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Turnip the Spook: Unexpected Veggie Facts and Jack O'Lantern Origins

Carved Purple Top Turnips Jack O'Lanterns

Never Again

If you’ve been with VRDNT since the very beginning, you may remember that during our first season of production in 2019 we grew these sweet, small (but heavy when en-mass) pumpkins. We loaded up our plastic storage bins called IFCOS with this autumnal jewel and lugged the dense fruit to farmers’ markets, pop-up events, and restaurants. The weight of the tiny pumpkins bulged the sides of the ifcos, which you can see in the only picture we found from this early time.

black plastic bin of small, organic pumpkins. Texas Pumpkin Season.
Our 2019 pumpkin patch, before we knew better.

Pumpkins take up a lot of real estate in the field, their wandering vines extending far beyond the usual borders of a row crop, and to justify the amount of square footage pumpkins need, you’ve got to charge accordingly. Well, that first fall, our sweet, small (and expensive) pumpkins didn’t sell, and we packed and unpacked hundreds of pounds of pumpkins what seemed like a million times. It seems people really like to take pictures by pumpkins. But buy them? Not so much. And with a patchwork of so many conventionally-grown (cheap) pumpkins in every neighborhood, our stunners weren’t really marketable. Mostly, people would rather carve, smash, and display pumpkins rather than eat them.

That very first year of operating, green and stary-eyed, we got burned by pumpkins. Add to that the fact that powdery mildew pressure can wreak havoc on cucurbits at this (often rainy) time of year, and we likely never grow pumpkins again. Oh the lessons you’ll learn after only one season of farming. The physical space in the crop plan, the fields, and the delivery van is better reserved for other crops that are popping off at this time of year like greens, radishes, turnips, and (coming soon!) carrots, cabbage, and collards.

Who is Jack O'Lantern?

Though we don’t have pumpkins, we do have turnips… which, spoiler alert, were the original vegetable of choice for Halloween revelry.

Google images search of "carved turnip".
Carved Turnip, courtsey of Google. Top left is particularly spooky.

The Jack O’Lantern tradition hails from Ireland and the UK. The legend revolves around a drunk and nefarious character known as Stingy Jack. He liked to get drinks with the Devil, and one night when they were running short on funds, he talked the Devil into transforming himself into money so that they could pay for their hefty bar tab. Once the Devil turned into money, Stingy Jack put the coins in his pocket next to a crucifix which stripped the Devil of his strength, trapping him in coin form and preventing him from shape-shifting again.

Stingy Jack made the Devil promise that he wouldn’t claim his soul when he died, and to also stay away for a year. The Devil agreed and Stingy Jack allowed him to change into his previous form. A year rolls by and we find the Devil and Stingy Jack hanging out around some fruit trees. Stingy Jack tricks the Devil into climbing up a tree to harvest some apples. Once the Devil is high in the tree retrieving snacks, Stingy Jack carves a cross into the tree trunk which traps the Devil. Stingy Jack makes him promise that he won’t come back for another ten years… the Devil abides and they both go on their merry way. However, Stingy Jack ends up dying soon after.

Since God didn’t want a reprehensible person like Jack populating heaven, he banned him. Since the Devil promised he wouldn’t claim his soul, he wasn’t allowed in hell, either. Stingy Jack was gifted a piece of coal from the Devil to light his way while he wandered the earth in the afterlife. Stingy Jack put the coal in a turnip to hold and light, and as legend has it, has been wandering ever since.

Alas, the “Jack of the Lantern” or shortened “Jack O’Lantern” tradition was born.

Turnips and rutabaga were the original vessels of choice to hold a small candle. These carved vegetables were put on doorsteps or windows as protection to ward off Stingy Jack and other wandering evil spirits. When folks started immigrating to the United States, they found that the native pumpkin was the perfect vessel for their continuation of Jack O’Lantern tradition across the pond; boom, the pumpkin carving tradition was created! Spooky!

Want to carve your own turnip? YouTube has a wealth of turnip-carving videos, but this one caught my eye for the Stranger Things-inspired intro.


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