The great pumpkin shortage


WHEN THE first reports of a possible pumpkin shortage reached me, I was elated.

Here was the excuse I had been looking for. Here was a way I could avoid the unpleasant task of trying to carve the Halloween pumpkin. If there were no pumpkins, there could be no carving duty.

However, after calling half a dozen people in the pumpkin business, I determined that some huckster, somewhere, may end up short of pumpkins this year, but I was going to have to work to find him.

Some Maryland and Delaware pumpkin growers were hit hard by this summer's weird weather combo of weeks of drought followed by weeks of heavy rains. But others managed to produce a reasonable crop. This means the traditional mountain of pumpkins stacked at the supermarket might be shorter this year than in previous Octobers. But if you pick your own pumpkin or buy early, you should, metaphorically speaking, be in clover.

Moreover, the Punkin Chukin contest in Lewes, Del. -- a solid indicator, I would argue, of the region's pumpkin excess -- is going ahead, as planned, for the weekend after Halloween. According to Dawn Thompson, the event manager, there is no shortage of ammunition.

"Delaware pumpkins are tough," Thompson assured me. "They're drought-resistant." This year 20,000 people are expected to gather Nov. 6-7 to see which of 60 teams, and their various gourd-hurling contraptions, can fling a pumpkin the greatest distance.

It now appears that if I want to experience a pumpkin shortage I am going to have to shop around and shop late in the season, as close to Halloween as possible.

Steve Weber, who operates Weber's Cider Mill Farm Inc. in Baltimore County, told me that every once in a while the supply of pumpkins gets tight just before Halloween. Three years ago, for instance, the supply was so limited that Weber ended the season with only about a dozen pumpkins for sale. But most years, he said, there are plenty of leftovers. Or, as he put it, "we feed a lot of pumpkins to the cows."

I am hoping this year will be one of those years that the pro-pumpkin masses buy all the available gourds. This would mean I could avoid the October ritual of trying to make an orange orb look frightening.

Carving the Halloween pumpkin is often depicted as one of those joyful, glowing occasions of family harmony. Not in my house and not, I suspect, in many others. Instead of reveling in joy, I end up elbow-deep in pumpkin guts. Instead of basking in the warm glow of agreement, I am assaulted by carping remarks. "The eyes are too far apart," I am told. Or, "The nose looks funny."

Kids who think nothing about tossing their dirty socks on the kitchen floor suddenly become aesthetes, complaining about the "line," "composition" and "form" of my jack-o'-lantern.

The pumpkins are never willing participants in this endeavor. They are as thick-skinned as a veteran congressman. Pumpkin hides are so tough that the knife industry uses them in durability tests.

"They are one of the tougher things to cut," said Daniel D. Friel Sr., chief executive officer of EdgeCraft Inc., an Avondale, Pa., company that makes knives and sharpening stones. Friel told me researchers have found that slicing pumpkins, especially small ones, is an excellent way to determine how long a knife will hold its edge. He said he was proud that he has produced a knife that can withstand encounters with 1,000 pumpkins before losing its edge.

I usually sharpen the knife I use on the Halloween pumpkin. But I try not to make it too sharp. Pumpkin-carving is slippery work. One mistake with a razor-sharp knife can mean a trip to the emergency room. So as I work on the blade, I strive for the Roman Hruska edge, named after the former U.S senator from Nebraska who, when defending a nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, spoke up for mediocrity, for not being exceptionally smart.

I won't consider using the pumpkin-carving kits with templates that give a pumpkin a well-known scary face, such as the image of Richard Nixon. That, as the former president said when he spoke into the microphone hidden in his desk lamp, "would be wrong."

Any pumpkin worth its seeds has to be carved free-form. And it has to have a fat nose, big eyes and a wide mouth with bad teeth. The dictates of physics and taste require these large openings. They are necessary to keep the lighted candle glowing inside the jack-o'-lantern. This is also the reason you cut air holes in the lid -- an anti-snuff measure.

The jagged teeth are a scare tactic. In my mind, the measure of a jack-o'-lantern's merit is its mouth. The badder its teeth, the better the jack-o'-lantern. The tooth-making cuts are tension-filled. One cut too many and instead of a fang-filled snarl, you end up with a smiling face -- an embarrassment.

Finally, there is the task of mounting the jack-o'-lantern in a window, so it can frighten the multitudes. This undertaking usually involves hauling out bricks, covering them with aluminum foil for a better appearance, and using so much other support structure that your pumpkin holder starts to resemble the Bromo Seltzer Tower.

So this season, as the possibility of yet another stint of jack-o'-lantern duty looms on the horizon, I am hoping the pumpkin shortage -- real or manufactured -- will bail me out.

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