On Pumpkin Carving

Mandy Wright feels invigorated and inspired by each and every season, but there’s something about Autumn that feels more personal. In this article, she focuses on the American tradition of pumpkin carving, where it came from, and what it means to her. She also includes a few ideas at the end for how best to cook with pumpkins!


Any time of year that has its own movies, culinary delicacies, and pre-determined night of fun is exactly my kind of thing. That’s why Halloween was arguably my favorite holiday as a kid. The candy I got from Trick-or-Treating was pretty great, and hanging out with my friends in a nontraditional setting was new and interesting, but what I loved the most - and still love about Autumn - is the tradition of it all.

I can count on curling up with a bowl of popcorn and a tall glass of apple cider while watching a cheesy Mary Kate and Ashley Halloween movie to make me feel relaxed and cozy - and this contentment is something that I know will return year after year. While each season has its similar moments, there’s something about the weather finally being cold enough for me to wrap up in blankets, about the warming spices, like cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves, that I bake with this time of year that feel like they’re giving me permission to be comfortable and carefree. Autumn is an all-encompassing sense of ease and nostalgia.

That’s why it doesn’t take blankets, good food, and fun movies to set my mood right; it’s the promise of time with my family and a glimpse of the past. Carving pumpkins was almost always what my family chose to do in October, no matter how old we got. So when I moved across the ocean to attend St Andrews, I craved the familiarity of the things of my childhood. I admittedly did not carve a pumpkin every year I was overseas, but I did make the effort to buy one, even if it was just a ‘baking pumpkin’ or a ‘miniature gourd’. And I certainly made the effort to - at least two or three times - draw a strange face on my new pumpkin friend, reminding me of the times long gone.

The History

This year, I wanted to find out once and for all why we, as Americans, carve pumpkins. And so the story goes….

A man named Stingy Jack is to blame for the modern tradition of pumpkin carving. The man is said to have tricked the Devil repeatedly (it all started with a drink at the pub) and to have convinced the Devil not to take him to Hell when he died. When Jack eventually did die, Heaven did not want him either, and he was thus left to roam the Earth as a ghostly sort of creature, carrying a burning coal given to him by the Devil, placed in a turnip that Jack hollowed out.

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Supposedly, the Irish began calling Stingy Jack “Jack of the Lantern”, which is known nowadays as “Jack O’Lantern”. Ireland and parts of the UK started carving Jack’s face into turnips, beets, and potatoes so as to scare ghosts away after placing them in easy-to-spot locations around their houses. Nowadays, because pumpkins are native to the United States, Americans carve pumpkins instead of the traditional turnip.

Cooking with Pumpkins

If you buy pumpkins this year to celebrate Autumn, don't waste any of the goodness pumpkins grow inside them! You can easily roast the pumpkin seeds for a crunchy, salty homemade snack. The following is my favorite way to do it:

First, rinse the seeds to remove any pumpkin flesh or strings, then soak them in an ice cold, salted bath (meaning SUPER salted). After about an hour, drain the liquid off the seeds and dab the seeds dry using a towel. Drizzle a bit of oil (I prefer extra virgin olive oil!) over the seeds with a pinch of salt, mix gently, and spread them out on a sheet pan. Bake at 150 degrees Celsius for about 45 minutes, and voilà! They should be golden brown when they’re ready, but keep an eye on them so that they don’t burn!

If you don’t actually carve your pumpkin (or if you do, but it was only, say, 24 hours ago) I highly recommend cutting the pumpkin into manageable chunks, removing the seeds, stringy bits, and ’skin’, and baking it as you would a butternut squash. You can certainly use pumpkin in savoury dishes, but my recommendation is that you puree the baked pumpkin and use it for pumpkin bread or pumpkin pie (which is not too common in the UK, but SO highly recommended!).

Now that I’m back in the US where pumpkins are sold from overflowing boxes at every supermarket, I’m making an effort to rekindle the celebratory feeling of Autumn. I hope you’ll be inspired to do the things that make you fall in love with fall, too!


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