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The Ancient Ways

The primitive art of pumpkin carving

By Jim Moriarty

There are things in the modern world into which far too much thought has been invested. One is pumpkin carving. Search the web long enough and you can find out how to etch T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” into your front doorstep decoration, backlit with electric lights and read by Jeremy Irons.

The array of hand tools necessary for modern pumpkin carving is slightly less complicated than a tray full of surgical instruments used in a heart transplant. Keyhole saw. Fleshing tool. Awl. Drill and interchangeable bits. Melon baller. Petroleum jelly — and I’m not at all sure I even want to know what that’s for.

Apparently in the 21st century, it’s not uncommon to make the initial incision from the back of the pumpkin, or the side, or however you want to describe the part of the pumpkin that is neither top nor bottom. Once you’ve cracked its chest and the outer pumpkin seal has been broken, the modern gourd is subjected to a form of liposuction. After all the icky stuff is removed with scooping devices — melon ballers, it seems, can be obtained in a great variety of sizes and grip options — the inner wall is then thinned to a thickness of no less than 1/2 inch but no greater than 3/4 inch by scraping away the orange flesh with some sort of diabolical loop instrument that looks as though it would have been used in medieval times to remove the tongue of the village heretic.

After you’ve hollowed out and squeegeed the interior to a lustrous sheen, you then apply the stencil to the outer surface using either industrial grade duct tape or T-pins borrowed from your child’s voodoo doll. This is where all right-thinking persons should draw the line. Did Picasso use a template to paint Guernica? Did Michelangelo stencil Adam onto the Sistine Chapel ceiling? Yet, they press on.

Once the stencil is in place, using some kind of  needle, puncture the outer skin every 1/8 to 1/4 inch along the outline of the design. Remove stencil, plug in and engage the three-speed electric drill or, if you’re etching, scrape the skin away with linoleum cutters. Work outside to in. This, as it turns out, is where the petroleum jelly comes to the rescue, applied to the bare flesh (the pumpkin’s, that is) the way you apply a poultice to a boil. Soon you’ll have a design more magnificent than, and equally as complex as, the four laws of thermodynamics.

There is, however, another way. You can go old school.

First, get you a pumpkin. Next, get you a knife.

I’m not talking just any knife. Go to the kitchen drawer and pull out the biggest, most dangerous carving knife you can find. Full-on Chucky.

Using a blue Bic, draw two equilateral triangles for the eyes — point up, naturally — and a mouth with two upper teeth and one lower. Then, insert your carving knife into the top of the pumpkin at a slight angle to the perpendicular, cutting all the way around the peduncle. (The stem, I’m told.) Lift the lid, trim the bottom.

Using your bare hands, scrape out the innards until your fingernails turn orange. Go in right up to your elbow if you must, scooping out handfuls of slimy, fibrous pumpkin entrails. Young children pressed into service may get the dry heaves. Pay them no mind. Put the slop into a big pile and begin separating the seeds from the goop. Place the seeds on a greased cookie sheet, sprinkling garlic salt liberally on top. Place the tray in the oven on broil. Cook until they’re turned to ash.

As the odor of burning garlic wafts through the kitchen, plunge the knife into the pumpkin, more or less following the Bic drawing for the eyes and mouth. Freelancing is allowed though not encouraged. When finished, use the butt end of your carving knife — being careful not to put your eye out — and tap the cutouts until they fall into the hollow pumpkin. Remove. Once empty, use the sharp point of the knife, employing the twisting motion of an assassin, to dig a spot in the bottom of the pumpkin’s interior. Take a candle from the dining room table, light it and drip the wax into the wound you’ve carved in the base. Place the bottom of the candle in the pumpkin before the wax hardens. The candle won’t stay upright long but, if you’re lucky, it’ll get you through one night. After that you’re just eating leftover candy anyway.  PS