There is only one thing on earth that will terrify a mother more than the thought of her child owning a BB gun, and that is the thought of her child carving a pumpkin. There is something in a mother's psyche that turns to glare ice when she pictures her kid gleefully preparing to whale away at a pumpkin with a knife the size of a cavalry saber.
Consequently, she doesn't encourage her child to get too creative with pumpkin facial design. Cut three triangles, a jagged smile and quit. Get it over with quickly so mom can draw breath again. And yet another generation of potential squash sculptors grows to maturity and learns to drive, balance a checkbook, dance, chord a guitar, field a ground ball and possibly even paint a still life, but remain hopelessly wedded to the triangle school of pumpkin carving.
Enter Gordy Falk, The Pumpkin Man, friend of mothers, protector of children and champion of vegetable art.
Falk, of Whitefish Bay, Wis., may be the world's greatest living authority on pumpkin carving.
"Eight years ago I started carving pumpkins, and it got a little out of hand," he says.
Indeed. Since then, he has routinely hacked out between 500 and 800 pumpkins each Halloween, littering first his lawn with them, then the local park. And now he's the star of a 30-minute video titled "How to Carve Great Faces for Halloween."
It is a maddening video. It will make you slap your forehead raw each time a simple, common-sense revelation is imparted. "Well, of course, " you'll say every couple of minutes or so. "Eyebrows! Curves! A short knife!" Slap.
Yes. A short knife. A fruit knife or a paring knife with a flexible blade that need not be sharp. That is Falk's cardinal rule. Use a big knife, he says, and "you are doomed to carve straight lines." Triangles. With a short, thin knife, he says, you can create the curves that are essential to creating a pumpkin with personality. A pumpkin, says Falk, should be carved along the same contours as a human or animal face, without sharp corners or squared angles. Faces aren't geometrically perfect. Pumpkins shouldn't be, either. So use a little knife.
(Moms, are you starting to feel better? Want to lower your blood pressure further? Skip to the last paragraph and then go find a quarter to pay for the candle you're going to light for Gordy Falk.)
Now, get ready to start slapping that forehead. Among Falk's other tips:
There are two sides to a pumpkin: the side that rested against the ground during the pumpkin's growth and the side toward the sun. The sun side is the least blemished. Carve the face on that side. You can practice on the other side.
When you carve a lid, angle the knife toward the center of the pumpkin. Angle it the other way and the lid will fall through. The finished lid should resemble a cork. Don't carve the lid in a perfect circle. Make a notch to make replacing the lid easier.
You don't have to yank the innards out with your hands. Get a long-handled, large-bowled serving spoon and scrape the stuff out with a circular motion.
Don't slash when you cut. Use little sawing motions.
If you make a mistake--such as trying to make pupils in the eyes and then accidentally gouging them out--you can tack the stray piece back onto the pumpkin proper with a toothpick.
Have your previous pumpkins lacked a certain sense of facial expression (triangle eyes again)? Carve eyebrows. Angling them down toward the nose is menacing. Angling them up is benign.
Carve the smaller features first and leave the mouth until last. Carving the mouth first weakens the structure of the pumpkin and makes carving the other features more difficult.
Got a really huge pumpkin? Carve ears and use them as carrying handles.
If you're going to illuminate your pumpkin with a candle, use the tip of a long knife (no plan is perfect, mom) to bore a hole in the center of the bottom. When the candle burns down, you can then upend the pumpkin and push the stub out of the hole and replace it with a new candle.
Keep the candle short. If the flame is too close to the lid, the lid will shrivel.
Why didn't you think of all that before?
Still, you can't help liking Falk. In his ball cap and plaid flannel shirt, he looks--and speaks--like one of Garrison Keillor's pals down at the Chatter Box Cafe. Watching him work, carving out faces in the time it takes most people to quarter a tomato, you realize that here is a man who has discovered what he was born to do.
And now, mom, the moment you've been waiting for: along with the video, which costs about $10, you get a pumpkin knife. It's glued to the side of the box. It's about the size of a paring knife, but it has no sharp point or edge. The cutting side is widely serrated, but dull as a pair of kindergarten scissors. Falk says it works beautifully in a child's hands.
And he still recommends parental supervision. And utters not one word about a BB gun. On Halloween, you might want to save an extra Baby Ruth for this guy.