Pumpkin Picasso Shares Her Secrets

There are a lot of reasons why the Celts of old used to carve pumpkins this time of year and use them as lanterns, but the main one was that it was really hard to hollow out a tomato. My wife’s family is part Scottish, and so I am a little familiar with ancient Celtic traditions. Once, the two of us went to Scotland to learn more about her clan. In a store that sold kilts and sweaters to tourists, we were told that her ancestors were known for being fierce warriors, but not especially good ones. Apparently they lost a lot.

In any case, Halloween is two weeks from today, which means now is the time to carve your jack-o’-lantern if you want it to shrink to the size of a tomato by Halloween and become a shrunken head on your front porch. Now those bad boys are scary.

And even if you don’t want to carve your pumpkins for another week or so, it’s not too early to start thinking about your pumpkin pattern — what you want your jack-o’-lantern to look like. (As a point of information, the jack-o’-lantern is not named after the actor Jack Nicholson, though his smile can be deeply disturbing, especially when he’s in a movie like “The Shining” or the Los Angeles Lakers are losing.) My Lincoln neighbor, Judy Brown, is a real talent when it comes to the fine art of the pumpkin. When her son was younger, she would exquisitely carve eight to 10 pumpkins every year as Halloween neared and line her front steps with them. When my daughter was born in 1993, she carved what she says to this day is one of her favorites: A remarkably detailed and vivid baby carriage.

Here are some of her tips on how you, too, can become a Picasso of the Pumpkin.

“Although you can’t go wrong with a jack-o’-lantern with triangle eyes and nose and a smiling mouth with three teeth, don’t be limited to the traditional standbys,” she said. “Think about bats and cats. And we have enough scary stuff in the world: Go with the whimsical, too.” In other words, this Halloween consider a Christine O’Donnell pumpkin. O’Donnell is the Republican candidate for a U. S. Senate seat in Delaware, and she is both whimsical and scary. She also admitted on Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect” that she once “dabbled in witchcraft,” so she is a particularly appropriate choice.

Brown also suggests “letting the pumpkin warm up before you carve it, rather than starting work on it after it has been sitting around outside on a 40-degree October day.” The reason? “The goo can turn your hands numb in a matter of minutes.” I know what she means. When my daughter was very little and I didn’t want her handling a serial killer quality knife, I would suggest she take responsibility for pulling out the cold, slimy pumpkin guts. I thought this was being a good parent; she thought this was child abuse. I think she was right.

Brown also likes the patterns in the carving kits that are sold in stores. One safety tip? “Be sure you actually saw with the little saws that come with the kits, otherwise you will break the blades.” In other words, don’t try and use them the way you might a knife. She says she broke a lot of those saws when she was carving eight to 10 pumpkins a year. In addition, she recommends against wasting any time at all with the plastic scoops that come with the kits. Use a sturdy serving spoon instead.

Finally, Brown says to “borrow a child or two if you don’t have one of your own at home anymore. It makes the process a whole lot more enjoyable.”

She’s right. Kids are great — especially if, unlike me, you can convince them to reach inside and clean out the pumpkin guts.

(This column originally ran in the Burlington Free Press on October 17, 2010.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.