Last week I left New York to face its impending winter alone and escaped to the perma-summer of Los Angeles on the weekend for a friend's wedding and to visit my sister's family. While driving through Echo Park on our way to hike in the hills near the Griffith Observatory and ogle the Hollywood sign, then pick up some really expensive coffee beans that a roast-obsessed San Francisco friend requested I bring him from Intelligentsia in Silver Lake, my friend John--a passionate meat lover--asked if there was any vegetable equivalent for butchering.
I think of the butcher as someone who handles and dresses dead animals and who acts as a skilled intermediary between cooks and their meat because the task of division and preparation is labor-intensive, often unpleasant, and takes some amount of training and talent to perform. But I couldn't think of any vegetable whose parts are parceled out to be sold in quite as elaborate a way as pigs or cows. A "vegetable butcher"-themed Google search turned up Bloody Butcher corn, perhaps the most frightening heirloom variety name I have yet encountered, as well as this delightfully creepy children's illustration by Michael Lauritano:
What we do to pumpkins and other large winter squash, especially in the weeks leading up to Halloween, seems to come closest to what might be called vegetable butchering. Many of us remain amateur carvers, though, hacking into these forbidding vegetable surfaces with much trepidation and trial and error, and more often for recreation and decoration than to eat them.
In our efforts to be festive, we take sharp knives and carefully cut into their rotund exoskeletons, revealing their tangled mass of innards.
Then we reach our hands in and swirl them around to remove the goopy guts.
Some additional knifework or spoon action clears the last of the seeds and spaghetti entrails.
Then the less knife-sure of us take a Sharpie to the pumpkin face in order to better carve out a creaturely visage. My twin nieces, whom I nicknamed Pumpkin and Peanut for their relative shapes and sizes when they were first born, are in love with Sesame Street's Elmo, like most American two-and-a-half year olds who watch TV, so my sister and I decided to attempt an orange homage to this little red giggle monster. I drew a test Elmo on our newspaper scrap and plotted a carving strategy but deferred to my sister for the actual drawing on the pumpkin.
"Don't worry, I've drawn Elmo sooooo many times."
Round and round, in and out the knife goes. Pull out the mouthpiece!
For Elmo's clown honk nose, I had the brilliant inspiration to scrape it down to the yellow layer with a grapefruit spoon, though it failed to show up in the dark later. If you say he looks like Grover, I will smash your head like a gourd.
Put his party hat on.
"Elmo likes the dark if there's a candle burning inside his head!"
It is true, this charming Elmo is no match for the fine art produced at my friends Andy and Aron's pumpkin carving party last year, where people were using awls and homemade stencils to stab out intricate formations like Sarah Palin's face. But that's why this is a post about butchering vegetables.