Pumpkin pursuit: the ultimate autumn quest

With record-breaking temperatures this past week, one of the last things on most people’s minds is the imposing autumn season (which started Sept. 23, mind you). For those of us who have managed to realize that it is the second week of October, myself included, we have taken the time to adorn our homes with one of the most recognizable and trajectory-friendly pieces of produce out there, the pumpkin.
From eating, carving, painting and good ol’ Delaware “chunkin,” there’s seems to be very little that can’t be done with these gourds.

pumpkins: A collection of fall favorites at Parson’s produce stand on Armory Road in Dagsboro.Coastal Point • RUSLANA LAMBERT
A collection of fall favorites at Parson’s produce stand on Armory Road in Dagsboro.

Pumpkin picking used to be a simple task. You went in, rooted through the selection, knocked on them as if the sound emitted was the deciding factor, and happily returned home to do whatever it was you intended to do with your prize.

Years ago, this usually included a trip to Milburn’s Orchard in Elkton, Md., with my mother and sister. We’d rummage through the selection of pumpkins before leaving with a gallon of homemade cider, a few dozen apples and freshly baked cinnamon-cider donuts (quite possibly the best donuts in existence). The hunt, in its entirety, took all of 20 minutes.

Now, for me at least, it has become an all-morning chore, pacing to and fro in effort to weigh the pros and cons of every pumpkin I encountered.

In addition to the traditional orange gourd of choice, pumpkiners have quite a selection from which to choose, depending on the fruit’s fate. (Yes, botanically classified, the pumpkin is a fruit, and, in fact, is the state fruit of New Hampshire. From a culinary view, though, the pumpkin is still referred to as a vegetable. Strange, I know.)

I found myself this year at the Parsons produce stand on Armory Road in Dagsboro, faced with an unrelenting dilemma: picking the perfect pumpkin.

Textures and coloration are big influences from an ornamental standpoint. White and “sandman” pumpkins may take on a duller appearance, but can be just as popular, all the same.

The “One-too-many” pumpkin has become a hot commodity in the decoration department this year, producing a specimen with green accents and noticeable, light-colored lines running laterally on its surface. It’s even been featured on Martha Stewart’s show, “Martha.”

Cheese, or Cinderella, pumpkins come with their own personality; deep reddish-orange and flattened shape, resembling a wheel of cheese. The “Mexican hat” pumpkins, again, had originality to them.

Gourds of all kinds of color, texture and bendy shapes were begging to be picked, too. But I wasn’t on a mission to pick out the prettiest pumpkin.

Along with the pumpkins were acorn and butternut squash, a perfect pick for any fall-time meal. Meredith Parsons, who runs the stand with husband and farmer, Paul, informed me that carnival gourds are often used in pumpkin recipes because of their similar flavor.

Several breads, pies and soups incorporate the plump produce in their mix. Frozen pumpkin rolls, a sweet cake-like desert is among my top picks. Roasted pumpkin seeds have become a popular snack, and a good source of nutrients. I’ve even had the pleasure of washing down a meal with a pint of pumpkin beer. Believe me, I can do some damage to pumpkin cheesecake, as well, but it wasn’t a recipe I was looking to touch up, either.

Some customers believe size matters when pumpkin hunting, and the Parsons can attest to anyone’s request, from the Jack-Be-Littles to their mammoth giants. For those who opt for quantity over quality, they can even pay $8 to take on the “All-U-Can-Carry” deal. So far, said Parsons, the most anyone’s made off with is eight. But I wasn’t aiming for abundance or an extreme size with my picks.

As thrilling as it would be to participate in the Delaware Punkin Chunkin ritual that rolls around each year, my engineering expertise falls well shy of designing anything that could move a pumpkin any farther than I could chunk it with my own hands.

Instead, I found my choice pumpkins sitting among a collection of others, nothing too outstanding about them. In fact, they were quite typical, simple — just your average, round, well-stemmed pumpkin. Nothing too eccentric or different about them.

I took them home, accompanied by several mums. Happily content, seated at the kitchen table, I went to work, slicing into the pumpkins with careful precision. First the top, being sure to go in at an angle, then reaching in to scoop out their goopy innards, and finally, touching up the traditional, sparsely-toothed grin and the triangle eyes of your classic jack-o-lantern, complete with candles to light up their faces as the neighbors pass by.

Done, just in time to sit down with hot cider and gingersnaps and enjoy “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.” Nothing fancy, but a festive custom all the same.

Parsons’ stand on Armory Road is open every day until 6 p.m. Pumpkins, priced by weight, starting as low as 50 cents, have been coming in by the truckload and will continue to be dropped off up until Halloween. Other decorations are available, including Indian corn, miniature scarecrows and hay bales, as well as fresh produce, such as sweet potatoes, apples and tomatoes.