Thursday, October 16, 2008

Out of his gourd

LEZLIE STERLING/SACRAMENTO BEE                                                                     

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
October 16, 2008


Jake van Kooten woke after Thanksgiving with happy memories of a feast, a cornucopia filled from the garden he shares with his wife.

They grow corn, squash, beans, carrots, potatoes.

One prized vegetable was spared.

Out in the driveway, snug in the bed of a three-quarter-ton pickup truck with heavy-duty suspension, rested a pumpkin that tested the vehicle's shocks. It was a gargantuan gourd, a leviathan among legumes, a colossus among the cucumbers.

It spread out in orangey-yellow folds, a vegetable Jabba the Hutt. It was larger than any man, larger even than the Star Wars alien that it resembled.

It was hard to believe that six months earlier it was a pumpkin seed.

The grower germinated the seed on April 24, before placing it in the garden of his Port Alberni home on May 5. He placed over it a cloche – a small greenhouse – to protect it from nighttime mists. He also attached a catalytic heater to ward off frost.

Mr. van Kooten, 66, planted just four pumpkins. “The wife won't allow me to take the other spots from her vegetables,” he said, more as a statement than a complaint. Ordinarily, four pumpkins do not demand much space. But these were Cucurbita maxima, the goliaths of the gourd world.

The pumpkins grew. One of them – the one now on the truck – grew a lot. It made Mr. van Kooten very happy. And, in the days after Thanksgiving, it made him a bit anxious, too.

It all started so innocently.

Back in the 1970s, with two young daughters at home, Mr. van Kooten decided to grow each a jack-o'-lantern of their own for Halloween. One fall, he delivered a pair of 50-pound pumpkins. He thought, “Sure would be nice if I could grow a 100-pound pumpkin.”

And so he did.

The jack-o'-lanterns got larger each year, growing as did his daughters. The pumpkins hit 300 pounds – and stalled. He just couldn't seem to get them any bigger.

He wrote to the Pumpkin King in Nova Scotia asking for advice. Howard Dill, a Johnny Appleseed among vine aficionados, sent him a package of Dill's Atlantic Giants, the Northern Dancer of the pumpkin breeder's world.

(Mr. Dill died, aged 73, not many days after Mr. van Kooten planted the big pumpkin. His acreage outside Windsor included Long Pond, which is claimed by some sports historians as the birthplace of ice hockey. But that's another story.)

Mr. Dill won four consecutive world championships with his pumpkins, a feat unmatched by any other grower.

Mr. van Kooten claimed his first British Columbia record 10 years ago. He established a new mark two years later when a 942-pound behemoth placed third in a weigh-off. He became determined to break the half-ton barrier.

The time came to harvest this year's titan.

A buddy from the local hardware store came by with a truck with a hoist. Straps were slipped beneath the pumpkin, which eased off the ground in a cradle. The van Kooten pickup sagged as the vegetable was loaded.

He drove across Vancouver Island to a ferry terminal, sailed to the mainland and began the long drive south to California.

Mr. van Kooten was born outside Rotterdam in a village where the Dutch armed forces initiated a truce with German invaders just two years earlier. He was one of 10 children born to a labourer who kept his family fed during the deprivations of the war by raising rabbits and goats. When he was 10, the family moved to Canada, the land whose soldiers had liberated their own.

Young Jacob had an interest in botany as a schoolboy, but he never seriously studied the subject. He retired recently after 40 years as a papermaker.

He stopped south of the California state capital at Sacramento. His cargo was entered in the Elk Grove Harvest and Giant Pumpkin Festival, where it was placed beside other pulchritudinous pumpkins.

Officials from the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth were on hand. Mr. van Kooten's pumpkin tipped the scales at 1,536½ pounds. That was a new California, British Columbia and Canadian record.

Better yet, the grower was awarded $6 per pound for the winning entry, a whopping prize of $9,219 (U.S.) “Gas money,” he said.

The entry was heavier than any other weighed anywhere else in the world this season – so far.

Mr. van Kooten headed home to enjoy Thanksgiving and to wait for the last of the major weigh-off competitions.

On Monday, Thad Starr of Pleasant Hill, Ore., entered one of his Brobdingnagian pumpkins in the Half Moon Bay Art and Pumpkin Festival in California.

Mr. van Kooten awoke after his holiday slumber to check the results on the Internet. His rival had a monster on his hands all right. It weighed in just 8½ pounds lighter than the Port Alberni pumpkin.

A few more low-level contests, followed by verification from the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth's steering committee, and Mr. van Kooten will be declared the 2008 world champion.

He will be displaying his prized pumpkin at a show in Nanaimo this month.

Then, he will harvest seeds from a pumpkin now to be known as “1536.5 van Kooten 2008.” These seeds will be shared with other growers in a hobby in which he says they “share their secrets and they share their seeds. Oh, there's the odd bad apple, but 99 per cent of the growers get along fine.”

The pulp will be used as compost, or perhaps fed to cattle.

“People ask, ‘Why do you do this?' It becomes addictive. You have an 800-pound pumpkin and you want to get to 1,000. You just want to keep going.”

His big Thanksgiving meal ended with a slice of pie, as is the case at so many tables.

“Nice texture. Tastes beautiful. I love it,” he said.

Mr. van Kooten was speaking of his wife's celebrated Hubbard squash pie. They don't eat pumpkin at the van Kooten household. They just grow it bigger than anyone else.

2008 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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