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October 24, 2008

Season of Giants

Giant Pumpkin
Pumped up.
Photo:
Essdras M Suarez/Boston.com

by Sara Tucker

"In the world of competitive pumpkin growing, this is Super Bowl time," announced Bloomberg.com in early October. That's when growers began trucking this year's crop of giants to official weigh stations across North America.

For anyone who hasn't already been swept up in the trend: This is a sport that has made huge strides in recent years. "Just two decades ago, 400 pound pumpkins were looked at in wonder, but these days, even a 1,000 pound pumpkin looks like a pipsqueak to competitive pumpkin growers," notes Todayshow.com.

Last year's world champion topped 1,600 pounds, raising the specter of a one-ton pumpkin in the very near future. "During the past 10 years, the world record has fallen every year and the weight of the heaviest pumpkin has tripled. Thousand-pound pumpkins, once the pride of the patch, are now laughingstocks at major competitions" (Boston.com).

Naturally, bigger pumpkins attract bigger crowds: "Growing giant pumpkins has become all the rage," reports the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, likening the appeal to that of baseball: "It's a competitive sport. Traditional. It requires hard work, determination, discipline, attentiveness, patience and the ability to anticipate. It's grown in appreciation, not just in this country, but internationally. Fall is the time of final defeat for most and victory for a lucky few."

As the October weigh-offs began, the pumpkin to watch was the 'Beast from the East,' a leviathan 16 feet around, raised by Steve Connolly, a mechanical engineer from Sharon, Rhode Island. "The epic girth of Connolly's pumpkin has electrified" even pumpkin insiders, said Boston.com, and rival producers were "making pilgrimages to behold Connolly's creation," widely forecast to become the next world champion--barring a last-minute catastrophe.

"Connolly grew five pumpkins in his patch this year, and four of them have exploded," NPR cautioned. "Two pumpkins burst just days before a major competition."

The exploding pumpkin phenomenon is a common hazard of supersizing. "A giant pumpkin can put on around 40 pounds a day," the NPR report continued. "If there is too much rain, some pumpkins overindulge and begin packing on closer to 50 pounds a day. As the pumpkins expand, pressure builds on the weaker parts of the rind and suddenly they blow."

The world held its breath in the days leading up to the October 11 weigh-off at Frerichs Farm in Warren, Rhode Island, where the Beast would be fork-lifted onto a scale--a procedure that is not without its own set of perils, often producing nicks, gashes, and leaks that will disqualify a promising hopeful. Connolly himself estimated the Beast weighed 1,800 pounds by then, but other estimates ran even higher.

"This may be the year of the first one-ton, or 2,000-pound, pumpkin," Bloomberg's reporter speculated. "We'll find out tomorrow."

What happened next was one of those heartbreaking moments in pumpkin history: When the Beast was hoisted onto the scale, a small leak was discovered in its underbelly.

More than a week later, fans were still trying to get over their disappointment. "Connolly's great pumpkin, potentially the greatest of all time, was disqualified because of a small hole that had formed along one of its ribs" wrote a correspondent in what sounded almost like an obit.

The pumpkin, minus some of its juice, weighed a mere 1,568 pounds, but Connolly himself was philosophical, estimating he could get 5,000 pumpkin pies out of it. As he had reminded NPR listeners days earlier: "It's something that gets a lot of TLC, that's for sure, but it's still a fruit. It's still a fruit. And you have to treat it as such."

Further reading:
* A visit to the Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Festival, by Marianne Villanueva. Hilarious. I stumbled upon this and read the whole thing.
*Backyard Giants: The Passionate, Heartbreaking, and Glorious Quest to Grow the Biggest Pumpkin Ever (Kirkus Reviews).
* Where Cabbage Is King. The farmers behind the world's largest carrot, celery, and rhutabaga (Los Angeles Times).
* The Secret Is in the Soil (video) Breakfast of champions.
* Pumpkin weigh-off results 2008: Official site of the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth.
* Good Cabbage Gone Bad: Trials and tribulations of "psychogrower" Scott Robb (Anchorage Daily News).
* The Biggest Beetroot in the World: Giant vegetables and the people who grow them (Times Online book review).

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