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Michael Brandy, Deseret News

Three-year-old Nephi Wolf Jr. is excited to carve pumpkins this Halloween.

Just last week, he and his family searched through Mabey's Pumpkin Patch in South Jordan to find the perfect orange squash to carve. The weather was crisp, but a handful of other families also wandered through the patch in search of pumpkins.

"I'm making a jack-o'-lantern," young Nephi said, after some prompting from his parents, Carina and Nephi Wolf, about what he was going to carve. His 6-year-old sister, Caroline, said she plans to carve her pumpkin like a princess.

The family doesn't use any fancy technique for carving. Instead, Mom and Dad rely on their kids to sketch designs onto their pumpkins and then they, the parents, do the carving.

"We make some interesting pumpkins," the elder Nephi Wolf said.

But talk to any expert, and that's how they say pumpkin carving should be. It's not about perfection but having fun, said Kristen Bogue, a master pumpkin carver who runs a pumpkin carving Web site with her husband, Ed Bogue.

"Our theory is that you are the artist when you are carving your pumpkin," said Ed Bogue, who lives in Brigham City. "As long as the kids are having fun and everyone is having fun, that's what pumpkin carving is all about."

Still, there are a few tips and tricks for people who want to carve a fantastic looking pumpkin. It begins with picking the right pumpkin and ends with knowing the best ways to preserve your pumpkin.

Step 1: Finding the right pumpkin

For Blake Anderson of Kearns, the key to finding the right pumpkin is to start looking once they appear at grocery stores and other shops. He's been carving for 25 years. He always looks for pumpkins with a smooth face that are large enough for the patterns he wants to use.

It's easier to carve if there are no grooves and scars on the face of your pumpkin, according to Anderson, who takes Halloween off from work each year to carve.

Likewise, the Bogues agree that the smoother the face of a pumpkin, the better. It makes it easier to stick a pattern on. Other tips include finding a firm pumpkin with no soft spots or cuts, so that it will last longer.

At Mabey's Pumpkin Patch, there is no specific pattern for how people select their pumpkins, according to Sarah Mabey, the daughter of owner Steve Mabey. People just rely on personal preference, although sometimes parents make a rule that their children can only pick a pumpkin that's as large as they can carry by themselves, she said.

"The bigger it is, the easier the pumpkin is to carve and clean out, but when it comes to picking, everyone is different," Mabey said. "Everyone likes different types."

Kaden Dupaix, 7, said he selected his pumpkin at Mabey's patch because it was "nice and round." Richard Carman, who brought his kids to the patch, said he likes to find odd-shaped pumpkins and carve a face to match.

Step 2: Pattern selection

Choosing a pattern is fairly simple, according to Anderson and the Bogues. You go with what you like and what you realistically think you have the skill to do.

During a recent pumpkin-carving demonstration at the Hunter Library in West Valley City, 5-year-old Travis Putnam carved a pumpkin with the face of Jack Sparrow from "Pirates of the Caribbean." It had a lot of little details that required his father's help, but Putnam said he really liked his pumpkin.

In general, the Bogues believe children should select patterns with fewer intricate details. It's easier for tiny hands to manage. On their Web site, www.pumpkinpage.com, the Bogues have a list of child-friendly patterns. Some are free and some require a minimal fee to access. The Web site also includes more expert-level patterns.

For people who want to create their own pattern, Anderson recommends they at least sketch what they want to do onto their pumpkin. He uses a pen. The Bogues recommend using transfer paper to trace a pattern onto a pumpkin. The paper can be found at any craft store or Wal-Mart.

As for when to carve, Anderson does most of his work the night before Halloween or Halloween day, but carving can be done a week to 1 1/2 weeks before the holiday as long as your squash is kept moist and cool.

Step 3: Carving

After choosing your pattern and tracing it onto your pumpkin, it's time to carve. But before you get out the old carving knife, the Bogues recommend you look it over — twice. Make sure there are no old, crusty bits of pumpkin left on the tool from last year. If so, wash it off, or else it might make your pumpkin rot faster, the husband and wife team said.

They prefer to use pottery tools to cut and carve their pumpkin. Anderson used to rely on carving instruments from Pumpkin Masters but just recently bought a set from Zombie Pumpkins that he prefers.

He believes the key to carving a good pumpkin is to make sure you have thinned the area of the pumpkin you're carving to about an inch thick. It makes it easier to do detailed patterns because there's not as much to jam your knife through, he said. The Bogues suggest people be careful to make sure their carving knife is always perpendicular to the pumpkin. That way you don't break your knife or carve into areas where you don't want to carve, Kristen Bogue said.

She believes people should start by cutting out the smallest pieces of their pumpkin pattern, then move onto larger pieces. If you make a mistake, then carve around it and improvise, she suggests.

Above all, have patience, Anderson said.

"You don't want to hurry with this kind of stuff," he said. "Go slow and easy and one piece at a time."

For Byron Melville, 11, of Salt Lake City, carving is something fun he does with his family. They set up at the kitchen table and work on their creations together, said Melville, as he searched through Mabey's pumpkin patch.

Melville's grandfather, Steve Jackson of Sandy, said he carves because it's fun. He takes his grandchildren each year to a pumpkin patch and buys them pumpkins.

"Even if you mess up, you can change the face," he said.

Step 4: Preservation

Once your masterpiece is finished, there are a few tips to preserve it longer than a day or two. The No. 1 rule is to always remember pumpkins are made primarily with water, so keep your pumpkin moist!

If you carve a week or more before Halloween, you can wrap it in plastic wrap and stick it in the fridge to preserve the moisture, said Anderson. Other tips include soaking your pumpkin in the bathtub for an hour once it looks dried up.

The Bogues said people can also mist their pumpkins with a spray bottle each day or rub a little Vaseline on the edges to keep the moisture inside. Other people dip their pumpkin in a bleach solution or spray it with Lysol to help prevent mold from building.

Anderson doesn't follow any of those tips. He cuts up his squash and makes pies with it.

"I enjoy it," he said about his love of carving. "As soon as the pumpkins start appearing, I'll go and start looking."

History of the jack-o'-lantern

Carving pumpkins is a tradition traced to the Irish and a legend about a man named Jack who was so stingy he wasn't allowed into heaven. When Jack approached the devil about entering hell, the devil rejected him because of a prior deal in which he'd agreed not to take Jack's soul.

So Jack wandered the earth until Judgment Day, carrying a lantern made from a turnip and lit by an ember given to him by the devil. The Irish began making their own lanterns from turnips and carved with scary faces in order to ward off evil spirits and keep "Stingy Jack" away from their homes.

They brought the tradition to the United States during the Irish immigration of the 1800s. But pumpkins were used instead of turnips because the orange squash was more plentiful.

SOURCES: University of Illinois Extension, embassy of the United States in Dublin, Ireland.

What to do with pumpkin seeds

After you've scooped and scraped the gooey insides from your pumpkin, spend some time plucking the seeds from the mess for a tasty roasted treat. Here's a recipe for roasted pumpkin seeds from Utah State University:

1. Rinse seeds in a colander. Make sure all the pumpkin pulp has been removed from the seeds.

2. Place seeds on cookie sheet.

3. Add butter (2 tablespoons for every 1 cup of seeds)

4. Flavor to taste with garlic salt, onion salt and soy sauce or Worcestershire sauce.

5. Bake at 250 F. for 1 hour. Turn seeds every 15 minutes.

E-mail: nwarburton@desnews.com