I was so excited to shop for heirloom pumpkins last weekend at the farmers market. Halloween is one of my favorite holidays. I’ve missed it the past four years as I was exploring Asia each time and not at home. So this year I’ve decided to do it up big and I wanted to bring you WanderShoppers along. And this Halloween I want to use inspirations from my travels to help me design some global chic jack o’lanterns. Each Friday in October, I will be bringing you a new global design as well as more information on heirloom pumpkin varieties.
One of my favorite decorations for Halloween is to use heirloom pumpkins. Of course I love your standard jack o’lantern but I’m really fond of all the colors, shapes and textures that heirloom pumpkins can add to your fall display. And as most were bred originally to be a late harvested vegetable that stores well for food through the winter, they make a hardy outdoor decoration that can be used for other celebrations from Thanksgiving through New Years.
Some of you may have heard of heirloom vegetables before but maybe you’re not exactly sure what that means. You are not alone. In fact, depending on varying points of view, heirloom is defined in different ways. One common definition for heirloom includes the plant variety being at least 100 years old and grown in a specific small geographic region.
Some people begin the date clock at the end of World War II. That’s a popular date as it really marks the beginning of large scale farming for commercial purposes. Businesses that grow our food tend to select their seeds and plants based on those that create uniform produce that withstand mechanical harvesting and will be stable for longer periods of time while they are shipped long distances sometimes even around the world. This is profit driven agriculture and it is what allows you to have strawberries all year round rather than just in the spring.
If you love strawberries and want them every week, commercial agriculture is a great thing for you. One of the drawbacks though is that the big farms tend to grow only one or a few varieties of any vegetable. This means that each year, more and more of the fruits and vegetables of our ancestors are disappearing as fewer people grow them. This results in less seeds available to choose from in future years. Diversification of plants and cross pollination of different varieties allow plants to naturally be more disease and pest resistance. Different sizes, colors and subtlety of flavors develop as nature takes its course. None of these things happen on large commercial farms as they actively prevent it. They want everything exactly the same and predictable.
I embrace the unpredictable world of heirloom plants. I grow them for food as well as in flowers. I love to learn the history of these quirky creations. Just as I enjoy visiting museums and seeing works of art from a time period or furniture and clothing from certain eras, I too want to taste and enjoy old vegetables as past generations have enjoyed them. It’s part of joining a slow lifestyle where you savor the moments and the sensations and appreciate them for what they are.
So, let’s take a look at a few of the heirloom pumpkins and squash that I was able to find at the Meridian Farmers Market. Some of you will have access to the same heirloom varieties that your local growers decided to harvest. You may also find that the climate in your area better supports other heirloom varieties. I encourage you to head out to your farmers market this weekend and ask around. They will be there waiting for you to discover them.
My stall of choice was Mac’s Market. Sue McMaster and her family have been farming in Laingsburg for over 150 years and she has a wealth of knowledge to share. As Sue and I walked through the different pumpkins, squash and gourds they were offering that day, I was amazed at all the details she was able to share with me about each one I would admire. Before me lay a variety of beauties that had been grown, admired and eaten all over the world for centuries.
One of my favorite qualities about heirloom pumpkins are the ones that are a squashed disk shape that lend themselves to stacking. Above is a series of four pumpkins stacked on the ground to form a giant tower of autumn beauty. The base layer for our tower is a gorgeous pale orange with a network of lace veins laid across it. It has pronounced ribs all the way around and makes a sturdy base for this tower. Called Yellow of Paris, also known as Juane Gros De Paris, it has been an especially popular pumpkin in the City of Lights. This French beauty can grow up to 100 pounds and is known to be very sweet and flavorful.
The next pumpkin up is called Cinderella. It’s so easy to see how this beauty could be transformed into the perfect coach for a ride to the ball. You may want to keep a few of these around…....just in case! Cinderella is one of the French heirloom pumpkins and is also known as Rouge Vif D’Etampes, s’il vous plait! “Rouge Vif” means “vivid red” in French and aptly describes this a vibrant, proud pumpkin. If you have more Cinderella pumpkins than your social schedule will require, Rouge Vif D’Etamps is known to make a delicious pumpkin pie so a girl will have options!
The third pumpkin up the tower (or second from the top,) is Jarrahdale. This handsome pumpkin is a deep slate grey green color and it too is deeply ribbed. Jarrahdale is a town near Perth, Australia. It is known to store well for long periods of time and its medium sweet flesh is not stringy like some pumpkins are. It’s unusual color makes it an attractive choice for your Halloween decor as it contrasts nicely against all the oranges and makes their colors all the more brilliant next to Jarrahdale.
The top of our Halloween pumpkin pyramid is a buttercup squash. This guy is dark green with slim stripes running round to its grey button up on the top. This one is showing a blush of orange too. Buttercups are especially popular in New England and their flesh is extremely flavorful. I would add a pad of butter and some maple syrup to make it perfect.
Many heirloom pumpkins have survived over the ages because they are delicious to eat as well as that they stored well. Our ancestors were more concerned about what they would have to eat through long, hard winters than they were about which pumpkin would make the perfect jack o’lantern. I do not advise attempting to carve the majority of the heirlooms. Their thick skin and dense flesh make for a rough go come carving time. These pumpkins are to be admired until you are ready to eat them.
After consultation with Sue at Mac’s Market, I chose Apollo to be the pumpkin to take center stage and be carved. Apollo weighs in between 18 – 30 pounds so you can find some substantial specimens to feature your Halloween designs. It’s dark orange color is what you picture when you think of Halloween and pumpkins. It medium ribbing also give it its classic pumpkin shape and allows it to easily be carved into your design of choice. Apollo also matures 7-10 days earlier than other similar varieties. If your planning on growing your own for your kids to set up a sales stand, getting some pumpkins on the market sooner could give them an advantage.
Each Friday in October, I will be featuring a different jack o’lantern I have carved with the design inspiration coming from around the world. Our first entry was inspired by the patterns seen in mudcloth. Being featured in interior designs and accessories spotted all over right now, mudcloth hails originally from Mali in Africa. Peruse any design magazine, blog or catalog and you will see mudcloth being used in different ways. You may choose to buy a vintage cloth to use as a tapestry and hang it on a wall in a featured spot. They make wonderful accent pillows as their graphic design and neutral colors fit in with many different styles. I’ve seen chairs and loveseats upholstered with mudcloth for a very smart look. You can also find clothes including shirts, skirts and dresses using actual mudcloth or with designs inspired by the original pieces.
Traditional mudcloths in Mali are made from cotton and dyed with fermented mud. They are known as bogolanfini or bogolan. The traditions of the designs and dyeing techniques have been passed down through many generations. Men wore mudcloth originally as a form of camouflage clothing for when they went out hunting. Women began to wear mudcloth after they have been initiated into adulthood. As is the fashion now, mudcloth can be found with other colors outside of its traditional brown color range. Above is a picture of some mudcloth in my personal collection. In addition to the brown pillow, I also have a runner in indigo and a large textile in purple.
Mudcloths have seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years in Mali as the people have been proudly reclaiming their heritage. This, and the rush of the global market to snap them up for western design schemes and fashion, has made quality pieces more valuable. As I researched which designs I might want to use, I found an amazing Discovering Mudcloth resource on the Smithsonian Institute’s site. Not only do they teach you about the traditions of mudcloth and introduce you to 3 contemporary artists using mudcloth in different ways but you can also make your own mudcloth online and print it off after. It was a lot of fun and I made several. I suggest you try it out too!
Armed with some sample designs of mudcloth, it was time to carve my pumpkin. Make sure to save your seeds as they make delicious snacks which are a free reward for your Halloween efforts. Once you’ve scraped all the goop out and are down to solid, firm pumpkin flesh, its is time to turn our attention to the designs. My plan was to carve the pattern into the flesh but to not go all the way through to make holes in the pumpkin as you do with the traditional triangle face. I stopped by my local craft store and picked up a kit of tools used by potters to scrape and shape their clay. I found the metal loops on the end of the wood sticks to be a perfect, and a cheap choice, for my task.
I started first to lightly mark out the different regions of my design with a pencil. I lightly etched the skin, never even breaking it. This allowed me the chance to alter my design if I needed to as the marks could not be seen when you stepped away from the pumpkin. I started on my center main design first. I don’t know that I recommend that for you though. If I were to do it again (and I will!) I would do a number of straight lines in the design to get used to using the tool. It’s important to figure out how to make different size lines before I moved on to curves and circles. There is a learning curve to using each tool. There’s no reason to do the hardest section first. Start easy and work your way up to the more challenging areas.
I carefully worked my way through the different designs. I found that I needed to relax and “listen to the pumpkin” as I carved. Yes, I am suggesting you become a “pumpkin whisperer!” There were times, the pumpkin did not want the design I chose where I wanted it. By letting your loop tools follow the natural bumps and curves of the surface, it made for an easier time. I found after awhile, I stepped away from trying to copy a specific section from my pattern. Instead I looked at a section on the pumpkin and tailored each motif to what seemed to fit there rather than forcing something into it.
Overall, for a first effort, I am pleased with how my design turned out. For my next pumpkin, I have a better idea of how to use the tools and what they can do for me. I’m excited to move to another area of the world and create a new design. By carving deep into the flesh but not all the way through, you get a jack o’lantern that glows with a global ambiance that reflects my love of travel.
I hope I’ve started you thinking about different ways to decorate your home for Halloween this year. Incorporating different shapes and interesting colors into your holiday landscape through heirloom pumpkins, you’ll be sure to get a lot of compliments and admiring stares from your neighbors. And trying some new design motifs add variety to your candle lit yard. What culture would you like to see reproduced into a jack o’lantern? What global designs inspire you?
Until we shop again,
Seeds: I checked with Sue from Mac’s Market about where you could order heirloom pumpkin seeds should you want to grow your own next year. She suggests Johnny’s Selected Seeds as they sell them in a packet size perfect for the home gardener. Most, if not all, of the heirloom pumpkins, squash and gourds I will be sharing with you this month will be available from them.
Heirloom Pumpkins: Or if you are lucky enough to live in the greater Lansing area, head over to the Meridian Farmers Market every Saturday till 2:00 pm. Be sure to stop by Mac’s Market and thank Sue for her help identifying all the pumpkins. If you live in another area, visit your local farmers market as they are sure to have at least one stall with heirlooms being offered.
Mudcloth: The Loaded Trunk has a couple of examples of mudcloth for sale online right now including a gorgeous throw that I have been coveting and the same runner I bought from them except in browns instead of indigos. There are many vendors over on Etsy offering mudcloth at the moment. My purple mudcloth (shown above) came from WomanShopsWorld and I hate to tell you that this is there cause I want it so bad but they also have a beautiful mudcloth in teal. My pillow was purchased through a sale on One Kings Lane and I bet they have at least 5 examples amongst their sales on any given day.