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Jim Flis makes a skeletal pumpkin carving. Kelly Sennott photo.




Oh my gourd!
Pumpkin fun for everyone!

10/10/13
By Kelly Sennott ksennott@hippopress.com



Every September, New England gets a big dose of pumpkin. 
Make that a colossal dose. Come fall, everything is pumpkin flavored, from beer to coffee, ice cream to Pringles. You can’t walk into a restaurant without hearing about its limited-time, festive pumpkin ale, and similarly, it’s hard to walk down a grocery aisle without being accosted by pumpkin-flavored everything.
In New Hampshire especially, the pumpkin-ness is inescapable. Not only is it at the center of the state’s most famed festival, but thanks to a handful of third- and fourth-graders at Wells Memorial Elementary School in Harrisville, it’s also our state fruit.
“It’s part of living in New Hampshire. … Pumpkins are just so beautiful and iconic at this time of year,” said Kristine Mossey, president of the New Hampshire Farmer’s Market Association. 
Admittedly, she’s biased; Mossey was born on Halloween. 
“But they’re useful, too! You’re getting a lot of bang for your buck with a pumpkin. You can use it for decorating, but you can eat it as well.”
The best thing to do is to embrace it: From Cinderella’s carriage to Charlie Brown’s Great Pumpkin, to your mother’s favorite nickname, you’re not going to find a fruit or vegetable with more staying power. The Hippo talked with New Hampshire’s farmers, artists, carvers and cooks for a twist to your traditional gourd-geous fall.
 
Who the heck is Jack O’Lantern?
And why is he so famous?
The first step to building (or maybe creating, if you’re already tired of orange) your love of pumpkins is to learn about why we carve and light them in the first place. The exact origin of today’s malicious Halloween emblem is uncertain, though there are many folkloric stories that suggest an explanation.
Most are about a guy named Stingy Jack the farmer. According to legend, Jack tricked the Devil into climbing a tall tree to pick a piece of fruit. When the Devil reached the highest branch, Jack carved a large cross into the trunk, which prevented the Devil from coming down. The Devil then made a deal with Jack: the Devil promised never to tempt Jack with evil again if Jack would remove the cross so that he could pass. Jack agreed.
Legend says (or at least this version, sent to The Hippo by Diane Souther of Apple Hill Farm in Concord, says) that when Jack died, he was turned away from Heaven for his sins and away from Hell because of his trickery. He was forced to wander Earth without rest. So, to light his way, he carved one of the turnips from his farm and lit it with an ember from the Devil. The Irish referred to this ghost as “Jack of the Lantern,” and eventually, “Jack O’Lantern.”
As true with most folk tales, several versions of this story exist. The History Channel tells a similar tale (it features a bar scene — no joke here), yet it too alludes to the idea that our Halloween symbol began with. 
History.com reports that people in Ireland and Scotland began making their own versions of Jack’s lantern in turnips, beets and potatoes in order to scare Stingy Jack and other wandering spirits away. Immigrants supposedly brought these customs over to the States but began utilizing North America’s more commonly available orange pumpkin.
 
Plus, gourds helped the Pilgrims survive
Gourds in general have been prized for centuries, and not just because of Stingy Jack.
Winter squash (the kind that looks like a pumpkin) goes back to the pilgrims, which is also likely why it’s so inscribed within New England culture, said George Hamilton, UNH Cooperative Extension Field Specialist of Food and Agriculture in a phone interview. 
It’s important to note early on that the term “gourd” will not only refer to the fruits in the Cucurbitaceae family (which includes pumpkins, cucumbers, squash and melons). When someone says “gourd” in reference to a particular food that’s not pumpkin, squash, melon, etc., he is usually referring to the fruit that many artists dry out and use in creating long-term art. (We’ll get to specifically how they use these gourds later.) 
Gourds, said Merrimack gourd artist Micheline (who prefers to go only by her first name), were also prized in early civilizations because of their great utility.
“Pilgrims used [hard-shelled gourds] to keep their eggs. Romans, Egyptians, years ago, they’d keep their wine in it. They’d use them as vessels. If you take a small one, slice it sideways, it becomes a ladle,” Micheline said. 
Gourds themselves are also arguably some of the oldest, if not the oldest, domesticated plants in the world, Micheline said. 
 
Pick a pumpkin, any pumpkin
Part of what’s so endearing about New Hampshire’s state fruit is how versatile it is. Not only is it used in decoration (carved, scraped, painted or un-touched), but there are so many ways you can eat it.
“You can put hot dip in a pumpkin. You can make meatloaf in a pumpkin. You can use little pie pumpkins to serve soup in. It’s a festive thing to do,” Kristine Mossey said in a phone interview. 
It is, however, pretty important that you know what you’re going to do with your pumpkin before you shop. The bargain fruits sitting in a wire cage outside Walmart, for instance, won’t taste great (probably not even good) in an autumn stew. 
“Carving pumpkins and pie pumpkins are different. When we grow pie pumpkins, they’re usually a few pounds. When you go to a farmers market, you should ask the farmer whether it’s a pie pumpkin,” Mossey said. She has her own pumpkin farm in southern New Hampshire. “Pie pumpkins often have nicer textures, thicker flesh and tastier meat inside.” 
For cooking, Mossey loves the Long Island Cheese Pumpkin.
“As a family, that’s our favorite to use for pie. Some people think it looks more like a squash … the flesh is so thick, and it has a very small seed cavity,” Mossey said. 
Most farmers markets will also offer sugar pumpkin and winter squash for cooking.
Carving pumpkins, on the other hand, are grown to be big. 
That’s what 9-year-old Freddy Stern was looking for, anyway, when he went pumpkin-picking at Mack’s Apples in Londonderry last week on a bright, 80-degree sunny afternoon. He had a few Halloween-themed stencils he was looking to fit on the large, orange pumpkin he picked out, which was almost too big for him to pick up.
Experienced carvers like Jim Flis look for pumpkins free of blemishes and rot spots. (Rot spots decrease a pumpkin’s shelf life; warts and strange growths make carving more difficult because they make the area around them very dense.)
 
I’m tired of pumpkin carving!
Ditto! 
Those brave souls who aren’t afraid of Stingy Jack the ghost might want to try stenciling, burning, painting or zentangling on gourds instead.
This weekend, on Saturday, Oct. 12, from 10 a.m. to noon, Wild Salamander (30 Grove St., Hollis) hosts a Zentangle Pumpkin workshop ($30, which includes the pumpkin). The class is open to artists and non-artists ages 8 to 80. 
Zentangle art teacher Suzanne Binnie began zentangling (a patented pen-and-ink art form that contains repetitive patterns) years ago, and because she loved it so much, she began “zentangling” on everything. The design, she discovered, looks particularly great on pumpkins.
“They [Zentangled pumpkins] make gorgeous centerpieces,” Binnie said. “The design is very dramatic, particularly those with black ink on a white pumpkin.” 
Plus, she said, you get to forego scooping out the cold pumpkin goo. At the workshop, students will create on plastic pumpkins (so they’ll last longer), but this technique works just as well on real pumpkins, too, Binnie said. She advises artists to use extra-fine-point oil pens. (For tips on how to zentangle, check out zentangle.com.)
Another way to freshen up your pumpkin art: try creating with dried-out gourds instead.
True, it’s not for the faint of heart; it requires a bit of elbow grease, and you might need to use a jigsaw in order to cut it, said Milford artist Lynn Desmarais, but the result is charming. 
“I make Santas, turkeys, pumpkins, bowls, baskets, ornaments, but most of the time, they’re meant for decoration,” Desmarais said. 
She discovered the gourd-eous artistic method 12 years ago when she first became a stay-at-home mom. She was at a White Mountain Painters Guild meeting, and a fellow member had brought in a dried, decorated gourd.
“I thought they were so cool,” Desmarais said. “They’re so unique. At the time, very few people did anything with gourds. Each [piece of gourd art] has its own personality because each gourd is different. It’s not like painting on a piece of wood.”
The art form isn’t quite as prevalent up north as it is down south, where the growing season is longer, the gourds grow to be thicker and the climate is better for drying them out.
“We get our gourds from a farm in Georgia,” Desmarais said. “They’re already dried out. We start out by scrubbing the outside, getting the mold off, and then we bleach them. My dad does the cutting, I clean the insides, and then I paint them.”
Her Jack O’Lantern, ghost, basket or holiday decoration is finished with a coat of varnish. The end results look nothing like gourds.
The American Gourd Society is a great resource for aspiring gourd artists (americangourdsociety.org includes links, publications, FAQs, etc.). There is even a  gourd art-dedicated magazines called The Gourd Magazine, which offers tips for gourd decoration and gourd art product reviews. 
People are certainly interested in Desmarais’ gourd art when she shows at fairs and festivals.
“The majority of people, they’ll come up to the booth and say, ‘What is this?!’” Desmarais said. 
“What I do takes so long, it’s nice to know that it’s going to last forever … and there’s so much with them you can do. You can make them into vessels, bowls, instruments, birdhouses.”
Micheline also took to gourds. She discovered the art form at a fair in North Carolina. 
“I saw a decorated gourd and I went to pick it up to look at it. I thought it’d be heavy, like pottery. But there was nothing to it!” she said. “It was intriguing to me.”
Micheline’s gourd art looks very organic. Unlike Desmarais, Micheline likes to burn designs on the gourds before she paints them with leather dyes. Her baskets, vessels, masks and vases all have this natural quality to them.
“Everything I use is natural. I like feathers, pine needles … I’ve painted furniture, built furniture, painted paintings. … Now I want to build baskets [she said while gesturing to a half-finished gourd-basket in her studio]. … I like the imperfections, the character in the gourd,” she said. “No two are the same.” 
Micheline is a member of the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen. You can often find her art at the Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum gift shop in Warner, and at her website, michelinesstudio.com.
 
A bit more traditional
If you really want to go the traditional route, you might at least make something that’s awesome and lasting. 
Merrimack pumpkin artist Jim Flis’ pumpkins look, at first, like traditional Jack O’Lanterns, but when you look closer, you’ll see they’re much better. (The pumpkin on the cover? He carved it!) They last longer, too, because of his carving technique. 
Instead of cutting right through the pumpkin, in his Jack O’Lanterns, he scrapes off the skin for design. (A pumpkin will rot faster, typically, when there’s more exposed pumpkin meat.) His tools are a couple of Exacto knives and a few wood-carving chisels.
“Because I’m only carving the skin, there’s no limit to the level of detail I can have. The deeper you dig, the more light that goes through,” he said. “I can create shades of grey.” This is particularly useful when Flis needs to create shadows for his pumpkin portraits. (The only downside to this is that you can’t light with a candle, as there aren’t any holes in the gourd for the air to escape; he advises customers to light his pumpkins with incandescent light bulbs.)
Flis carves commissioned pieces for businesses (mostly restaurants), but most of the time, he’s just carving because he loves carving. (Really, he loves carving; after spending so much time around pumpkins, he developed an allergy. Yet, he’s still carving! You can see an example of his work on the front page of this week’s issue.)
If you attend this year’s Milford Pumpkin Festival, you can check out his work while he demonstrates with his daughter, Jennifer. You might find a few portraits (he’s carved Ray Charles,  Jimmy Hendrix and Regis Philbin — that one was shown on Regis and Kelly a few years back). He makes a good show of Halloween-themed pumpkins, of course, but if he’s on a roll, you might see a few panoramic designs, too.
You may find, said Flis, that if you use this technique, you won’t care much for the finished product until you insert the light. The layers and “shades of grey” aren’t visible until they’re illuminated.
“It’s a bizarre transformation when you see them lit up,” Flis said. 
Portraits, especially, are difficult to gauge until they’re finished. 
“My first portrait pumpkin was of my brother. When I carved it, I looked at it and said, ‘Great. I just wasted three hours on a perfectly good pumpkin.’ I lit it anyway,” Flis said. “When I saw it lit, I called my brother at 9 p.m., drove to his place in New York and got there after midnight. We spent the rest of the night bringing the pumpkin from bar to bar to show his friends.”
 
Make it last
Another way to make this year’s pumpkin better than last’s: get more wear out of it.
Flis advises his customers to treat the pumpkin like you would any ordinary fruit or vegetable
“Don’t leave your Jack O’Lantern lit for more than an hour or two at a time. When it’s not lit, keep it in a cool, dry place. When you do turn it [the light bulb] off, take off the lid so the heat that’s inside will escape,” he said.
Often, the trouble with early-rotting pumpkins is that carvers (or customers) forget to treat them as such. 
“Restaurants [who buy his commissioned pumpkins] will open at 8 a.m., they’ll turn the pumpkin on, and they’ll turn it off at 10 p.m. … By that time, they’ve cooked the pumpkin!” Flis said.
Of course, there are less natural ways to make a pumpkin last, too.
“I had one customer, a farmer, keep his pumpkin for eight weeks. You could only touch it with gloves,” Flis said. “He put so many preservatives on it. It was not a safe pumpkin, but there are extremes you can go through.”
 
Cook up something delicious
If you really want to spice up your fall, you can make an infinite number of pumpkin-flavored meals, snacks and desserts. Take some tips from Susan McLean.
McLean, a New Hampshire resident who’s been featured on WMUR’s “Cook’s Corner” a few times and who regularly contributes to the Salem Farmers Market recipe blog (and who has her own awesome blog with a special pumpkin section at laptop2tabletop.com), has given herself a hefty fall food challenge: Can she go through 99 cans of pumpkin?
The idea stemmed from a trip to the grocery store two years ago. She was with her daughter, 10 at the time, walking through the pumpkin aisle.
“For some reason, I just started singing that song, ‘99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall,’ except with pumpkin.” (Her full version, which goes like this, is written out on her blog: Open one up, it measures two cups, 98 cans of pumpkin in the pantry.). She’s down to Can No. 48.
“My family thinks I’m insane,” McLean said. (More like “out of her gourd,” as she describes in a blog post from 2012.) 
“I didn’t buy 99 cans, but I did buy in bulk and had to hide them in different places around the house. … I love pumpkin because it’s savory and sweet. It’s a versatile fruit,” McLean said.
Her blog contains all kinds of pumpkin-y items, from pumpkin bruschetta with goat cheese to pumpkin granola. 
McLean loves a good cooking challenge. After an interview inquiry from the Hippo she decided to spend her entire Sunday cooking up a pumpkin-y storm. She purchased a fresh sugar pumpkin from the Salem Farmers Market and created fresh pumpkin puree, chocolate pumpkin tiramisu, an autumn roasted vegetable stew, a rustic autumn vegetable tart and autumn roasted vegetable risotto. 
She even conducted a pumpkin experiment in order to answer an interview question: Can you really taste the difference between canned and fresh pumpkin?
She cooked up some chocolate pumpkin tiramisu, one dish from canned pumpkin, one from regular, and brought the dishes into work. The verdict: “In the tiramisu, which everyone loved, there was no clear ability to distinguish fresh from canned,” she wrote in a follow-up email.
Standing alone, though, there’s certainly a physical difference between the two.
“More than a difference in taste, there’s a difference in texture. Canned pumpkin is creamier, but I’ve found fresh pumpkin puree to be lighter,” she said. “With pureed sugar pumpkin, you won’t get the same richness, but it’s so much fresher.”
She encourages folks to try her recipes, but to also explore their own.
“I can never just do someone else’s recipe. I have the Food Network on in my house 24/7. When someone says ‘pumpkin risotto,’ I ask, ‘How can I do it differently? … Pumpkins are only out for a short period of time. … It’s full of fiber and nutrients, and it’s a fairly neutral flavor with so many different uses, from pancakes to cheesecakes, savory crepes to savory sauces,” McLean said. 
You can use pumpkin to make any food more festive by turning it into a dish. Kristine Mossey makes a festive pumpkin chip dip that she serves straight from the pumpkin. For the kids, she likes to pour lo mein into the pumpkin and tell them it’s pumpkin guts. 
 
See a pumpkin as you’ve never seen it before...
Namely, soaring through the air and crashing into a crummy old trailer, or one that’s world-record size. You can see pumpkins in New Hampshire in a way you won’t see anywhere else. 
Trombley Gardens in Milford (150 N. River Road, Milford, 673-0647) hosts its 4th annual Chunker in the Garden event on Sunday, Oct. 13, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The event offers food from the farmstead, hot apple cider, apple crisp, corn on the cob, a corn maze, hayrides, games, vendors, and, most importantly, flying pumpkins. The Chuck Norris Air Cannon team and the American Chunker team will shoot pumpkins in the air every 15 minutes. The event draws between 3,000 and 5,000 people to the Milford farm, and the festival is rumored to have catapulting pumpkins, too.
This New Hampshire event is just for show, but these two teams are actually just a couple of many pumpkin chunkin teams. Just a few weeks after this event, the Punkin Chunkin World Championships occur in Delaware, Nov. 1 through Nov. 3. (You can find out more about pumpkin chunking at punkinchunkin.com.)
In New England, you also have opportunity to see some of the largest pumpkins in the world. Just last year, the Deerfield Fair was home, briefly, to the largest pumpkin in the world at 1,834 pounds. (The record was, unfortunately, broken just a couple of days later, at the Topsfield Fair, which contained two hefty pumpkins, one at 2,009 pounds and one at 1,870 pounds.) The Topsfield Fair, which continues until Oct. 14, and the Milford Pumpkin Festival, which also happens this weekend, will house enormous pumpkins again this year. 
George Hamilton of the UNH Cooperative Extension calls these farmers “super growers.” Throughout the summer some of the pumpkins grow up to 30 pounds a day. 
“Individuals are learning more and more about the way the pumpkin grows. They know more about the genetics involved, about how to maintain a perfect environment to ensure maximum growth for a given fruit,” Hamilton said. “It’s really quite amazing.”  
 

 






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