Writer: Norman Martin
LAS CRUCES - Rather than whack into the squishy insides of a pumpkin this year, a New Mexico State University chile expert is drawing on pepper pods to decorate the face of a special Halloween jack-o'-lantern.
"Carved jack-o'-lanterns don't have to rule on Halloween," said Danise Coon, assistant director of NMSU's Chile Pepper Institute. "October is prime time for pumpkins, but you can always bring a little southern New Mexico into the holiday."
Of course, Coon has a distinct advantage in having access to the institute's demonstration garden, which has more than 150 varieties of spicy-sweet smelling varieties of red, green, paprika, cayenne and jalapeņo peppers from across the world. The institute is one of the world's leading research centers for chile.
For those interested in making their own chile-based pumpkin head, she suggested checking out nearby farmers markets for usual chiles or growing their own specialty chiles. The Chile Pepper Institute sells seeds for more than 50 varieties, some of them highly colorful and exotic looking.
"People are always surprised that there are so many different shapes, colors and sizes of chile," Coon said. "There's a blazing mix of red, green, yellow, purple, brown, ivory and orange colors."
To decorate her pumpkins, Coon leans toward little hat-shaped peppers called Christmas bells, along with other colorful ornamentals, cayenne peppers and Thai types. But she stays far away from habaneros, the world's hottest peppers.
"You have to be very careful around habaneros because their oils can get on your hands and face," Coon said. "You don't want that to happen."
The name jack-o'-lantern most likely comes from an Irish folktale in which a miserly man named Jack is denied entry to both heaven and hell, according to Lesley Bannatyne in "Halloween: An American Holiday, An American History." The devil punished him by making him walk the earth with a lantern made from a carved turnip and lighted by a coal from hell.
"It could have been worse, I guess," Coon said. "He could have been hauling around a carved habanero."
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