As Stephen Etris of Philadelphia got closer to downtown Keene last year, the visitor to New Hampshire expected to be charmed by a typical small New England town. What he didn't expect were all those pumpkins. "Scaffold after scaffold of carved pumpkins line the streets," recalls Mr. Etris. "It's unbelievable."
He shouldn't have been surprised. After all, Keene holds the Guinness World Record for the most carved, lighted pumpkins in one place - 28,952 at the town's 2003 Pumpkin Festival last October. This year's event, slated for Saturday, is expected to best that with more than 30,000 carved pumpkins.
Visitors who survey the pumpkins will see their share of snaggle-toothed jack-o'-lanterns, but there's a trend toward more artful carving, says Wendy Ganio, the festival's executive producer, who extols the number of more ornate gourd sculptures. Memorable works from the past have included landscapes, caricatures, and themed designs.
"We're attracting more professional pumpkin carvers, and the designs are unbelievable," she says. This year, the event will feature an experts' pumpkin-carving competition, where carvers will compete for bragging rights and cash prizes.
One of those skilled competitors is John Anderson, who specializes in carving images of famous musicians into pumpkins. Mr. Anderson anticipates that he'll carve six to eight jack-o'-lanterns for the festival this week, including images of legendary jazz musicians Billie Holiday, Sonny Rollins, and John Lee Hooker. Each one takes up to 10 hours.
While it may take some practice to sculpt pumpkins as well as Anderson does, he gives these tips for those who want to get a bit more creative with their carving endeavors:
• Look for a pumpkin that's about 18 inches high or a bit taller and has a flat side. "Those lines in the pumpkin are called ribbing," he explains. "You want to look for a pumpkin with shallow ribbing, so it doesn't distort your image."
• Cut a circle in the top of the pumpkin and scoop out the interior until the shell is approximately 1/2- to 3/4-inch thick.
• When you choose a picture you'd like to use as a pattern to carve a pumpkin, he suggests that you pick one with high contrast - distinct light and dark areas - as it will be easier to carve and will work better than a low-contrast image.
• Tape a photocopy of the image you'll be carving to the flat side of the pumpkin. Use a pin to pierce the pumpkin along the edges of the sections you'll be cutting away.
• Remove the photocopy and, using a knife or pumpkin carving tool, cut away the sections of pumpkin shell in between the pin pierces. Anderson recommends using inexpensive pumpkin carving kits, available at many supermarkets and in holiday sections of department stores, instead of knives, because he says the smaller blades are easier and safer to use.
• Note to beginning carvers: remember that if you want a piece of the rind to be part of the design, it must remain connected with the body of the pumpkin. While some pieces are cut out entirely, you can also experiment with carving only partially through the pumpkin, leaving a thin wall that lets the light shine through, Anderson says. That will allow you to create more intricate light and dark contrasts by varying the thickness of the rind that's left attached.
• Once you're done, seal your cuts with petroleum jelly, which will keep the pumpkin from dehydrating. "What most people think of as rotting is really dehydration," he explains. If your jack-o'-lantern starts to look wilted, put it in a pan of water to re-hydrate it.
About 75,000 people from around the United States and other areas of the world are expected to attend the festival, which is also home to activities such as a pumpkin seed spitting contest, a pumpkin pie eating contest, and a costume parade with more than 3,000 participants.
And while pumpkins are the stars of the Keene event, it's the location and atmosphere that makes it special, Etris says.
"If you tried something like this in Philadelphia, I don't think it would fly," he says.
"It's being in a small New England town, the fact that everyone brings their own pumpkins and they're all so into it. You'd never expect that a bunch of pumpkins would be such a big deal, but it is here."
Carving pumpkins for Halloween isn't unusual ... unless, of course, the pumpkin is being carved underwater. That's what will happen later this month in several locations, including New York, Illinois, Texas, Florida, and Connecticut.
The island of Guam will also hold an underwater contest, at the USO Beach near Piti. Scuba divers there will carve 15 feet below the surface.
The weightiest underwater contest just might be in Ontario, however, where six-member teams descend 18 feet to work on pumpkins weighing 250 to 300 pounds. Two-member teams carve regular-size pumpkins. Both groups must work fast, though: They have only one hour.
• Circleville, Ohio, holds one of the largest pumpkin festivals in the US. The town has a population of about 13,000, but approximately 400,000 people attended last year when residents baked a pumpkin pie that was six feet in diameter and weighed more than 400 pounds. It used 100 pounds of cooked pumpkin, 40 pounds of sugar, and 15 dozen eggs, and took six hours to bake.
• In early Colonial times, pumpkins were used as an ingredient for the crust of pies, not the filling.
• The largest pumpkin is reported to have weighed in at 1,446 pounds this month in Port Elgin, Ontario.
• The name pumpkin comes from pepon - the Greek word for large melon.
• Pumpkins, which are considered fruit, are 90 percent water.
Sources: University of Illinois Extension Service and the Circleville Pumpkin Show website