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Pondering Jack-o'-Lantern

Kevin Yarr

by Kevin Yarr, CBCNews.ca

It's a strange thing we do with pumpkins.

Jack o' Lanterns
Irish immigrants brought the carving tradition to scare off spirits to North America. (Kevin Yarr/CBC)

Generally identified as a vegetable, most of the pumpkin that gets eaten in Canada is put into pies, and of course most of the pumpkins grown in Canada are not eaten at all. All this week Canadians will be hacking at the gourds with knifes and saws to decorate the fronts of their houses.

We should be thankful for this native North American plant, for reasons to be found in the European roots of Halloween and the Jack-o'-Lantern.

The decoration is said to have its origins in the story of the mythical Irish character Stingy Jack. Jack was a hard, uncharitable man, and when the devil came to demand Jack's soul he suggested a drink first. The devil agreed, and the smooth-talking Jack convinced the devil to turn himself into a coin to pay for the drink. Jack quickly slipped the coin into his purse, where a silver cross prevented the devil from changing back.

Jack let the devil out only after he promised to leave him alone for a year. There are other tales of Jack tricking the devil, and eventually extracting a promise to forever leave his soul alone.

Sadly, exclusion from hell did not win Jack a place in heaven. Turned away from heaven and hell when he died, Jack begged a burning coal from the devil so he could see his way. He put the coal in a lantern carved from a turnip, and was doomed to wander the earth with it until judgment day.

Stingy Jack became Jack of the Lantern, or Jack-o'-Lantern. Celtic peoples carved potatoes and turnips, emulating Jack's story, to scare off spirits with this image of a doomed soul.

Irish immigrants brought the tradition to North America, where there were not so many turnips to carve, but when they found how much easier it was to carve a pumpkin I'm sure the turnips weren't missed.

Giant pumpkins
None of these pumpkins are destined for the dinner table. (Kevin Yarr/CBC)

For this I am thankful. I do not relish the thought of carving a turnip, and it's hard to imagine some of the elaborate carvings — well beyond the triangle eyes and jagged teeth — being done today on a turnip.

Canada's farmers can also be thankful, particularly those who like to sell in local markets. Statistics Canada lumps together pumpkin and squash in its figures, but shows them to have a growing value. With a $22 million harvest in 2001, it had become Canada's seventh most important vegetable, up from 15th in 1986. Only eight per cent of the harvest went for processing, and given the unwieldiness of the vegetable, it's not surprising that the majority of the rest of the crop was sold to local consumers.

Given the difficulty of even finding a fresh pie pumpkin amongst the wagonloads of those destined to go under the knife, it would seem few of those fresh pumpkins make it to the table.

It is a strange tradition that puts food that we don't eat at the centre of a festival.

Do you have a favourite pumpkin recipe that isn't pie?

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Comments

AlysM

Pumpkins are squash. ANY recipe for squash is good to pumpkins and vice versa (squash pie). Roast it, mash it up with butter and a bit of salt and it is delicious. Chunk it up and make a curry and then serve it over rice. Stew pieces in some tomato juice with leeks and carrots and your favourite seasonings and you have a vegetable stew.
It is All Good!

Posted October 28, 2008 08:35 PM

A

Montreal

I think you'll find that the roots of hallowe'en are closer to this:

hallowe'en (Sam Hain) is a pagan, pre-Christian rite, and the night that the divide between the living and spirit worlds are most thin. Pumpkins, gourds, turnips, were set out on steps with candles so that your ancestors that hadn't yet made it to "where they were going" (in pagan tradition, eternal peace is variously called "summerland") could find their way back to where you live. You want your ancestors to find your house again because you leave food out for them, so they have the energy to finally reach "summerland".

Hence the begining of hallowe'en, the explanation on treat-giving, and the use of jack o lanterns. Your story is cute, but not accurate.

Posted October 29, 2008 01:11 PM

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Amber Hildebrandt Amber Hildebrandt writes for CBCNews.ca in Toronto. Growing up on a farm in Manitoba, she acquired an insatiable appetite, but it was during a stint in Japan that she developed her discerning tastebuds and "foodie" ways.

Andrea Chiu Andrea Chiu is an associate producer at CBC Radio Digital. Though she loves to eat, cook and discuss food, don't ask her to bake. It never turns out well. She tweets as @TOfoodie on Twitter and organizes food and wine events in Toronto called FoodieMeet.

Tara Kimura Tara Kimura is the consumer life reporter for CBCNews.ca, covering a wide range of issues that range from rising food costs and the growing organic movement, to new trends in the marketplace.

Andree Lau Andree Lau is a CBC web reporter in Calgary. Her journalism career includes seven years as a CBC-TV reporter. Her own blog called "are you gonna eat that?" chronicles her eating adventures (including sampling snake and camel hoof tendon).

Jessica Wong Jessica Wong is a CBCNews.ca writer who loves to eat and cook, as well as discuss, read and watch programming about food, sometimes all at once.

Kevin Yarr Kevin Yarr, CBCNews.ca's writer in Prince Edward Island, wrote about food and beer for national and regional magazines before joining the CBC. He acquired a desire for new tastes on his first trip to Europe, and an appreciation of eating locally and in season when he finally settled down on P.E.I.

Elizabeth Bridge Elizabeth Bridge is a writer with the CBC Digital Archives in Toronto. She first ventured into the kitchen as a child to indulge a sweet tooth by baking cookies and making fudge. A student budget compelled her to be a vegetarian (for a while) and instilled in her an ongoing curiosity about food and cooking.

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