I was walking into the supermarket the other day when a dad and a couple of kids passed me, wheeling a grocery cart of jack-o'-lanterns out to their car. The kids were ecstatic, while their father looked like he was being led off to his own execution.
I couldn't help but laugh. Better you than me, dude.
Maybe I'm getting crotchety in my middle age, but no one is in mourning at my house, now that we no longer observe this seasonal ritual.
The pumpkin-carving tradition expired in our family about eight years ago. As so often happens when children turn into teen-agers and become bored with everything they used to do, this family activity ended with a shrug. No eulogy, no lump in the throat; we just didn't do it anymore.
And it was wonderful. When I realized that it was over, I had one of those quietly joyous moments that accompany the unexpected liberation from something mundane but unpleasant. If someone told me I would never have to go to the dentist again, it would be just like that.
Never again would I have to worry that a 9-year-old, hell-bent on impersonating the Japanese chef on the Gin-zu knife commercial, was going to carve up more than the pumpkin. Just as my daffy old aunt nervously counted her silver before she took out the kitchen trash, I always felt compelled to count fingers.
That was the main thing that made pumpkin-carving so nerve-racking. No responsible parent turns a child loose with a knife to cut into a more-or-less solid object, yet that's exactly what the child expects to happen. So you have this awkward moment of negotiation, in which you try to figure out how to let the child feel like he's really carving the pumpkin, without him being a danger to himself or others. If you insist that you both have to hold the knife, he feels like you're compromising his artistic license.
Truth be told, I spent these theoretically pleasant family episodes with a sense of impending doom, just hoping that no one struck an artery.
Then there's the boo-boo problem. One slip of the knife, and the jack-o-lantern's nose is where the ear is supposed to be. It's not as if you can erase your work and start over. As a result, our jack-o-lanterns often had a third eye, which might have been OK some years but was an affront to the artist's aesthetic sensibilities as he grew older.
The absolute worst thing that could happen during the carving would be putting the features so close together that the face caved in, which would mean that you'd have to dry some tears and start over on a new pumpkin. Personal injury was my No. 1 fear and this was my second.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before we even got to these cutlery issues, we had to clean out the pumpkin, which always seemed to take hours. Adults, jaded as we are, can scoop the pulp from a pumpkin in a matter of minutes, but for children this is an opportunity for prolonged exploration.
Kids love stringy, slimy stuff, so the insides of the pumpkin are a source of tactile fascination. When you try to pick up the seeds, they pop out from between your fingers and you have to chase them down. If you ask a child, he'll tell you that the other required component of cleaning out a pumpkin is repeatedly squeezing the pulp through your fingers and trying to gross yourself out.
This can go on forever, and any thought that a parent might have had about using the pulp for cooking disappears in the process. Somewhere during this phase of the procedure you realize how much pulp has landed on the kitchen floor, so it becomes a moot point anyway.
So, to the dad in the supermarket and all the other parents of pumpkin-carving children, I send my fondest wishes for a happy Halloween.
When she's not writing about foods and gardening, Gwyn Mellinger is teaching journalism at Baker University. Her phone number is (785) 594-4554.