One of the most hallowed of Halloween traditions — the one that makes mere mortals susceptible to vampires because it involves not fake blood but the real stuff — is the carving of the pumpkin.
When my two daughters were young, I would take my life in my hands by taking my knife in my hands and attempting to carve a pumpkin without either: (a) severing a major artery or (b) doing such a horrible job on the face that the girls would giggle and say, “That pumpkin looks just like Dad!”
These cherished memories came flooding back recently when I read a story in the 2007 edition of the Old Farmer’s Almanac about Michael Valladao, a jack-o’-lantern of all trades from San Jose, Calif. Under the headline “Carving Cues from a Pumpkin Pro,” the story tells how Farmer Mike has become famous not only for growing a specimen of pumpkin known as the Atlantic Giant, which can weigh up to 1,000 pounds, but for being the official carver at the Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Festival in Half Moon Bay, Calif.
“The whole concept here is to have fun,” Farmer Mike said. “The only thing that you really need to carve a pumpkin is imagination.”
It also helps, Farmer Mike added, to have tools. His favorite: a pocketknife. I’m not sure how you can carve a half-ton pumpkin with such a puny blade, unless you are a fanatic with lots of free time, in which case you probably shouldn’t have access to sharp implements anyway, but a paring knife or a steak knife also works.
Among Farmer Mike’s other tips: “Use a water-based marker to outline the face that you want to carve” and, of course, “Carve with care.”
I hate to argue with Farmer Mike, especially since he is handy with knives, but I have more practical tips for carving a pumpkin. Here, as I recall from my days of performing reconstructive surgery on gourds, which made me, in my daughters’ eyes, out of my gourd, are the five things you need for a successful job:
• A chain saw.
• A gas mask.
• A tourniquet.
• A transfusion.
• A priest.
Because your spouse is not likely to let you use a chain saw in the house, except maybe to slice meat loaf, you will have to settle for a steak knife. You will notice that the top of the pumpkin doesn’t come off easily. That’s because it is attached to the disgustingly pulpy interior mass, which smells bad enough to curl the wallpaper. Here is where the gas mask comes in handy.
Once you have scooped out the seeds, you should place them on a piece of newspaper (ideally, this column, which is about all it’s good for). Then you are required by federal law to knock the seeds all over the floor.
Now you are ready for the actual carving. See steps three through five.
In a fit of nostalgia, my wife and I recently went pumpkin picking. The girls weren’t with us because they are all grown up and out of the house and wouldn’t want to relive the nightmare of being seen in a pumpkin patch with me.
Our journey took us to Lewin Farms in Wading River, N.Y. We were growing pumpkins in our yard (not Atlantic Giants, but another species, Long Island Midgets), but I mowed over the vines while cutting the grass.
So we picked a pair of perfect pumpkins and paid a pittance. Actually, it cost $7 for the healthy specimens, which weighed nine pounds each. While wandering through the patch, my wife and I came upon a shoe that apparently belonged to someone who never made it out.
“We’ll send in a search party,” said Bob Mudaro, who was manning the stand with Megan Donahue, whose family owns the third-generation farm.
When Mudaro mentioned that he has a four-year-old daughter, I asked him for pumpkin-carving tips. “Let your wife do it,” he said. “That’s what I did last night. My wife carved the pumpkin with our daughter and I watched.” Mudaro held up his hands and added, “I still have all my fingers.”
I guess it’s up to my wife to carve our pumpkin this year. Unless, of course, Farmer Mike wants to come over and do it.
Jerry Zezima is a columnist for the Stamford Advocate who can be reached at JerryZ111@optonline.net. His blog is jerryzezima.blogspot.com. Copyright 2007 by Jerry Zezima.