By Daniel Silliman
Keith Hammond says the perfect pumpkin was probably grown in Michigan and sold sometime in September.
"You're too late, man," he says. "You gotta come earlier, if you want to see a perfect pumpkin. Halloween's like the end of the season."
Hammond has a big, brown coat on and all the curly hair on his head is standing up. He's counting the cash from his last sale, and his workers are waiting for orders to organize the pallets of pumpkins to sell to the Ritz Carlton people.
Hammond still has plenty of pumpkins, and he has all shapes and sizes, too.
He has pumpkins big enough to carve into dog houses for medium sized dogs. He has squat, green one he says are perfect for pies. He has misshapen pumpkins and pumpkins peppered with witch-like warts. Hammond has pumpkins shaped like Cinderella's carriage, pale pumpkins, ridged pumpkins and smooth ones, too.
But for a pumpkin perfectionist, for someone seeking an unblemished Cucurbita, looking for the finest North American holiday gourd, the vast variety here is nothing.
"Mid-September," Hammond says. "That's when you'll find the really good ones. The Georgia pumpkins, they don't even last this long. You have to have Michigan grown pumpkins, because they've got the thicker shell."
If he had to say which one would be perfect, Hammond says he'd probably say the long-stemmed ones from Michigan.
"These," he says, "are beautiful," and he hoists up a pumpkin that's bigger than a basketball, and more orange, too. The skin is slightly uneven, warped a little like waterlogged paper, but the pumpkin is solid and symmetrical, and the stem is a long, sturdy handle.
"That's probably you're best one," he says. "That's a real Michigan pumpkin."
Charles Meeks is the other pumpkin seller at the Farmers Market on a sunny afternoon. He says he doesn't really buy the bit about Michigan pumpkins. All of his, all the rows and rows of pallets of pumpkins, were grown just over in Tennessee.
Meeks is working for a man named Tony Martin ("I've been knowing him a long time and he's good people. I'm working part-time to help him, 'cause he's a friend" ), and Martin's has pretty much any type of pumpkin you can imagine. He probably has ones you can't imagine, too.
There're little tiny ones, the size of a kids' fist, and great big ones that are flat on one side. He's got white ones, speckled ones, classic, ridged ones, smooth ones and ones with skin like a bridge troll.
Meeks is helping a lady pick out a variety of pumpkins. She keeps saying, "Isn't this great?" and Meeks clearly thinks it is. The brim of his white ball cap is casting a strong shadow over his eyes, but underneath, catching the full sun, the man is grinning big.
His personal tastes run more toward gourds, the stubby, snake-shaped gourds and the wild, splotchy and bulbous ones, but he doesn't know what he would say about the pursuit of the perfect pumpkin.
"You seen the big white ones?" he asks. "Lot of people like those, for outside."
Meeks stops for a minute, looking at the whole lot of pumpkins for sale. They're on the ground, and on the loading dock in stacked tiers. There's a second row on the dock, then there's a maze of pallets on the backside. Meeks surveys all of them, like he's trying to decide, but he can't.
He puts his hands in his blue jean pockets, and purses his lips. He says, "I just like them all."