The History of the Jack-O-Lantern
If you’ve driven through a typical American neighborhood this time of year, you’ve probably noticed that many people have a carved pumpkin, aka “jack-o-lantern,” sitting on their front porch, carved into a ghoulish caricature. The noble reason for this tradition is adults’ desire to warn kids of what they’ll look and feel like if they choose to make high fructose corn syrup candy the staple of their diets, instead of good wholesome fruits & veggies like pumpkins.
In all seriousness, our modern versions of Halloween and the Jack-o-Lantern are marvelous cultural mashups of “new world” & European folkloric traditions whose origins date back thousands of years. Rather than go through all the historical details here, anyone interested in learning more about these origins should read more about Samhain, the Gaelic harvest festival, as well as the Catholic celebration known as All Saints Day.
The American tradition of carving pumpkin Jack-O-Lanterns dates back to at least 1836, and was borrowed from the European tradition of carving large turnip jack-o-lanterns (they didn’t have pumpkins when the tradition started). In parts of Europe, there were folktales of a clever farmer named Jack whose favorite food was a turnip. In one of the most popular stories about Jack, he managed to trick the devil into becoming a silver coin, and then held the devil hostage in his wallet with a cross, rendered him powerless. In exchange for releasing the devil from his wallet, Jack made him agree not to take his soul. However, Jack may have been too clever for his own good, and was supposedly too sinful throughout his life to be granted entrance into heaven, thus dooming him to a state of purgatory here on earth. Since the devil couldn’t take Jack’s soul, he spitefully threw Jack an eternal flame from hell, which Jack then used to light the inside of his favorite food: the turnip, where his soul would take up shelter during the fall harvest season. For the rest of the year, Jack’s flame could be seen wandering through the continents’ marshes, bogs, and swamps, which provided a much-needed explanation for the spooky blue orb-like flames that hover above these bodies of water as a result of ignited, “cold-burning” swamp gasses, aka “ignis fatuus.” In other parts of Europe, people also used their turnip jack-o-lanterns to ward off evil spirits from entering their homes, since these spirits were said to be particularly active during the “dark half of the year.”
So, when you’re lighting your jack-o-lantern, make sure you say hello to Jack. Also, make sure that you save your pumpkin when the candle goes out, because pumpkins are one delicious, nutritious food that you don’t want to waste.
Cool Pumpkin Facts & Figures Plus a New Pumpkin Legend…
A native of North America, pumpkins are actually a winter squash in the family Cucurbita. Pumpkins range in weight from a few pounds to massive “Atlantic Giant” varieties, one of which just set a new world record for the world’s largest pumpkin at 2,009 pounds. Archaeologists excavating a tomb in central Mexico, unearthed the oldest known pumpkin seeds ever found, which date back 7,000 years! Pumpkins are also one of the most versatile foods on the planet, and are used in a huge variety of foods & drinks including breads, pies, puddings, pastas, soups, dressings, alcoholic beverages, coffee flavoring, and more.
The US now grows over 1.5 billion pounds of pumpkins per year, 95% of which are grown in Illinois. 85% of all pumpkins grown in the US are produced by Libby, a subsidiary of Nestlé, the massive Switzerland-based company that is also the world’s largest food company by revenue. So, when you buy your pumpkin from the store (fresh or in a can), it’s entirely possible that you’re helping to support Swiss bankers who desperately need your financial support to continue hiding the assets of the earth’s billionaires. Also, due to the various fossil fuels Nestlé uses to grow and transport your pumpkin to you, you’re also helping to support many middle eastern dictators and the jihadist that their brutal regimes help to produce. So, when picking out your jack-o-lantern pumpkin, make sure that you get a pumpkin big enough for Jack the Farmer, Lars the Banker, and Abdul the Dictator to each have enough space inside, otherwise they’ll fight each other and prematurely blow out the candle (according to Tyrant Farms’ legend).
Of course, if you want to avoid all of this, you can also easily grow your own pumpkin/s from seed, like we did at Tyrant Farms this year. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, one of our favorite seed companies, has a bunch of beautiful, unusual heirloom varieties of pumpkins and other winter squash to choose from. This year, we grew Jarrahdale and Rogue Vif d’Etampes.
We’ve already made a bunch of new, delicious pumpkin recipes from our pumpkins’ flowers, leaves, seeds, and meat this season. The sweet, intense floral aroma and taste of our organic home-grown heirloom pumpkins is a night-and-day difference versus the store bought varieties. We love scooping out and sautéing the seeds, while roasting the pumpkin skin side down in preparation for making it into lots of great meals… and we look forward to sharing some of our favorite recipes with you over the next few days as we get time to write them.
So, we hope you’ll stay tuned for some great recipes, and make plans to grow your own pumpkins starting next summer!
As always, Know It or Grow It!
Aaron & Susan