The name ‘Jack O’Lantern’ comes from an old Irish myth but – as with so much to do Halloween – the detail of actually what or why is all a bit confused and confusing.
We do know that festive lanterns were being carved long before the yanks got in on the act and decreed that henceforth the only appropriate fruit for the task would be a pumpkin. The English would originally have used sugar beets or fodder beets (also known – brilliantly – as mangelwurzel). The Scots and the Irish used turnips. Immigrants to America from Ireland took the tradition with them, and when Halloween wheeled round it soon became the norm to use the more readily available pumpkins. And much as I would love to go into a shop and ask them for the best mangelwurzel that they have in stock, it can’t be denied that pumpkins are better suited to the task being larger and therefore both easier to carve and creating an overall more impressive spectacle.
Choosing the right pumpkin:
Very important, this bit. If the pumpkin is a bit lopsided to start with, that could turn out to be a good thing for creating a scary effect. If your Jack is going to be quite chipper, you might want to make sure you have enough space on it to create a lovely toothy grin. The smaller the pumpkin the more precise your drawing and carving skills will need to be.
Avoid one that has marks or blemishes on it already – your pumpkin needs to start off in the best of health so that it will last as long as possible. A good tip is to choose a pumpkin that has a few inches of stem coming out of the top – apparently, the more stem there is the longer it will survive.
Carving your lantern:
It makes sense to use a pencil for all the drawing that you do onto the lantern, so that if your artistry goes a bit wrong you can just rub them out and start again. Or if you use a light biro you might be able to rub it off if you need to.
Start off by making the lantern’s lid. Draw a circle around the the top stem and then cut into the circle with a medium size sharp knife. Angle the knife inwards as you go round so it is cutting slightly towards the middle of the pumpkin. Doing it this way just means that when you put the ‘lid’ back on it won’t fall through the hole you’ve made.
Scoop out all the seeds – I use my hands for this because it is much quicker than a spoon. You probably will need to use a spoon to get out the stringy bits and any loose flesh. Then scoop out more of the flesh to thin the walls.
Now you are ready to get creative and draw onto the pumpkin’s skin the pattern that you’ll be carving. Cut into the outlines you have drawn with a small sharp knife. Once you are happy with your handiwork, pop a tea light or small candle into the base. If you cut into the flesh on the base of the pumpkin and scoop some of it out that will create a more even base for the candle to sit on.
Light the candle, pop the lid back on, and your Jack O’Lantern should be either beaming beautifully or ready to frighten the living daylights out of passers-by.
The pile of pumpkin flesh you are left with is just begging to be cooked into something delicious. How about a warming spicy soup? Or (and?) you could roast the seeds by cleaning them off, coating in olive oil and salt, then putting them on a roasting tray lined with foil for 15 minutes at 140 degrees. When they are ready they’ll start to pop. Good for you to nibble on and rather moreish too.
Looking after Jack:
Your Jack O’Lantern will start life looking in the first flush of youth. All plump skin, moist flesh and perkiness. But before you know it he will be a wrinkled, slightly mouldy, shrivelled shadow of his former self. Lord knows it happens to us all. But you could try some of these tricks to delay the inevitable aging. Of your pumpkin.
One method is to dunk (or maybe we should say ‘dook’ if you’re doing this after having read about bobbing for apples) your carved pumpkin into a bucket of water that has a quarter of a cup of bleach in it. When you take it out turn the pumpkin upside down to fully dry off – if you skip this bit the excess water / bleach might perversely speed up the mouldy process. Put some more of the water and bleach solution into a spray bottle to give Jack a light daily spritz with. Each time you do it, you need to again leave him upside down for a while.
Another idea is to smear Vaseline all over his inside and outside, paying particular attention to the cut edges. The point of this being to seal in moisture.
It is the dehydration that causes most of the problems, so try to keep your lantern out of direct sunlight and don’t sit him over a radiator. It’s a good idea to pop the lantern into the fridge every so often, maybe over night.
When he goes mouldy, furry or generally just a bit manky it is time to throw Jack away. Not a good look and a bit of a health hazard to boot.