Hugh McMahon Turns Squash Into Classy Tabletop Creations

Call him the cucurbit carver.

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We’re not usually ones to focus on the centerpiece—we’re there for the foods, not the flowers—but Hugh McMahon’s merit more than a once-over on the way to the charcuterie. That’s because his tabletop creations don’t rely on zinnias or dahlias and a spray of wispy baby’s breath, but on all manner of lumpy, bumpy cucurbits— especially all those pumpkins and squash and gourds that come in from local fields right about now.

Armed with an X-Acto blade, a handful of fruit and vegetable knives and clay sculpture tools, McMahon turns his squash—he buys it from F and F Farms in the Catskills, the Manhattan Fruit Exchange and local farmers markets—into lacy, lit-up carvings of everything from famous faces to city scenes to fall harvest landscapes.

McMahon’s produce passion took root in art school in the 1970s, when he found himself drawn to food forms. He fashioned bodies from fruits and vegetables (broccoli worked well as hair) and comic bookcharacters based on potatoes. Though his artwork has little in common with your standard jack-o’-lantern, his approach sprouted from a Halloween pumpkinin 1976. He sold his first work that year: a ghoulish face carved for Studio54. (He says he got the gourd gig at the famous nightclub by just knocking on the door.)

Today McMahon, who often works out of a makeshift studio in the back of Chelsea Market, makes his living solely from the carvings, which can fetch $2,500 for bigger projects: The pumpkin-perfect head of Alfred E. Newman for Mad magazine, the watermelon portrait of Pete Seeger commissioned for his 90th birthday celebration, the 1,502-pound pumpkin carved into a gorilla in Grand Central Station, or the 100-pound T. rex created at the behest of the American Museum of Natural History.

McMahon is an artist, but we think he’s something of a fairy godmother, too—meaning the man can transform a pumpkin into something worthy of the ball.

Photo credit: Hugh McMahon

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Rachel Wharton is the former deputy editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan. She won a 2010 James Beard food journalism award, holds a master’s degree in Food Studies from New York University, and has more than 15 years of experience as a writer, editor and reporter. A North Carolina native and a former features food reporter for the New York Daily News, she edited the Edible Brooklyn cookbook and was the co-author of both Handheld Pies and DiPalo's Guide to the Essential Foods of Italy. Her work also appears in publications such as The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Saveur.