How to Carve a Pumpkin, the Old-School Way

My father was a quiet man, but he had firm convictions about the right way to do many things (see Father’s Day Special II.)  My view of pumpkin carving for Halloween is heavily influenced by his.

Every year just before Halloween we would go looking for a pumpkin.  Daddy felt that the proper shape for carving was the classic round, not one that was taller than it was wide.  It should be a good healthy orange, not pale.  The reddish-orange ones you sometimes see nowadays were not available back then in Tennessee.  We usually chose ours from a farm stand along 41-A, someone’s local produce.

The first step in pumpkin-carving was to spread a great deal of newspaper on the dining room table, covering the vinyl tablecloth so even it would not get dirty or be stained.  If the weather was warm sometimes we did this outside.  Step two:  Daddy carved a circle around the stem about six inches in diameter and pulled out this plug of pumpkin meat.  He cleaned off the bottom of this.  Then he scraped out the seeds and as much of the pumpkin meat as he could from the inside.

The next step was crucial, and this is where his opinions come in.  Daddy took a pencil and drew the face he wanted to cut onto the pumpkin shell, following these rules:   1) Halloween pumpkins should have triangular eyes.  2) They should have noses, either a triangle pointing in the opposite direction from the eyes, or two nostrils (some artistry permitted here.) 3) Their mouths should have teeth, either square and snaggled or pointed.  4) They should have ear holes.

So he carved according to these rules.  The pumpkin was lit by a stub on candle.  We would wait until dark, go outside and light the pumpkin, and stand in the dark admiring its eerie beauty.  Every year I was entranced with the result–old-school, simple, classic, and vaguely threatening.

This year I will have company for Halloween, and we will go to the Blaze in Croton to see thousands of carved jack o’lanterns, very fancy indeed.  But maybe I’ll carve an old-time one, in memory of Daddy.

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Recipe: Gingerbread with Sorghum Molasses

Sorghum Molasses Pie

When I was a child we waited in anticipation every fall for sorghum molasses to come on the market.  Mother and Daddy were convinced the only appropriate sorghum molasses came from Benton County, Tennessee.  Even then, one had to read the label closely to make sure corn syrup had not been added.

Sorghum is a grain.  To make molasses, the canes are ground in a mill and the juice runs out.  In the old days, a mule walked around and around in a circle to make the mill turn.  The juice is cooked, not unlike maple syrup, and the byproducts skimmed off the top.  Sorghum-making is a skilled craft.  The byproducts used to be put in cattle feed.

But we wanted sorghum for two purposes:  Daddy ate it with hot biscuits and butter, and I made gingerbread.  How to explain how sorghum tastes?  It’s lighter and wilder than the only acceptable substitute, Brer Rabbit Molasses.  Dark Karo syrup is your syrup of last resort, too sweet, and it doesn’t have that wildflower/grain taste that sorghum does.  But these are dark times we’re living in, so we do the best we can.

Here is Mother’s gingerbread recipe with sorghum molasses.  Substitute as you must….

Ginger Bread

1 cup sorghum molasses

4 tablespoons shortening (butter or Crisco)

1 cup buttermilk

Mix together the above.

Sift together dry ingredients:

2 1/2 cups flour

2 teaspoons ginger (the dry powder, for you foodies who peel the root)

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 3/4 teaspoons baking soda

Mix dry and wet ingredients together.  Bake at 350 degrees for 20 to 30 minutes.