Sunday, October 27, 2013

My Totally Awesome Guide to Pumpkin-Carving (Yes, I Said "Totally Awesome")....

It’s that time of year again! Leaves are changing colors, falling from trees, and crunching underfoot. The temperature is cooling, even for those of us on the normally blistering Gulf Coast. The weather here has finally dropped down to what can respectfully be considered fall temps. Most everyone who celebrates Halloween is decorating their doorsteps with ghosts, goblins, and pumpkins, oh my. And here at Chez Williams, the holiday traditions have commenced with one of my all-time favorites, CARVING JACK-O-LANTERNS….

Did you know that pumpkin carving is handed down to us from the Irish who typically carved turnips, mangel-wurzel or beets? Yes, beets. The term jack-o-lantern comes from English folklore, meaning “foolish fire” or ignis fatuus, a visual phenomenon more commonly known as the “will-o’-the-wisp.” (For those of you who have seen Disney’s Brave or know more than the Average Joe about English folklore, you're probably picturing one right now, aren’t ya?) Didn’t know about that little o bit of Halloween trivia? Hey, I’m with you….

My preciousssss....
We Williamses might be more largely German than Irish, but we’re still very proud of our pumpkin carving tradition. For several years now, I’ve documented this activity. So here we are again, old friends and new – your photo-guide to carving jack-o-lanterns….

First, we start with THIS…or else, I do. This is the pumpkin spice latte. It is my pumpkin-carving friend. Particularly since we Williamses tend to wait until the witching hour (zero dark thirty) to get on with our pumpkin-carving nonsense and the coffee does well to keep this mama awake long enough to finish. My thanks to Starbucks for this necessary libation….

Then we get down to it. Choose to carve preferably on a raised surface like a kitchen or craft table. Spread newspaper if you’re worried about making a mess. Also make sure you have plenty of good light. We use lamps without the shades to get a good view from all angles of work. You see here a set of pumpkin-carving tools. You can buy these cheap doodads anywhere that typically sells Halloween junk. This kit cost us less than $10 and worked quite nicely, as did all our traditional, at-home pumpkin-carving utensils such as kitchen spoons and toothpicks. The first step to carving is to make a nice, round lid by cutting off the top of the pumpkin. [Note: some people take this time to cut a small, triangular hole on the edge of the lid for venting purposes. This is probably a good idea, if you’re planning to go the old-fashioned route and use live candles.] Now, you know you’ve got a good pumpkin when you make your incision (CAREFULLY, PEOPLE) and little beads of dew spring up to the surface like this. This is also where the inner child springs up and I rasp, “IT’S ALIVE!”….
Pumpkin guts
Goop bowl

Next step: scoop the goop. If you have kids, this is where you’re most likely to involve them. I’ll admit, scooping the goop was mine and my sister’s favorite part of carving as girls. Mostly, I think, because it was an opportunity to get our hands dirty with permission from our parents…and because this was the only really kid-safe part of carving. When you scoop the goop, seeds, and assorted other stringy guts (it is Halloween, after all), the best thing to use is your fingers. Dispose of the goop in a bowl to be disposed of later. Choose someone to separate the seeds if you plan to clean and roast them later….
What inside should look
like after goop removal...

When you get most of the nasty gook out of the pumpkin, it’s time to pick up a spoon. In my experience, the spoon is the best tool for picking up all the loose ends around the inside of the gourd, making for a nice, smooth surface. The more loose bits you remove from the pumpkin and the smoother the inside walls, the better. The pumpkin itself won’t rot as quickly, preserving it until All Hallows Eve, and there’s less a chance of the whole thing burning down when you light a candle inside it later. Another thing to keep in mind at this stage, try not to let your little ones (or your spouse, for that matter) chase each other around with pumpkin-goop-caked fingers. Goop-stained clothes aren’t all that fun to clean. It makes for some gooey hair clumps, too…just so you know….

Hole-poking complete on my pumpkin....

Hub doing the hole-poking.
No wisecracks, please....
Now it’s time to work on the face of the pumpkin. Choose the prettiest, roundest side of the pumpkin. There’s usually only one really good side. Make sure you’re not carving too low or too high on the face. The best way to do this is to have a ready-made template of what you want the carving to look like. (Templates can be printed from your computer or drawn free-handed onto a piece of paper. You can sometimes buy template booklets with your carving tool-kits at the store.) My favorite method, and the most trusty, less mess way to go about it, I’ve discovered, is using a hole-poker. Some pumpkin-carving kits come with hole-pokers. A toothpick is another good utensil for this step. After taping your template onto the front of the pumpkin, follow the carving lines with your toothpick or hole-poker, punching small holes very close together on the pumpkin’s surface. When you’re done, there should be a very distinct shape and easy-to-carve template right there on the front of the pumpkin for you to follow….

Power tools: not for beginners....
The next part tends to be the most dangerous. I don’t recommend using kitchen knives, pocket knives, or any other sharp and potentially finger-hacking-off objects. This I unfortunately know from experience. Not that I lost a finger – but one nick with a knife is enough to scare you away from the lot of them. Since not all of us have power tools like the hub…who’s showing off a bit here, small stick saws designed for pumpkins tend to be a little safer. You can buy these in relatively cheap sets like I mentioned above. While they are still sharp, there’s less room for accident. Take one of these saws and, following your template lines, carve straight down into the pumpkin, carving out little pieces at a time for the best results. Try not to cut at an angle. This could mess up the lines. (I tend to be the one who makes this mistake every year. For some reason, I never learn.) This, by the way, is also the most involved and intricate part of carving. If your design is complicated, it can also be very time-consuming and a bit grueling. Remember to have fun. This year, we utilized a fun playlist of Samhain-tastic songs like “Monster Mash,” “Psycho Killer,” “Running with the Devil,” “Highway to Hell,” and, my personal favorite, “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked.” Also since knives/saws/power tools are now in use, make sure your kiddies are occupied elsewhere, like this cute little dude here….
"What y'all doin' up there?"
Almost done!
After putting the finishing touches on the design, smoothing out the edges of your carving like the hub is doing here, you should have an awesome, finished product! As you can see, the hub chose a great, classic design like Jack Skellington. Aren’t they cute? My little sis chose a nice, girly Hello Kitty design. I decided to go with a good, old-fashioned witch on a broomstick. Hehehehehe! (That was my feeble attempt at witch cackle, in case you missed it….) Now it’s time for the best part! Using tea-lights (the real thing or battery-operated for those who are a little more safety-conscious), light those puppies up, turn out the lights and let them glow. Put some “Thriller” on in the background and practice your best evil laughter. (Use flashlights for effect here if you have them and you’re still that in touch with your inner child like we apparently are.)
Hub & Jack Skellington

BooBoo & Hello Kitty

Me & Bette Midler a la Hocus Pocus

Gather the kiddies around for some photo ops. If you have young children, like this sweet wittle minion here, it’s best to blow out those live candles before they get too close. Turn the lights back on and paparazzi away. Oooh, that’s going to look good in the fall photo album!

The Minion and his first pumpkin photo shoot....
He's a natural!

Now for the boring part. Before we get ahead of ourselves and front-porch decorating commences, it’s time for some basic jack-o-lantern care and maintenance. You’ve spent all this time making your pumpkin look amazing, you might as well make it last. We soak ours overnight in a tub full of bleach- or vinegar-water. The lid may shrink a bit by morning, but it should still fit nicely. If you’re planning to go ahead and leave them outside prior to Halloween, I would recommend wiping them down with bleach or vinegar inside and out every evening to keep the bugs and bacteria off. With this kind of TLC, they should still look fantastic by the time All Hallows Eve rolls around and those trick-or-treaters show up….

Lights out!

So there you have it, Pumpkin Carving: 2013 Edition! I hope you had as much fun as we did! See you next year, Cozy goblins and witches alike…. Mwahahaha!

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