Pumpkins, Corn Mazes, Cider – Fall in Chicago

Photo Credit (and awesome pumpkin carving skills credit!): Phil Kranyak

Fall takes on special importance in Chicago. Anyone who has endured a Windy City winter white-out knows the beauty of a snow-covered street comes with a terrible price tag. I thought I loved fall when I lived in Pennsylvania. But the transition was lost on me; it took months of sub-zero Lake Michigan air to open my eyes (and then promptly freeze them shut). The celebration of autumn takes on a whole new level of appreciation when you know what you are in for. Somehow, the 34 degree February days of my youth don’t seem so chilling anymore. What I looked forward to last fall, my first in the city, has been amplified tenfold in these waning summer evenings.

Knowing I cannot turn back the clocks to shirtless days on the shore, I salivate with anticipation for my last chance to wear anything less than an arctic biohazard suit. I swear I can smell cloud cover in October and November. It’s an odd sensation, akin to your grandfather’s uncanny ability to feel an oncoming flash flood in his hip. I start to feel like a character in Stephen King’s The Dead Zone; I was hit with one terribly dangerous Chicago winter, and now I can sense hot cider when it is nearby. The distinct hue of the pumpkin and gourd have become like bat beacons, summoning me like the caped crusader to the scene of a crime — the terrible crime of an uncarved jack-o-lantern. I wander the streets now, hoodie and Eagles skull cap, watching the leaves fall and the footballs fly, hands in my pockets, elbows against my body, and I am happy.

The three musketeers of childhood fall fun are corn mazes, pumpkin patches, and hot apple cider. Take one of each and call me in the morning. Special events are all around, if you are willing to drive. Within about 50 miles of the heart of Chicago are a dozen or more farms and orchards, providing all sorts of autumn excitement. Find that friend with a car and remind them about how their mustache froze solid last year until they agree to take you out to one of these suburban wonderlands. If you are all auto-less, sign up for iGo or Zipcar. One-day rentals are very reasonable, especially split a few ways among a group.

Cornfields are a tough sell in Chicago proper, where land is sold at a premium, so go to somewhere where they really have room to sprawl. When I was a child, I’d be lucky to find a cornmaze that had an ending, let alone a theme. But some of these Chicago suburb farms have really run wild with the idea. Some standouts include the Jonamac Orchard in Malta, who are saluting 100 years of the Boy Scouts of America with a traditional fleur de lis maze design, and Seigel’s Cottonwood Farm of Crest Hill, whose smiling logo should be a familiar tribute to our hometown Stanley Cup winners.

Many of these locations also offer pumpkin patches where you and your friends can pick the perfect canvas for your artistic abilities. I take pumpkin carving more seriously than I would invasive surgery, and it just doesn’t seem right to get my subject from a grocery store. There is something sterile that my inner Monet rejects about Jewel or Dominick’s pumpkins. Why not check out Bengtson’s in Homer Glen, which has been voted the best pumpkin farm in Chicago by Fox news. I typically don’t trust their judgment, but hey, it’s pumpkins, not the vice presidency! While in Homer Glen, stop by Konow’s Corn Maze and stay for an evening campfire.

If you’re getting thirsty from all of this excitement, don’t worry; there is bound to be some hot cider within arms reach. Most fall pumpkin and corn fields worth their scarecrows will have some available. All Season Orchard in Woodstock is an especially good bet. They press all of their cider daily, and you’ll need it to wash down their apple donuts. Speaking of cider donuts, our friends at Jonamac are pulling double duty, baking their cider donuts and pressing apple cider to ensure that all harmful particles are eliminated. If you don’t feel like traveling far for a good swallow of cider, try Chicago’s Green City Market, located right on Clark by the Lincoln Park Zoo. Or you can try to brew from the comfort of your spacious studio apartment. Here are two recipes, both from websites I trust, with suggestions for virgin and not-so-very-virgin cider recipes:

These are all within the range of a short afternoon excursion, so get a few friends together and don’t miss out. Even if you are a fall curmudgeon, these are great places to meet a significant other, because we all know how easy it becomes to meet someone new in the winter. You know as well as I do what is waiting right around the corner: a giant hulking mass of Canadian cold crouched on it’s haunches at the shores of Lake Michigan. Before long it will fall upon us, so take advantage while fall is upon us.

Phil Kranyak

About Phil Kranyak

Phil grew up in small town in southeastern Pennsylvania. His family still lives across the street from a cornfield. Phil tried working at the farm when he was too young to get a real job and he left after one day because the farmhand was total creep city. He showed up to Phil's front door the next day wondering why he wasn't at work. Now Phil lives in Chicago and he thinks it was a pretty good choice.

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