Alaska News

Pumpkins: Are they fruits, gourds, squashes or vegetables?

Of the stories I've written in the past month, the one that received the most comments was -- surprise! -- the report on the Giant Pumpkin Weigh-In at the Alaska State Fair on Aug. 31.

Daily News readers will recall that Dale Marshall's 1,723 pound pumpkin, which would have qualified as one of the four biggest ever grown anywhere, was disqualified after a small hole was discovered. And by small I mean a pencil wouldn't have gone through it. But rules are rules and the official title of the biggest pumpkin ever grown in Alaska went to Lucy Lu, 1,287 pounds, grown by John "J.D." Megchelsen.

Some of the comments had to do with whether it is accurate to call a pumpkin a squash, a gourd, a fruit or a vegetable. I think I used all of those terms in the story; the repeated use of "pumpkin" was getting boring.

There are many channels from which one might receive the impression that one of those synonyms is singularly right and the rest all wrong: grandparents, teachers, strangers in bars.

At the newspaper we use Webster's Dictionary. According to that source the correct answer is -- all of the above.

Webster's first definition for "fruit," for example, is "any plant product, as grain, flax, vegetables, etc." The first definition for "vegetable" as a noun reads, "broadly, any plant, as distinguished from animal or inorganic matter."

Roget's Thesaurus confirms all of the above terms as suitable synonyms for the largest members of the cucumber clan and also allows "vines." That seems odd to me, but I'm not among the botanists employed to guide the publication.

I find word references enchanting. One leads to another and sometimes you wonder how the linguistic leap was ever made. "Vegetable" comes from the Latin for "lively" and "animating" yet is associated with inaction. A "pumpkin head" is slang for a naive or stupid person, though one might doubt whether Lucy Lu is more or less intelligent than any other plant, or certain college graduates, for that matter.

At the bottom of the listing for "vegetable," Webster's includes: "a person thought of as a vegetable, as because of having a dull, unthinking existence."

Like we who read reference books for amusement. Or those who insist there's only one right way to describe a Cucurbita pepo.

Big blaze begins

Starting today, preparations are being made for the eighth annual "Burning Basket" event in Homer. Construction of "Together -- Basket of Remembrance & Unburdening" from local flammable material will take place from noon to 5 p.m. daily through Saturday.

Everyone is invited to stop by and help "as much or as little as you like" with the basket sculpture and associated walking labyrinth to be set up on the beach at the base of the Homer Spit.

The "impermanent art experience" will culminate on Sunday, Sept. 18, when the public is invited to add their own decorations to the sculpture starting at 1 p.m. At 6 p.m., there will be a potluck and artist talk. Then, at sunset, the torch will be put to the giant basket on the shore of Kachemak Bay, followed by a fire-spinning performance.

The labyrinth will be taken out by tides and storms as fall turns to winter.

Stop by Burning Basket headquarters in Mariner Park, or contact the facilitator, Mavis Muller, at 907-299-1478 or email Additional information is on the Web at

Public Radio's music man

Fans of KSKA and the Alaska Public Radio Network will be familiar with the music of B.J. Leiderman. He's the composer of the theme music for National Public Radio's "Morning Edition," "Weekend Edition," "Car Talk" and other programs.

Leiderman will talk and play piano for the APRN Speaker Series fundraiser at 7 p.m. Saturday in the Discovery Theatre. The multi-dimensional pianist does a lot more than radio and television jingles -- although as Beethoven could tell you, there's nothing harder in music than coming up with an indelible tune using just four to 12 notes.

Joining him will be the Anchorage Youth Symphony and local jazz man Kevin Barnett and The Lovin' Dog Kennel Club band. The Youth Symphony has been practicing a medley of NPR tunes that Leiderman will conduct.

Tickets are available at or 263-2787 and range from $15 to $25 plus outlet fees. More information is available at or by calling 550-8400.

In addition, a meet and greet reception will be held for Leiderman in the Elmo Sackett Broadcast Center at 3877 University Drive just off 36th Avenue, at the Alaska Pacific University campus on Friday evening from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Reservations, $20, are limited and required. Call Cindy or Gena at 550-8400 to get your name on the list. Proceeds benefit public radio.

Civic Orchestra debut

The Anchorage Civic Orchestra will kick off what we hope will be a fulfilling season of music with a chamber music concert at 7 p.m. tonight. The program of duos and trios features various members of the orchestra and will include work by Poulenc, Saint-Saens, Alan Hovhaness and others. Admission is free, but donations will be accepted. The concert will take place at Anchorage Lutheran Church, 1420 N St. You can get more information by calling 272-5323 or going to

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.


Anchorage Daily News

Mike Dunham

Mike Dunham has been a reporter and editor at the ADN since 1994, mainly writing about culture, arts and Alaska history. He worked in radio for 20 years before switching to print.