Three Days Before Halloween: The Perfect Time in Houston for Carving Your Jack-O-Lanterns

Photos by Kaitlin Steinberg
A trio of pumpkins: Ted Cruz, flickering flames and Jack Skellington.
Growing up in south Texas, I learned quickly that if you carve a pumpkin too early, it will rot. Our hot, humid weather will invade all the delicate cuts we've made in our shiny, round pumpkins, and every inch of the exposed flesh will soon be covered in a fuzzy gray-green mold.

Creepy? Sure. Ideal? Not so much.

I have determined through trial and error that three days before Halloween is the best day to carve. Your jack-o-lanterns won't mold before trick-or-treaters arrive, and generally, by now pumpkins are starting to go on sale at grocery stores. It's a win-win.

For those of you who might not be as fanatical as I am about carving pumpkins (I carve at least three pumpkins every year, even into November if I'm feeling it), I've compiled this brief photo tutorial. Note: I am not an expert. Just enthusiastic.

And I've enlisted the help of our talented art director to provide you with some templates of famous -- and infamous -- Houstonians and Texans. You know, 'cause your average pumpkin face is so last year.

So pull up a pumpkin and a carving kit (available at any grocery store), and let's do this!

Find an empty spot to in which to carve, put on a scary Halloween movie and have at it!
Step 1. Select a pumpkin
Make sure you grab a pumpkin that's manageable. Huge ones are fun, but if you can't pick it up and move it around, you're going to have issues. Also, select a specimen that has at least one large smooth spot that is free of blemishes. That's where you'll carve.

Step 2. Set up a carving area
I suggest putting cardboard or newspaper on the floor to catch all the pumpkin innards and slivers that fly off your knife in your carving frenzy. I happened to use the Houston Press because I had multiple copies, but you should be saving your old issues of HP for posterity. Use the Chronicle instead. Also, set out your carving tools, a trash bag for the seeds and guts, and a wet towel, because pumpkin juice can get sticky.

Step 3. Clean out the pumpkin
Most people cut pumpkins open from the top to remove the stem, but I've always found it tricky to cut at a 45 degree angle all the way around so the top doesn't fall back in. Recently, I've started cutting from the bottom, which works really well. You've still got a handle (stem) to hold the pumpkin with, and you've got a nice, flat surface on which to place candles. So cut a hole that your hand will fit into at the bottom of the pumpkin, then use the scraping tool included in the carving kit to clean out all the seeds and guts. It will take several rounds of scraping. If you're so inclined, you can save the pumpkin seeds to use in some tasty recipes.

Use the tool that looks like a spur to trace designs, then cut them out using the knife with the small teeth.
Step 4. Using either a template or your imagination, trace a design onto the pumpkin. Most carving kits come with the little tool pictured above, which allows you to draw a dotted line onto the pumpkin as a guide. It will also puncture paper if you're using a template.

Step 5. Once you've drawn your design, begin cutting. Some carving kits come with two types of knives -- one with large teeth and one with small teeth. Use the knife with small teeth to make detailed cuts, and the one with bigger teeth to carve away large sections that you don't need.

After breaking both carvers that came with the kit, I had to start using a kitchen knife. The knives designed for carving are way better.
Step 6. Refine your cuts by sawing at a 45-degree angle inside the spaces you've cut out, removing excess pumpkin flesh so light will shine through unencumbered. Wipe down the pumpkin with a wet cloth to remove any trimmings that may be stuck to the outside. To make the cuts last longer without molding or shriveling, rub petroleum jelly on the entire inside of the pumpkin and on any areas where light orange flesh is showing.

Step 7. Light up, and admire! I bought a pack of six battery-operated tea lights from CVS for about $3 (on sale). They even flicker a little like real candles, and they're much safer. Check out our templates on the next page to make your own Ted Cruz, Annise Parker or Matt Schaub jack-o-lantern!

Check out the next page for templates of some of your favorite Texans!

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Craig Dävis
Craig Dävis

Don't carve a Ted Cruz pumpkin useless you want the face kicked out.

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