Pumpkin carving advice

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

RALEIGH, N.C. — When Danny Williamson was growing up in Columbus County, he would go into the towns of Chadbourn or Evergreen, N.C., for trick-or-treating.

As a result, there wasn’t much need to carve Halloween pumpkins at Williamson’s childhood home. That’s how Williamson, 62, now of Raleigh, got to his late 30s without ever having carved a pumpkin.

His partner, Rusty Taylor, 65, decided on the spur of the moment to change that during a trip to the State Farmer’s Market about 25 years ago. Taylor was buying produce close to Halloween when a farmer offered her last seven pumpkins to him for $10. Taylor turned the farmer down at first, got to the car and turned around.

"I came home and said, ‘Guess what?’ " Taylor recalled.

Now the couple’s home is a must visit on Halloween night for their friends and neighbors. Each year, up to 55 pumpkins line the broad front steps of their home.

Taylor and Williamson hold court on the sidewalk outside as people ask questions. Williamson always carves one political pumpkin. Taylor delights in children finding images from their favorite storybooks among the pumpkin carvings, like "Bunnicula," "Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse" and Hogwarts castle. Children sit down next to the pumpkin with the year carved in it so parents can take the annual Halloween photo.

We’re not publishing the couple’s address because they don’t want to see increased vehicle traffic on their small street, especially on Halloween night with so many small children out after dark.

Regardless, Taylor and Williamson agreed to share their Halloween pumpkin carving wisdom:

Type of pumpkins: The more popular Halloween pumpkins — those perfect orange globes with the curved stem on top — tend to have tough skin and fibrous flesh. Those attributes make them difficult to cut and hollow. They prefer the "Mammoth Gold" variety. The skin is easier to cut and the flesh is similar to an acorn squash and takes less work to remove the seeds.

Say no to perfect pumpkins: They prefer a variety of shapes and colors: tall, squat, twisted, funky, orange, green, white or mottled. Those variations inspire the carvings. If a pumpkin isn’t flat on the bottom, flip it over or take a sliver off the bottom and place it on top of a jar lid or plant tray.

When to buy: Wait to buy pumpkins closer to Halloween to get the best deal, especially if you are buying many.

How to hollow: Wear rubber gloves. Otherwise, using hot water and soap to clean the pumpkin guts off your hands will create a cooked layer of pumpkin juice on the skin that can only be removed with cold cream. Line the table or work surface with plastic tablecloths with felt backing. (Seasonal tablecloths often go on sale after Memorial Day, July 4 and other holidays.)

Game plan: Break up the work. Hollow out the pumpkins and remove the seeds on one day and carve the pumpkins on Halloween. Hollowed out pumpkins will keep for several days in a cool place, like a back deck, a basement or a shady spot in the yard.

Clean up: Place pumpkin guts in double-lined grocery bags and place in the trash can. If you are doing a dozen or more pumpkins, distribute the pumpkin waste among your trash can and — with permission — your neighbor’s trash can. It is heavier than you think and no one wants to create a burden for sanitation workers.

How to use patterns: For a few early years, they used Pumpkin Masters patterns. Eventually, they graduated to photocopying images out of books. Taylor spent 41 years working for Wake County public schools, primarily as a media resource manager for the libraries. He recommends photocopying, enlarging and darkening images from children’s books to create patterns. Affix the pattern to the pumpkin with masking or painter’s tape and use a dull pencil to transfer the image to the face of the pumpkin before carving.

Best tools: They buy the packets of pumpkin carving tools, which are often deeply discounted the day after Halloween. Taylor has one unique tool, a copper circular clay hole cutter that potters use, which enables him to carve perfectly round holes out of the pumpkin’s face.

Carving tips: Carve the most intricate sections first. Don’t take out the pumpkin flesh you are removing until the end. Otherwise, your design has no structure to support it while you continue carving. And don’t worry about making a mistake. "When we make a mistake," Williamson said, "we turn it into something else. Your face suddenly has a scar and you go with it."

How to keep: How long the pumpkins will last depends on the weather; hot weather means a short shelf life and cold, rainy weather means a longer shelf life. They have revived their pumpkins by dipping them in a bathtub of cool water for 2 to 3 minutes. Warning: it creates a mess in the bathtub.

Candles: Buy oversized tea light candles, which last longer. (They stock up at Ikea.) They also put two candles inside each pumpkin, which makes re-lighting easier. Once one burns out, the rest will soon follow.