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How to Carve a Pumpkin

It’s nearly Halloween, time for ghosts, treats, and hours of time invested in what invariably winds up splattered down your block. Yes: the season-o-Jack. Here’s how to cut your gourd.

Fall is here, and with it, for some reason, carving: of turkeys, geese…but first, pumpkins. No one is born wise in the ways of goo and knives. These are learned skills. Taken with everything else that’s going against you—the pumpkin a difficult canvas, the Jack-O-Lantern an elusive result, and both being bereft of forgiveness—can you become the master carver? With this handy guide, we’d bet our orange-stained aprons on it.

One Nation Under Gourd

This week you’ll be visiting the grocery store/deli/pumpkin patch to find a pumpkin suitable for a Jack-O-Lantern makeover. Keep in mind that the bigger the pumpkin, the longer it will take to clean it out. Too small a pumpkin, however, and you’ll probably send the carving knife straight through the meat and right into your sister. So choose a pumpkin that’s between 12 and 20 inches in diameter, with a strong, intact stem. (You may even choose to employ it as a handle on the way home.)

Also, have an idea of how you want your Jack-O-Lantern to turn out—color and shape play big roles in your final product. A particularly natural-looking pumpkin, say, with blackish-green spots and bumps, isn’t necessary a bad choice. Consider that such imperfections can make a “cute” Jack-O-Lantern “ghoulish” or “acne-d.” Whatever you’re into.

Incisions, Incisions

Gather your tools—an assortment of knives, some large, some small, serrated if you’ve got it—and prepare for surgery. If you don’t have a stainless-steel operating table with blood gutters, then pick someplace similar—floor, patio, kitchen counter—and lay down a section’s worth of newspaper. Make sure you’ve got a good-sized bowl handy for the pumpkin’s insides. (Though right now aren’t you wishing you had those blood gutters?)

Traditionally, the initial cut has been from the top, i.e., circumscribing the stem at a sizeable diameter. But more recent carvers got smart and realized that, hey, if you cut the hole out of the bottom, and the pumpkin actually acts like a real lantern and sits atop the pumpkin chute, then having gravity on your side when adding or relighting a candle is nice because you lower the risk of torching your hand.

Either way—top or bottom, we’re all one or the other—make a circular cut in toward the center of the pumpkin, at an angle. Why in and angled? Because cutting out from the center will create a pumpkin piece that will simply fall down into the pumpkin (or never come out, if you’re cutting up from the bottom) and that you’ll have to excise in parts. Plus, you need that chunk of pumpkin in one piece for a handy lid (or base, for bottom-cutters). Cutting straight in will create a pumpkin cap that will never have a handy rim that fits the hollowed-out pumpkin. So: no rim, no lid. Simply: cut in at an angle.

You may have to make a few jabs in first, creating a kind of deep scoring before connecting the whole circle. (Inward! At an angle!) Make sure you’re using a knife that’s long enough to get through the shell of the pumpkin, but not so long as to go too far in or require extra effort to yank it back out of the gourd. A serrated knife will do a good job of gnawing between the scored holes to complete the circle, but don’t look to it for delicate handiwork. How to tell when you’re done? The disc will come off, that’s how, but don’t expect it to release without a fight, or at least without tendrils to hang off its bottom. Cut that stuff off and set the top (or bottom) aside.

Gooey Guts and Gutsy Goo

You’ve cracked open the cavity and now it’s time to remove all of its slimy unmentionables. Either with a large metal kitchen spoon or own your hands, dig in and remove all the seeds, membrane, and whatever else this stuff is. Everything you remove goes in that big bowl you brought along. Don’t throw anything out! Use the spoon to scrape down the insides of the pumpkin, just enough to get all the seeds, loose bits, and moist parts out of there, but don’t scrape too deep as to damage the walls of the gourd!

Now scrape down your lid, and, if you incised from the bottom, make sure you scrape down the base to as level a surface as possible. Finally, give the bowl to someone who knows what to do with it. Toasted pumpkin seeds are a tasty Halloween treat, but will you get around to cooking them? Exactly.

Make a Face

You’ve seen ‘em. Those Jack-O-Lanterns with the triangle eyes, the triangle nose, and the curved mouth that comes to a point like a grin at either end. Why all the angles? Because they’re easy. Three swift cuts—chunk, chunk, chunk—and you’ve got a nose. True, it’s a little harder to cut circles and non-straight lines into the thick pumpkin shell, but it’s far from impossible. Don’t let laziness or fear of digit loss get in the way!

Now, there’s no recorded corollary between a pumpkin’s expression and the personality of the carver. Nobody will look at the results of your carving and judge you. In fact, everybody will be surprised that you’ve actually carved a Jack-O-Lantern, and not just changed your IM icon to an animated black cat with a voice bubble howling “Haaappy Haaalloooweeeen!!!”—so consider yourself beyond reproach here and just go with whatever pumpkin face strikes you. Following are some possible facial elements, the combinations of which are probably endless.

Eyes: Make them wide open and round with clearly visible pupils for a look of surprise, or angled and sharp for something more sinister. Eyebrows or no? For more extreme expressions it’s recommended. For the criminally insane who’ve been given pumpkin-carving as an afternoon activity at the asylum: always eyebrows, and multiple sets! Consider adding depth for the pupils or eyebrows by cutting partially through the skin—this achieves a pleasant glowing affect without the high beams on.

Mouth: Choose a little “o” for a look of surprise (or bigger to illustrate “you’ve got your O face on”). Add a little edge with teeth: a few on the top and bottom are as original as a hobo costume, and fangs, while certainly frightening, are rarely seen on humans and therefore confusing to little children who expect—no, demand—realistic portrayals.

Nose: Two little nostrils? A pug? The classic triangle? Nothing at all? A nose adds a healthy dose of personality, and can turn the tide of the face pretty radically. Make it the final decision that pulls the pumpkin together.

Ears: Never. Lose the pumpkin and get one of those Potato Head toys, if you play this way.

You’ve got an idea, now put it into action. Choose the broad side of the pumpkin that fits your liking, then, using a blunt pencil (since that’s the one that always seems to be handy), draw in the outline of your chosen features. Make sure everything’s how it’s supposed to be, and that you can clearly see all the lines. Then pause for a moment to think about how you’re going to cut into the pumpkin. Say you’ve got an area on the shell—i.e., the open part of the mouth—that you know you want removed altogether. Use the pencil to make a few Xs in the space to be removed; that way you’ll know it, and not its neighbor, is the part that’s supposed to go. Also: Make sure you know where all the teeth are going to be (if any). Too many tears have been shed over Jack-O-Lantern teeth that were planned and then accidentally cut away. Same attention to the details goes for whatever you’ve got in store for the corneas and pupils.

When carving the face, make sure to cut out toward the sides as much as possible to allow a wider hole on the inside of the pumpkin than on the outside. This will allow more light to shine through than if you create a hole that’s the same size or smaller.

Lighting & Display

Time for an appropriate light source, and a light bulb with an extension cord is not an option (Will you please get in the spirit here?). Choose a candle (unscented, no holder) tall enough to light up your Jack-O-Lantern, but not so big as to burn the lid. You want the flame to sit in the middle-lower half of the pumpkin’s body 1) to create maximum effect when viewed from eye level or above (as it will most likely be seen); and 2) to avoid ignition.

For those who chose to cut the initial hole from the top: set the unlit candle down into the center of the base, ensure its stable placement by pressing it down a little bit, then light with one of those extension lighters or a long fireplace match. Top with the pumpkin cap and move to display area. For those who opted to cut from the bottom, place the pumpkin base wherever you would like to display the Jack-O-Lantern, set the candle down on the platform and make sure it’s stable, then light and place the Jack-O-Lantern atop the base, rotating the body until it fits neatly.

A final note: Wherever you’ve chosen to display your Jack-O-Lantern—in your windowsill, on your balcony, on your porch, atop the TV—keep a lawn chair nearby that can be tugged away into a dark corner, where you will sit and wait, scotch in one hand, carton of eggs in the other, ready should any tricksters show up with intentions of turning your pumpkin into pulp.

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