There are jack o' lanterns, and then there is the pumpkin that comes in cans.
But farmer David Heisler says the world of pumpkins has much, much more to offer.
Heisler grows 38 varieties of pumpkins and winter squash on his farm in Comus, Md., about 50 miles north of Washington, D.C. His farm stand is a riot of pattern and color — red, orange, pink, white, green, yellow, even blue. Though pumpkins originated in the Americas, they're grown and prized around the world: "every continent except Antarctica," says Heisler.
He grew his first pumpkin around age 6, when he planted a seed he found rattling around in father's tool box. His mother, an artist, had him paint a portrait of the little sugar pumpkin that vine produced. He started growing pumpkins commercially in 1989, and has been at it ever since.
Unlike many small farmers, his pumpkins aren't an afterthought to more popular crops like corn and tomatoes. It's all about the pumpkins. And when I casually refer to his pumpkins as gourds, he cuts me off: "They're not gourds. Gourds aren't edible."
Heisler's pumpkins are more than edible. When he offers a raw slice of one called Kuri, it tastes like a crunchy variation on carrots. "I cut sticks and put them in school lunches for my nieces and nephews," he says.
That's a healthy snack: pumpkins include the antioxidant beta-carotene, potassium, and fiber. Heisler grates raw pumpkin on a green salad, eats roasted pumpkin hot for breakfast, topped with maple syrup, and makes a mean pumpkin chili. "They all have their uniqueness, not just in shape and size and coloring. There are differences in textures and flavors."
He holds up a sweet dumpling squash the size of an apple. "You can cut it like a little pumpkin, and you can stuff it. I've done homemade mushroom soup. I've even done macaroni and cheese. Kids love it."
Small farmers like Heisler are experimenting with exotic varieties of pumpkins to sell at farmers' markets and local supermarkets. (A new report from the USDA says that sales of local foods hit $4.8 billion in 2008.)
But the vast majority of pumpkins grown in the United States still end up in cans. And as NPR's Julie Rovner reported for The Salt, those pumpkins don't even look like pumpkins. They look like gigantic butternut squash. Many hail from central Illinois, near Peoria, where sandy soil and hot summers help make the state the nation's leader in commercial production.
Bill Shoemaker, an extension specialist with the University of Illinois, says that the variety used for canned pumpkin, the Dickinson pumpkin, is a lot tastier than the sugar pumpkins sold as pie pumpkins in supermarkets. "It really is a great-tasting pumpkin." For Thanksgiving bakers who are going fresh, "butternut squash makes a great substitute" for sugar pumpkins or the stuff from a can.
Just don't tell your guests it's butternut squash pie. Pumpkins "are magical," Shoemaker says. "People have an affinity towards them I don't understand."
Maybe it's the Cinderella effect. David Heisler, for one, sees something more. "They're taking a piece of the sunshine I enjoyed over the summer, and taking it home with them," he says.