October 2012 Issue
An expert pumpkin grower and carver gives tips on creating crowd-pleasing jack-o’-lanterns.
Renowned squash and pumpkin carver Gus Smithhisler admits that as a kid he wasn’t really into carving elaborate jack-o’-lanterns. Just the usual “two triangle eyes, nose and mouth,” says Smithhisler, who lives in Marengo, in Morrow County.
But as an adult, he became interested in big. He and a friend, Duke Maston, have been competitively growing about 12 to 18 giant pumpkins on a third of an acre lot since 1998. Their pumpkins (Smithhisler considers them squash) have certainly been humongous, with one straining the scales at nearly 1,100 pounds.
While theirs have been heavy enough to give grown men hernias, the monsters haven’t matched the 1,8118.5-pound pumpkin that set a new world record last year in Canada. Until then, the record was held by Chris Stevens of New Richmond, Wisconsin, who grew a 1,810.5-pound squash.
Pumpkin size still matters to Smithhisler. But his claim to fame is his artistic ability to carve extraordinary freehand designs on massive squash. In 2002, Smithhisler was competing in the Indiana State Fair’s Pumpkin Weigh-Off, when he casually mentioned to fair officials that they should exhibit some carved pumpkins. Someone handed him an 8-inch hunting knife and Smithhisler’s pumpkins have never looked the same since.
“I was always artistic and thought about being an architect. But I got into civil engineering and have worked for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources for the past 20 years as my day job,” says Smithhisler. “Carving is my passion. I sketch with a pen on a pumpkin to at least get the proper perspective, but I don’t use stencils or any kind of tracing.”
Smithhisler’s designs include landscapes, logos, flowers and animals. He has carved a portrait of Jack Hanna of Columbus Zoo and Aquarium fame into a pumpkin, a mama pig and her little piglets, botanical art for the Franklin Park Conservatory in Columbus and much more. His sculpted squash are also featured in restaurants and at various fairs and festivals, including the Ohio State Fair.
Because a home decorating trend is to display carved pumpkins with autumn and Thanksgiving themes in November, Smithhisler can cover that holiday, too. He also skillfully carves other fruits and veggies, and is a board member of the World Food Sculptors Association.
“I don’t do a lot of Halloween themes, and that’s what makes me unique among carvers,” says Smithhisler, who carves about 20 to 25 giant squash a year. “I also won’t do any themes associated with politics. My favorite carving was a tiger. My client wanted a map of Asia carved, but I looked at the squash and said, ‘No, that’s a tiger.’ That’s the first and last time that ever happened to me. But it worked.”
The squash sculptor was hired by The Bellagio in Las Vegas in 2007 to carve his creations for the casino’s Conservatory and Botanical Garden. The only problem was that visitors to the casino were so mesmerized by Smithhisler’s work that they stood and watched him carve, cutting into their time at the slot machines. Smithhisler was moved to a corner of a parking lot to work alone where he wasn’t such a big distraction.
Smithhisler also recalls a special memorial pumpkin he carved September 11, 2009, depicting New York City and the Twin Towers. Soon after the carving was finished, two dark rotten spots appeared on the towers.
“It still gives me chills to think about it,” says Smithhisler.
Like sand castle or sidewalk chalk art, the art of pumpkin sculpting is fleeting. One way to keep a carved pumpkin or squash longer is to make cuts into the pumpkin skin, but not penetrate into the cavity. But mistakes do happen with this kind of “subtraction art.”
“Once I was carving an image of a farmer riding a tractor,” recalls Smithhisler, whose pickup truck license plates read BG SQUASH. “I started carving his straw hat, but cut out too much. So I made it a baseball cap. But that’s OK, because farmers wear those, too.
Gus “The Squashcarver” Smithhisler is appearing October 17–20 at the Circleville Pumpkin Show. His work will be on display October 6 and 7 at the Prairie Peddler Festival in Butler.
For more information, visit squashcarver.com
PUMPKIN CARVING 101
Ohio squash and pumpkin carver Gus Smithhisler and other pumpkin growers and carvers offer these tips:
— To grow really giant squash, the right seed is needed. The most commonly used variety is Atlantic Giant. A good jack-o’-lantern variety is Howden, a deep orange pumpkin with thick walls and a sturdy stem. Phil King, representative for Rupp Seed Co. in Wauseon, also suggests Gold Medal, Gold Medallion and Solid Gold as newer pumpkin varieties that are popular to grow and carve.
Smithhisler says a gardener needs a 20-by-20-foot space to grow each giant pumpkin. Baby the plants with fertilizer (nitrogen, phosphorous, potash and organic matter) as well as insecticides and water, water, water. One mammoth squash can drink at least 50 gallons of water a day. A squash 700 pounds or less can be handled by several strong people. Any heavier than that, and a special squash sling (and prayers) are needed to move it.
— When choosing pumpkins to carve, the lighter-colored ones are usually easier to carve, but also don’t last as long. Smithhisler suggests gently poking a fingernail into a pumpkin to determine how tough it would be to carve.
— Cut around the top to make a “lid,” leaving the stem attached for character. An ice cream scoop is good for removing pumpkin “guts” or “brains,” as the seeds and pulp are sometimes called.
— Draw, trace or use a stencil to create a design. Free downloads are available online. Cut out smaller pieces first so the pumpkin has structural support. Smithhisler uses fillet knives, but says to try a variety of cutting implements to see what works best for you. He uses a lemon zester to make “fur” for an animal design.
— “Pumpkins rot from the inside out,” says Smithhisler, who suggests waiting as long as possible before you want to create a jack-o’-lantern. Once carved, he sprays bleach on cut parts. Other carvers suggest petroleum jelly, dish soap, Lysol or a commercially prepared pumpkin saver. Sometimes a mildly saggy pumpkin can be revived by soaking it in a bucket of water.
— Jack-o’-lanterns will last longer if a flameless candle or flashlight is used for illumination instead of a traditional candle.
— Spent jack-o’-lanterns can be added to a compost pile. When Smithhisler sculpts giant squash or pumpkins for zoos, sometimes lucky animals get a treat after the exhibit closes.
SQUASH OR PUMPKIN?
Even the experts admit deciding what commonly should be called a squash or a pumpkin is difficult. The Ohio State University Extension says there is “great confusion in differentiating between the two” as well as their origins.
Both belong to the Cucurbitaceae family. Then it gets tricky. It used to be some people called the vine fruit a squash if it was gray, green or white — anything but orange — and not “round” like a pumpkin. But then along came giant orange squash and cute little white “ghost” pumpkins. Also, some people consider pumpkins to be gourds. Ohio food carver Gus Smithhisler says pumpkins have hard stems and squash have soft ones.
“Squash” and “pumpkin” are often used interchangeably in weigh-ins and carving contests. You can call them whatever you want. All we know is that Ohio wouldn’t be half as much fun in October without carved ones.
ROASTING PUMPKIN SEEDS
Preheat oven to 275 degrees. Soak the pumpkin seeds in a large bowl of water and remove the orange strings. Drain the seeds in a strainer. Pat dry with paper towels.
Toss 1 to 1-1/2 cups of seeds with 3 tablespoons of melted butter or olive oil and spread on a foil- or parchment-covered cookie sheet. Roast for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes, until golden.
Sprinkle with seasonings of your choice: salt, seasoned salt, Worcestershire sauce, garlic or onion salt, chili powder, cayenne powder.