Smile Politely

The Great(est) Pumpkin Patch

Sit and imagine a pumpkin — its lovely shape, its adorably gnarly little stem — and, as you’re smiling wistfully, ask yourself, have you had the urge to carve a face on another piece of vegetation? And would you watch a television special entitled, It’s the Great Carrot, Charlie Brown? No, and that’s because humans are in committed, eternal relationship with pumpkins. Humans freaking love pumpkins. Something about the plumpness, the orangeness… they just shout, “Hi!! I’m your fruit friend!” in a totally non-creepy, non-hallucinating way. And there is a place, right here in central Illinois, that understands and celebrates humanity’s attachment to this fine vine-dweller: The Great Pumpkin Patch in Arthur, Illinois.

At The Great Pumpkin Patch, cucurbit is king. This humble plant family, counting pumpkins, squash, and gourds in its ranks, has been satisfying the stomachs and warming the hearts of earthlings for millennia. But sometime between the arrival of pizza and apps that order pizza, pumpkins and squash fell out of favor as American diet staples. At the Patch, however, they receive undivided and well-deserved attention. As you enter, you’re greeted with the hundreds of varieties of cucurbits grown on the farm, each one marked by a hand-painted sign and quirky name like, “One Too Many.” Grab a little green wagon at the entrance, and fill it with heirloom squash, decorative gourds, and, of course, your best buddy, pumpkins. You can meander through the “U-Pick” pumpkin patch, or hoist a 20-pounder from one of the bountiful, pre-picked rows. Grab a few to carve, a few to bake into pies, and one just to hang out with.

Unfamiliar with squash? At the Patch you will learn they are vast in type and, most important, super duper tasty. Make your trip on the weekend, and you can try free samples of squash-based dishes at the squash tasting booth. I tried squash soup, spaghetti squash with marinara, pumpkin salsa, and, the best, perfectly roasted, sweet “Sunshine” squash, this season’s highlighted variety. All recipes are offered on cards, and roasting a squash at home couldn’t be easier.

If you’d like to frolic in Fall and/or country heaven, there are many activities to choose from, such as navigating a corn maze or peeking in an old schoolhouse. I was there to eat, so my next stop was the Pumpkin Creamery. For $6, you (and a few friends) can indulge in the Cinnamon Roll Sundae, a pumpkin cinnamon roll topped with ice cream, whipped cream, and caramel sauce. The concept itself is something to marvel at, and it was delicious, but my friend and I agreed they should find a way to warm the cinnamon roll. If you want a smaller treat, grab a cone of bright orange pumpkin ice cream ($2.50). It’s a crowd favorite and had just the right balance of sweet and spice.

If you need a break from sugar, and it would be understandable, you can find savory dishes at The Pumpkin Eatery, like a Chicken Bacon Wrap ($6) and grilled sweet corn on the cob ($3). Wash it all down with an Apple Cider Slush ($2.50 for a small cup), which is made from local cider and refreshingly crisp.

Gardeners should swing by Homestead Seeds, a tiny shrine to cucurbits where you can buy heirloom seeds. If you have any burning questions about growing these plants, or simply want to worship at the foot of a magnificent squash specimen, this is the place to visit.

And lastly, if your pumpkin fantasies revolve around baked goods, you’ll find treats galore at the Two Mile Sweet Shop and The Homestead Bakery. Everything from pumpkin bars and breads, to soft, satisfying pumpkin whoopie pies, to (my favorite) pumpkin cinnamon rolls. You can buy a single pumpkin cinnamon roll ($2), but you should get the full pan ($6). Take it home, warm it up in the oven while a hot beverage brews, and share it with loved ones (or eat the whole darn thing yourself, YOLO). All the baking is done in The Homestead Bakery kitchen, and you can watch through the windows as the Amish ladies work their sugar magic.

There are many places to get your Fall on in Illinois, but only The Great Pumpkin Patch can fulfill your pumpkin passions, gourd goals, and squash… scenarios. As you plan your October, devote a sunny Saturday to hopping on Route 45 and making the drive to Arthur. They’re open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week from now until Halloween, and yep, they take plastic. For more information on directions, admission prices, and additional activities and events, check out their gorgeous website.

Vive la pumpkin!

All photos by Kate Ross

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