Saturday Diary / A day in the pumpkin patch

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What a natural wonder the pumpkin is. Orange. Round. Personable.

This fruit of the vine is exotic, arguably erotic -- quixotic, if not downright hypnotic.

OK, let me catch my breath.

These were some of the plump thoughts I was entertaining on a recent Saturday while harvesting pumpkins. Yes, wife Suellen and I were helping her brother Bill Paxton pick some of the seven acres of pumpkins on his Shilling Hill Farm along Route 519 in Chartiers Township, Washington County, where pumpkins were selling faster than ballpark hotdogs.

Pumpkin picking demands a keen eye, strength, fitness and perseverance. OK, I admit, you only need to see and lift. I'm proof that bumpkins can pick pumpkins. Still, my Saturday turned into a search for perfection.

The champion pumpkin must be uniformly orange, symmetrical and robust. There's big demand for small pumpkins but that's as illogical as miniature Great Danes. One soon realizes that no pumpkin, as with people, is perfect. And, unlike the popular saying that it's what's inside that counts, Halloween pumpkins are fruit versions of the Miss Universe pageant, where good looks and curves are everything.

But dramatic imperfections do catch the eye. Some people want green pumpkins or ones with green veining because, they announce, "It has character." No, I would tell myself, it's just not ripe yet. Pumpkins are interesting because they are orange. Suellen did find Siamese pumpkins connected at the pleats that sold quickly.

We cut the vines to create a long stem, then carried one or two at a time to the ATV or hay wagon at field's edge. But our strategy evolved. We started gathering harvested pumpkins into little kumbaya circles -- what Suellen called "pumpkin families" and driving the ATV to the pumpkins.

Suellen forbade the lifting of pumpkins by the stem because they can break off and a pumpkin without a stem is like a cat without a tail. Few want a manx pumpkin. But I set my own rules. If something has a handle, I'm going to use it.

That afternoon we picked 500 to 600 pumpkins but failed to keep up with demand.

Strolling down the rows of harvested pumpkins, people were slow to choose. Men buy cars and golf clubs faster than they buy pumpkins. Women have chosen wedding dresses more expeditiously. The latter would walk the rows cooing as if in a nursery of newborns. They'd inspect, cuddle and even rock them. They were keen to the pumpkin's importance. The pumpkin on the porch reflects personality. An odd-shaped, splotchy-colored, ugly pumpkin can damage one's reputation. One is judged by one's pumpkin.

Then comes the difficult decision to buy.

Learning that larger pumpkins were $2 and small ones were but a buck, one lady started with a medium-sized one and kept asking me the price. I kept replying, "$2," as she sought ever smaller ones in hopes of getting the biggest small pumpkin for a dollar. But I was pricing them as small big pumpkins. Had it been marble-sized, I would have said, "$2."

That's why I'm not a pumpkin entrepreneur as are Bill and his wife, Susan. They are nice, and they want to rid their fields of all that orange and would have sold the lady a small big pumpkin for a greenback.

For the most part, I spent the hours marveling at the pumpkin population, their "mellow fruitfulness" and fluorescent orange that seemed to burn bright in the "maturing sun," to borrow some lines from a guy named Keats. Basketballs seemed to be growing in the fields. Some jolly giant had spilled his giant cheese balls.

Then I pondered the agricultural, culinary and cultural importance of this colorful squash.

There's a rock band named Smashing Pumpkins. Gallagher made a comedic living doing just that. The Great Pumpkin of Peanuts fame plays on its godly enigma. Cinderella rides to the ball in a pumpkin carriage that reverts into a pumpkin at midnight. The Headless Horseman hid that fact by wearing a jack-o-lantern, promoting the haunting mysteries of the pumpkin. Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater not only got sustenance from the pumpkin but saved his marriage by keeping his wife very well inside a pumpkin shell, which I'm not sure is a tribute to the pumpkin or Peter Peter.

What a grand fruit. Other fall crops -- the poisonous apple of Snow White fame and the horrors of corn (Children of the Corn) -- must be jealous of pumpkin popularity. We personify them by carving jack-o-lanterns. We hold competitions for the largest (the current record is 2,009 pounds) and the biggest pies (also exceeding a ton) and the best pie (with the long-standing debate over nutmeg or no nutmeg).

Humans eat every part of the pumpkin, shell included, and even the yellow flower off the vine: Pies, custards, soups, seeds raw and fried, oil, sauces and even fancy stuff like gazpacho. Pumpkins fill our fields, our bellies, our culture and our literature. They feed our imaginations.

So beloved are pumpkins that they, most of all, become pets during the weeks leading to Halloween -- fruit versions of dogs and cats, which explains all the pumpkin doting I witnessed. They symbolize abundance, beauty and mystery, serving as the main character in a season full of haunting allure with elves in the leaves and magic on the breeze.

Now I'm really breathless.

Proving one obvious point: Spending a day in a pumpkin patch can affect one's gourd.


David Templeton is a staff writer for the Post-Gazette (dtempleton@post-gazette,com, 412-263-1578).


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