the nightmare before halloween

So Halloween was this past week. Did you all have a fun Halloween? I had a fun Halloween. A few of us PCVs, along with one of our fantastic Georgian counterparts, threw a little bash for some students. The kids dressed up and competed in a costume contest; we did a fun and educational word search activity; we showed video clips of pumpkin patches, hay rides, and parts of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (“I got a rock”); we read a scary story; and the kids carved pumpkins with real knives. And no one cut their fingers off. It was a success.

But I almost did not have a successful Halloween. It was almost over before it even started. And I’m not exaggerating about that even one little bit because I would never exaggerate, as anyone who knows me could attest to (though maybe not under oath with a hand on the Bible).

Two days before the party, us PCVs gathered at my house to carve a few pumpkins. The pumpkins would serve as decoration, but also as an example for kids who had never seen a jack-o’-lantern up close. We cleared the kitchen table and got to work.

I have only anecdotal information to go on here, but it seems to me that Georgian pumpkins have harder rinds than American ones. Last year when Dali and I carved our own pumpkin, we ended up abandoning the kitchen knives completely and grabbing an axe. (Of course we have an axe laying around. Don’t you?) Now, once again, I found our Georgian pumpkins very hard to cut. It took a lot of effort. But after much sweating (by all) and cussing (mostly just me), two adorable jack-o’-lanterns emerged – one silly, another scary. I also had two plates full of pumpkin seeds for roasting. Because the pumpkins, even carved and gutless, were heavy and no single person wanted to be responsible for carrying both to the party two days later, one went home with another PCV and one stayed with me. I wished my friends goodbye and shut the door behind them.

Not one minute after the door was closed, I heard a knock. Had one of my friends forgotten something? Nope, it was one of Dali’s friends instead. Dali herself wasn’t home yet, but after some discussion it was revealed that she would be arriving  shortly. Dali and this friend were going to cook together. Specifically, they were going to make plavi – a rice pilaf. Plavi can be made savory, with chicken or lamb, or it can be made sweet, with raisins, oranges, or pumpkin. (Did you catch that? Pumpkin. Hold onto that in your noodle because it’s a fact which is going to become relevant in about five more minutes.)

This friend and I went into the kitchen to wait for Dali. I began making some tea and we chatted. She happened to notice the plates of pumpkin seeds sitting on the counter. “Where is the pumpkin?” she asked. I replied rather excitedly, “Oh, let me show you! One minute!” I ran to my room to fetch the smiling jack-o’-lantern. Bringing it out in a big flourish, I said “Tah-dah! Isn’t this very cool?! It’s an American tradition!”

She sort of looked at it in a way I would classify as skeptical. Undeterred, I continued to express enthusiasm for this masterpiece of artistic talent, as well as deep pride in this fascinating American cultural practice that I was now sharing. This is what Peace Corps is all about! And really, how could someone be anything less than completely impressed by seeing, for the first time ever, a pumpkin with a face carved into it? A face! I mean, it’s not quite as impressive as, say, finding the figure of the Virgin Mary seared into the side of your grilled cheese sandwich, but it’s still pretty neat. Why was she not more delighted?!

Finally, in the onslaught of my prodding and gesturing, she agreed it was “cool.” But it was a rather halfhearted sort of agreement that totally lacked the sense of excitement and wonderment that I felt the situation warranted. I sighed to myself. Some people are just hard to impress, I figured. Shortly thereafter we, not surprisingly, ran out of things to talk about; and my tea was ready anyway. So I excused myself and returned to my room, leaving her in the kitchen, alone with my jack-o’-lantern, to await Dali’s return.

About three minutes later Dali arrived and walked into the kitchen. Coming out of my room and into the kitchen myself, I heard the two of them talking about my pumpkin. As I approached, I could see the friend sitting at the table, back towards me, elbows out. It looked like she was hard at work on something. Maybe cutting into something. Hmmm. What could it be?

It was then that the dull flickering light bulb that is my brain turned on completely and I realized in absolute horror that, yes, she was cutting into something and that something was my PUMPKIN!

The sound that involuntarily escaped from my throat at that moment was like the guttural shriek of a wounded animal. Flying into the kitchen, arms flailing, I cried “Oh my god, Noooo! It’s for the children! The CHILDREN!!!!!” The friend looked up in shock (possibly terror) and let go of the knife still embedded in the side of the pumpkin’s grinning face. I moved in, extracted the knife, and swept up the battered pumpkin, cradling it like a baby. It was still intact, though barely. One side had already been sawed through completely. She had been hard at work on the other when I stumbled upon the attempted massacre. Thirty more seconds and the poor thing would have been sliced in half entirely. It was only later, when I had calmed down a bit, that I realized how fortunate we were, after all, to have such a tough little Georgian pumpkin on our hands. I’m sure the hard rind slowed her down. If he’d been any softer the little dude would’ve been a goner.

Dali, knowing about Halloween and jack-o’-lanterns, understood immediately what had happened. As soon as she walked in the kitchen she realized that something was amiss: pumpkins with faces carved into them are for decoration, not eating. But her friend, of course, had not known. And what I had failed to understand when her friend informed me earlier that they were making plavi was that they were making the sweet version. With pumpkin. (Dali, in fact, had brought a pumpkin home with her that night for this purpose.) So when I showed off my jack-o’-lantern, the friend assumed that this was the pumpkin they would be using for the recipe. No wonder she gave me side-eye when I showed it to her. (Who cuts eyes and a toothy grin into a pumpkin you are going to be chopping into bits anyway? That’s a waste of some perfectly good parts of the pumpkin. Americans! So weird!) Once I left her alone with my jack-o’-lantern, she went to town getting it ready for baking.

Imagine that. Another misunderstanding. My life in Georgia is like a never-ending episode of Three’s Company. Except without the pleasant weather and fun, casual dating.

So that is the story of how my jack-o’-lantern almost became plavi. But all’s well that ends well, eh? Halloween turned out ok, after all. The jack-o’-lantern made it to the party. The plavi, made with a different pumpkin, was delicious. And we all engaged in some more cultural exchange. Awkward, dramatic cultural exchange.

One final note. So I saved those pumpkin seeds and the next day prepared them. I followed this recipe, first simmering them for about 10 minutes in water and then baking them till then started to brown. To jazz them up a bit I sprinkled on salt and garlic powder. So, here’s the thing. They taste delicious. But I’m having what I’ll call a texture problem. I chew and chew and chew, but the little suckers are so tough. I just end up with these grainy bits stuck in my teeth. So I have to eat the seeds about two at time, gnawing for a minute or more, and then have a little napkin handy into which I spit the inedible bits. (Classy, yes?) Is this a normal feature of pumpkin seeds? Is having a spittoon handy just part of the deal? Or is there a way I can make them more tender? Boiling them longer, perhaps. Or did I just get some bad seeds? Maybe seeds from younger pumpkins work better. (But how do you know if you have a juvenile pumpkin? Are they smaller? I mean, for example, I’m small but I’m old, so these things don’t always correlate.) Or do Georgian pumpkins with tough rinds just produce tough seeds? Quite the culinary caper!

Anyhoo, dear readers, if you have experience working with difficult pumpkins and their seeds, I would love to hear from you. I’m not ready to give up on the idea of delicious, digestible roasted pumpkin seeds. We all need to dream, ya know?

Our jack-o’-lantern. If you listen closely you can almost hear him screaming “Help me! Heeeelp me!”

So put-upon, as you can see by these nearly lethal incisions on the sides of his head.

My roasted pumpkin seeds. Beautiful, deliciously flavored, but not entirely edible.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “the nightmare before halloween

  1. Wow .. nice carving. I just tried roasted pumpkin seeds for the first time this Halloween …. excellent!

  2. Hmmm, I’ve never heard of simmering them first. That also seems like a really high temperature. Next time, maybe just get the strings off and then let them crisp up in a 300F oven until they are really dry. Smaller squash seeds are generally more delicate, so maybe try some of those. Sounds like you’d have to commit less of a murder to get them out, as well, though admittedly I did once use a chefs knife and a hammer to open up a cheese squash when no one was looking.

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