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The Legend of the Jack-o'-Lantern | Serving Up Science

Amanda Barberena/Karel Vega

Candy, scary movies and costumes all signify that Halloween is approaching, but one important characteristic is missing: jack-o’-lanterns. On this episode of Serving Up Science, science writer Sheril Kirshenbaum and WKAR’s Karel Vega discuss the dawn of the jack-o’-lantern with the help of student reporter Amanda Barberena.

Unlike Charles Schultz’s creation of the Great Pumpkin myth, more than one person believed that Irish legend of Stingy Jack.

According to the myth, a man named Stingy Jack asked the devil to get a drink with him. Jack then convinced the devil to turn himself into a coin so Jack could pay for their drinks. Instead of using it as payment, Jack put the coin in his pocket with a silver cross which kept the devil from changing back. Jack eventually released him as long as the devil never claimed his soul when he died.

Years later when Stingy Jack finally died, he was banned from heaven for being manipulative, but the devil had promised Stingy Jack earlier that he wouldn’t claim his soul, so Jack was doomed to wander the earth for the rest of time. He was given a burning coal,which he put into a carved turnip and that was his light that led his way.

This is one theory of where the concept of jack-o’-lanterns came from. It literally sounds like Jack of the lantern. 

But, scary faces weren’t carved into produce until the 19th century, usually turnips or potatoes because they were common in Ireland and Scotland. These scary faces were supposed to frighten Stingy Jack and other evil spirits from someone’s house.

When Irish immigrants came to America, they realized that pumpkins were a better object to carve. They’re much sturdier and larger.

As the popularity of carving pumpkins has grown, we now see pumpkin patches across the United States, with Illinois being the leading producer of pumpkins.

Michigan harvests approximately 5,000 acres of pumpkins per year, according to a United States Department of Agriculture study.

Mike Beck sits with two pumpkins from Uncle John's pumpkin patch.
Credit Amanda Barberena
Mike Beck sits with two pumpkins from Uncle John's pumpkin patch.

Uncle John’s Cider Mill is a fifth-generation family farm that grows apples and pumpkins. Out of Michigan’s 5,000 acres, the president of Uncle John’s, Mike Beck, said they harvest about 40 acres of pumpkins a year.

“It’s a really nice pumpkin crop this year and I really added to our diversity. A lot of really pretty, beautiful, unique pumpkins that we have besides the standard jack-o’-lantern.”

Besides the Cinderella and Fairytale pumpkins, there are a range of different jack-o’-lantern-ready pumpkins that aren’t as common, and they have interesting names.

“Like in the pretty ones, like the porcelain doll, the grey ghost, black knight and the jack-o’-lanterns sometimes it’s just numbers like HM2461 or sometimes it’s called King Giant orAtlantic Wonder.”

And once you find the perfect pumpkin, you have to carve it. Beck suggested having a plan ready for what you’ll do with the pumpkin’s guts.

“Find a good place for all the stuff on the inside, there’s a lot more of it there than you realize. So, if you have a good place to compost, it’s great, or you could even plant them and create your own pumpkin patch.”

Beck recommends an 8 by 8 square for planting a few pumpkins.

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy also recommended composting jack-o'-lanterns once the holiday season is over.

Many carving experts say that in order to keep a pumpkin from molding or becoming dehydrated, they recommend coating the cut parts of the pumpkin with petroleum jelly.

They also mention cutting the bottom of the pumpkin rather than the top. This allows the pumpkin to sit flatly on a porch or table. Plus, it’s typically easier to put a pumpkin over a lit candle rather than lowering a lit candle into it. Most importantly, be careful with the sharp tools used to cut pumpkins.

The best way to start carving a pumpkin is by printing off a jack-o’-lantern stencil and taping it to your pumpkin.  Or for those more artistically inclined, sketching out a design directly on the pumpkin in permanent ink or pencil will make carving much easier.

Beck also recommended a different strategy that is not typically used. Instead of cutting through the pumpkin, some people scrap parts of the skin away so it becomes almost translucent. When a candle is inside, the light shines through the thin parts of the pumpkin and still makes it glow, just in a different way.  

Once the insides of the pumpkin are taken out, you can separate the seeds from the guts and use them to make a tasty autumn snack that balances out the sugar from Halloween candy. You can toast them in the oven and sprinkle them with salt.

As managing editor, Karel Vega supervises news reporters and hosts of news programming, and is responsible for the planning and editing of WKAR's news content.
Serving Up Science host Sheril Kirshenbaum is a history buff, science writer, and curious foodie.
Amanda Barberena helps write stories for online and books interviews for newscasts. The Michigan State University student started with WKAR in the Fall of 2017 during her freshman year.
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