Aubrey Turgeon, 4, of Newport Beach liked this 12-pound pumpkin that she tries to carry with the help of dad Chris at Johnson Brothers Pumpkin Patch in Irvine.
As a holiday symbol, the pumpkin gets little respect. It’s cheap. It’s orange. It gets carved, cut, stabbed, minced, pureed, shot out of cannons, launched from catapults, tossed into beer vats and is peripherally the subject of a scary – for the wrong reasons – 1988 movie entitled “Pumpkinhead.”
Halloween also has the misfortune of being the opening act for Thanksgiving and Christmas. But Thanksgiving – a heavyweight holiday in its own right – can barely hold the line on Christmas these days.
Christmas also features a diva of holiday symbols – the Christmas tree. Or, as it is more commonly known in American Mythology: The Perfect Christmas Tree. Those same lots where people casually shopped for a jack-o-lantern morph for $7 morph into the pressure-packed Christmas tree shop where three-figures can be dropped on a Douglas fir. Then the tree becomes a living room fixture. The error of nabbing a crooked tree or one with a bare patch can be haunting. Christmas may be the season of eternal hope, but a bad Christmas tree purchase is forever.
The pumpkin purchase is more forgiving. It doesn’t require perfection. It can be appreciated for being scary or ugly. It doesn’t even require itself to be in your house. Instead, it’s content to sit outside on the porch with a single flickering candle resting in its hollowed-out body. If it doesn’t look right, buying a new one won’t break the bank.
“I like the taller ones, he likes the shorter ones,” Joy Turgeon said on a recent night when she visited Johnson Brothers Pumpkin Patch in Irvine with her husband, Chris, and their daughter. “We each carve out a face and then have a contest to see whose was better.”
She said the perfect pumpkin is one with a flat face to carve on. Both believe a stem is critical. Aubrey, their 4-year-old daughter, said the perfect pumpkin is one she can carry out of the patch on her own.
Each handled a few before settling on pumpkins that matched their criteria. Aubrey, who has a scar on her chest the result of being a premature baby, picked a small pumpkin that also had a scar. Her mother noted the symbolism. Aubrey did not.
Nearby, Chris Martin and Laura Bader wandered through a cluster of pumpkins that looked like they were straight out of Dr. Seuss-land – weird, warped and warty. Bader chose one that was a washed-out hue of pink. What made it perfect?
“I like pink,” she said.
Cal Poly Pomona farm manager Chad Cleveland said pumpkins are central to a holiday focused on fear and intimidation but he noted, ironically, the fruit is a wimp.
He said they have to be “babied.” If the climate isn’t right or the soil isn’t rich in nutrients, they are extremely susceptible to disease. Pumpkins, he said, can be ravaged by mildew if there is too much moisture or destroyed by the cucumber beetle. This year, he said, farm crews there planted about 120,000 seeds and got about 60,000 pumpkins out of it.
“They do produce a mean-looking, hard-looking fruit,” Cleveland said. “But they’re not a very hardy or tough crop.”
Alex Puchner, senior vice president of brewing operations at BJ’s Restaurants, said the perfect pumpkin is cylindrical and comes in a can.
“It’s maybe this big,” he said, holding his hands a few inches apart. “Has the word ‘Libby’s’ on it.”
Puchner said it’s a critical ingredient for the brewery’s pumpkin ale, which smells like pumpkin pie and tastes a bit like it as well. He said the pureed pumpkin is added to the mash and that it contains unfermentable sugars that help the brewing process. Once it’s done, the perfect pumpkin ale pours at 4.7 percent alcohol and at 45 degrees.
But Paul Pooler and Keith Brush could care less about a pumpkin’s carvibility or how it ferments. The perfect pumpkin to them is smooth, small and aerodynamic.
“Like a cannonball,” Pooler said.
For the past five years, they’ve run the Discovery Science Center’s Pumpkin Launch and have seen teams of people design trebuchets (missile slingers) and shoot them at targets anywhere from 100-300 feet away. They’ll supply some, but many follow the BYOP – bring your own pumpkins – protocol to help win the trophy. That award features the engraved names of winners and gets to stay with the winning team for a year – sort of like the Stanley Cup for pumpkin-smashing enthusiasts.
Pooler said people attend not so much for the physics of pumpkin flight as they do for the splats.
“That’s the big crowd pleaser,” Pooler said.
And maybe, that’s respect.