For local growers, pumpkin season is upon us

Tuesday, October 16, 2012 at 2:22pm
By Skip Anderson, City Paper correspondent
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They’re a fruit, not a vegetable. They were once thought to diminish freckles and to serve as an anti-venom for snakebites. And they are often green despite being famously orange in color.

They’re pumpkins, and Tennessee farmers have grown as many as 15 million this season ahead of the Halloween harvest.

That’s 2.37 pumpkins for the more than 6 million Tennesseans.

“Nearly 5,000 acres of pumpkins are grown in Tennessee,” said Tammy Algood of the Tennessee Department of Agriculture. “And practically all of these are grown for consumer use [as opposed to] commercial-processing use.”

Algood said Halloween is the largest decorating season in the United States behind Christmas, which elevates the distinctively orange and sculpt-worthy squash to a cash crop.

Pumpkin production is up nationally from last year, when suboptimal pumpkin-growing weather across the Northeast and Midwest let to shortages.

“This year is completely different,” Algood said. “That translates to exceptional prices for consumers.”

Do consumers in Middle Tennessee purchase a lot of pumpkins? You betcha. Missy Cook, proprietor of the Cooper Trooper Pumpkin Patch in Franklin at the corner of Cool Springs Boulevard and Mallory Lane, said they will sell as many as five truckloads — that’s 18-wheelers, not pickups — by the end of the month. Proceeds from their operation benefit pediatric cancer research and the Child Life Program at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt.

What should buyers look for? A few things.

Inspect the top and the bottom of the pumpkin before purchasing. An overly dry stem means it was harvested earlier in the season, which translates to a shorter post-purchase shelf life.

“Inspect the area where the pumpkin hits the ground, because that’s the area where you start to see decay first,” Algood said. “If you can cushion the orb on your front porch with a bit of straw, you will extend the shelf life considerably.”

She also suggested sprinkling ground cinnamon, nutmeg or cloves on the “lid” of a carved pumpkin, which creates a seasonal aroma when heated by a candle within.

And, of course, wash, season and roast the seeds scooped from within the pumpkin, for about 20 minutes at 350 degrees. The traditional recipe calls for seasoning the seeds with olive oil and salt before spreading them in a single layer and popping them in the oven. Although as with popcorn, the sweet, spicy, savory or salty flavor combinations are virtually limitless.

And because there’s very little waste — pumpkins will biodegrade, or better still, forest critters will enjoy noshing on the remains, particularly if its cut into forest-critter-friendly chunks — pumpkins are an environmentally friendly way to celebrate the season.