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Peak Pick: Pumpkins

Pumpkin Carving 101 My neighborhood in Santa Cruz is the area Mecca for all things Halloween. We moved there in October of 2002 and I was mowing the front yard one day when a neighbor came by to introduce himself. He asked me if we knew about Halloween and how much candy did we buy. I said no and a 100-piece bag. He said we would need three times that much and he was right — 300+ kids and four super size bags of candy later and my family realized we were in Halloween heaven. The 2005 backyard harvest My contribution to Halloween in our neighborhood is pumpkin carving — about 50 pumpkins every Halloween. In the last few years (in honor of the Whole Foods Market green mission), I’ve been composting and growing pumpkins too. I save the seeds from the best pumpkins and use the composted pumpkins from last year’s display to grow the new season’s crop. The process has this great circle of life element and worked well until I planted too many seeds one year and we couldn’t find our backyard for the summer – it turns out most pumpkin plants just keep growing if they get enough water and sun. I didn’t know that but my wife Erin now reminds me every spring. Tools of the trade Every year my toolkit gets a little bigger as I try out new tools, but all you really need to carve lots of pumpkins (aside from a serious will to do so and a lot of time on Halloween) are three basic tools:
  • A cutter- this is basically a saw that matches the thickness of your pumpkin wall’s – you can use a reciprocating saw for really big pumpkins but most just need a good hand saw.
  • An excavator- a large spoon or odd kitchen device with a long handle and the ability to scrape
  • A carver- I like my linoleum cutter best (looks like an ugly hooked knife) but a regular paring knife works well too. Here again I have a mini and a jumbo version to match the size of the pumpkin I’m working.
As a carver, I tend to lump pumpkin/squash varieties into three broad classes:
  • Soft like butter- obviously my favorite kind these are the varieties that are actually closer to squashes than pumpkins or gourds. These include the Queensland Blue (blue), Cinderella (pink), Rouge d’ Etampes (red). There are some odd heirlooms (like Triamble, Iran, and Musquee De Provence) that have the same characteristics. The exterior of the pumpkin is extremely easy to cut and excavate, the inside easy to shape and carve.
  • A stringy mess- this sounds bad but it’s really not. Most of what we consider traditional Jack-O-Lantern pumpkins fall in this category. They are still great fun to carve, it just takes twice as long to excavate and it really is a stringy mess. Folks with an aversion to getting dirty should stick with class 1 or 3.
  • Hard shell “chipper”- Most white pumpkin and banana squashes fall into this class. These are specimens that generally have a soft, non-stringy interior surrounded by a hard shell-like exterior you have to get through first. Carving gives way to chipping in these cases but the basic tools can still be used. Some have extremely hard shells that need some extra effort to break through.
Basically every kind of squash or gourd, or pumpkin can be carved- and different types can give you some great effects. I’ve also started stacking pumpkins – placing candles or lights at every level. To carve in large volumes I generally start the afternoon before – excavating all the seeds and all the inside gook is very time consuming so the more you can get done at once the easier it is to carve the next day. Spraying down the pumpkins with water after you hollow out the inside will keep them from drying out. Then all you need is a creative imagination to make your designs come to life. Whether you carve one or fifty, I hope you enjoy this short-lived art form. Happy Halloween!

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silvia says …

How can I avoid that the squirrel gnawing the pumpkins?

rawsome chef mary says …

Yes, please let the jack-o-lanterns decompose naturally! If you don't carve too early they will last for the few days necessary and are interesting to watch as they morph into mush. Vaseline (petroleum product) and bleach (toxic clorine) are both harmful to the environment. It helps to consider whether you want whatever product you use to end up in your drinking water ... if not, then either find an non-toxic natural subsitute or do without knowing your small sacrifice will improve the health of future generations. love the pictures! They sparked an idea of my own to try out.

Judy says …

I tell you Whole Foods is so great....Such great creative ideas from a company that really cares about our universe and passionate about their customers and me... Thanks, Whole Foods

Tami says …

Wow! Great work! I love all of the different designs. You surely have lots of patience. We have plans to pick out our pumpkins this weekend and my kids can't wait!

says …

I know of two methods- both I don't use because I compost. You can rub vaseline on the cut surfaces or get a spray bottle and fill it with water and a tablespoon or so of bleach. both will add a day or two to the life of your carving. I actually like what happens to Jack faces when they age - it's sort of like us. They get all scrunchy and full of character. JP

Hardcore Herbivore says …

FANTASTIC... I love all the creative ideas. Thank you so much for sharing. I'm going out TODAY and getting some pumpkins for carving.

Deana says …

Just one more reason to add to my list of why I would LOVE to live in Santa Cruz! The next to the last picture is my favorite! They are all amazing though!

steven walls says …

how do you keep carved Pumpkins from going bad?

says …

All great points Rawsome Chef Mary- I agree the less we use non natural materials the better. I did my own unscientific test using just the rehydration method (spraying the inside and outside with water) and just started to see breakdown yesterday on product I carved on the 31st. I suppose this means you could carve a few day early if you want but I suspect my results are heavily influnced by the fact that it was cold and wet when I live. Silvia, I don't get squirrls so much as the ocasional field mouse or rabbit. There is really no avoiding it but I will say what I do with my garden is plant just a little bit more than I need (some for me and some for all the critters who would like a snack as well) When this happens with my carving pumpkins I just incorperate the nibbling into the design.