin so attractive in the first place, its deeply lobed, squat and exaggerated architecture. Get it, but maybe keep it intact and let it hint at its magical potential. Oh, it's right tasty and makes a fine pie. Farmers market vendors occasionally confuse the Fairy Tale and the Cinderella but they're easily discernable by color. We're hoping someone develops a similar black or burgundy-skinned "Morgaine" pumpkin some day.
4. Jack-Be-Little pumpkins: To the porchless and those with minimal kitchen real estate, big pumpkins and gourds are unwieldy and problematic. Remember, if you buy it, you have to carry it. Tiny decoratives like the Jack-Be-Little, the Munchkin and the Wee Be Little pumpkins are palm-sized, colorful and easily carved into vegetal votive cups with a metal spoon. They're also organic, if you get them from McGrath Family Farms. You could eat them, with a lot of butter and brown sugar, but their flavor is more potato, only without the flavor.
3. Kabocha, most kinds: Cutting open this scrumptious squash and not eating it makes us cringe, but they're in season, they're plentiful and they come in a huge variety of shapes and colors. The red-skinned Kuri is our favorite kabocha for carving because of its soft flesh, ample cavern and ability to sit upright. Its one drawback is the reason so many people buy it for roasting: The flesh is moist and sweet, and after you cut through its protective, thick skin, you have maybe three days before it starts to rot. Depending on your carving proficiency, that may be an asset. Realistic zombie jack-o'-lantern?
2. The Standard Pumpkin: The "standard" pumpkin is anything but. Sure, there's the Alladin, the Big Max and the Howden -- all the traditional jack-o'-lantern varieties bred to purpose that have easily carvable shells and are as eatable as Styrofoam. They come tall, short, long, fat, large and small. Usually, they're the same, boring bright orange all over. Consider for a moment the Lumina, a standard-type pumpkin with white skin and orange flesh that glows nicely from within and also bakes beautifully and tastes like yams. McGrath Family Farms (their winter squash selection is hard to beat) has a Winter Delight cooking pumpkin with a thin, slightly netted skin and a sweet persimmon-like taste. Choose the Lumina and Winter Delight if you have culinary intentions. As for the rest, select for interesting scarring, long and twisted top stems and mottled coloring for spooky shadow effects. Perfect pumpkins are anything but, and local markets sell more interesting shapes and sizes than any makeshift parking lot "patch."
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SHOW ME HOW
1. The Turnip: Yes. Turnips. The legend goes that a clever man named Jack tricked the Devil and got him to promise not to take his soul when he died. Turns out, the guy irked God, too, so in the end, nobody wanted him. Some celestial loophole granted the Devil dominion, so he gave Jack one glowing coal and sent him to wander the night forever. Jack put the coal into a turnip, which earned him the name Jack of the Lantern, which was shortened with the Irishy "O'." They sit in windows. They hang from trees and awnings with clever and sometimes ornate wire swings. Some get spooky faces to ward off the dead with whom Jack now presumably hangs. Some just smolder with a hot red coal or candle. Irish immigrants to America ultimately did a mash-up with Ichabod Crane, and lo, the pumpkin jack-o'-lantern was born. While we do love the nostalgic, orange, flickering glow of the American adaptation, there is an appeal to having numerous small, round, ghostly faces hanging in front of you, watching as you pass. Unless you're a whiz with multiple types of carving tools, chances are your turnip faces will be eerily simplistic and primitive -- an undervalued spook factor in a town capable of professionally-sculpted gore.
Safety Tips: Taking a knife to the bottom of whatever Jack you choose is a smooth move. Assuming you're not following your local fire department's safety tips and have eschewed the recommended fake, battery-powered "candle," consider that you are putting fire into an enclosed combustible squash. The last thing you want is for it to tip over. Slice just enough off the bottom to help it stabilize, and tilt the lid a little to let the heat escape or, better yet, leave the top off altogether and sit it on the ground while lit. Never leave a lit candle unattended and when lighting it inside the gourd, and use a long fire place match or grill lighter so you don't burn your hand. It may seem like a glaring no-brainer, but we've done it before, leaving the kind of scars that linger long after Halloween ends.