Master Carver Turns Watermelons Into Flowers, Birds, Baby Carriages
LOWELL, Mass. — They say the tradition of carving fruit and vegetables into ornate flowers originated in Thailand in the 14th century as an effort to impress the king.
But Lowell’s Ruben Arroco, who was born in the Philippines, picked up his spectacular version of carving fruit and ice and chocolate and butter from other Filipinos while working in a hotel restaurant in Bermuda. And his coworkers had roots in Paete, in the Philippine province of Laguna.
“That’s where everybody can make a living carving wood,” says Arroco, who was invited by Massachusetts state folklorist Maggie Holtzberg to demonstrate his food carving at the annual Lowell Folk Festival from noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, July 27 and 28, in the folk craft and foodways area at Lucy Larcom Park on Kirk Street near Lee Street.
He’ll be part of a showcase of traditional carving—from duck decoys and Puerto Rican santos to stone sign-making and Chinese script seal carving.
Arroco shapes red beets and cantaloupes into roses, and pineapples into leaves, and squashes into vases, and, for weddings, daikon radish into lovebirds. At the center of it all are watermelons. By carving them to different depths, he creates red, white and green flowers and eagles and hummingbirds and, to celebrate births, baby carriages or Noah’s ark.
“Somebody said my son’s first birthday, we’re going to have it, what can you make?” Ruben says. “‘To show how good you are,’ just joking around, they said, ‘can you carve his face onto a watermelon?’ I said, ‘Oh, sure.’”
“Afterward I said, ‘Why did I say that?’” Ruben recalls. The intricate details of a watermelon carving take him six to seven hours, he says. And this commission was even more intricate. “If you remove even a little bit of green on the eyebrows or lips, it’s not going to look like him at all.”
But Arroco chiseled the green watermelon skin into a resemblance of the boy surrounded by an explosion of melon, kiwi and strawberry flowers.
“If you order this you’re actually going to be the star,” Arroco says, “because people are going to say, ‘Where did you get this?’”
He adds, “Sometimes they call and they say, ‘Ruben, I have a problem. What do we do? Nobody wants to touch it?’” He recommends they find a child who will have no compunction about digging in.
After first learning food carving in Bermuda, Arroco says he kept at it when he came to the United States in the early 1980s and worked in kitchens at a hotel and a convention center in New Hampshire and Hanscom Air Force Base in Massachusetts. But he mostly gave it up while employed for a dozen years in a computer company. When the current recession prompted the sale of that firm and its move to Michigan, he stayed here and found himself out of a job.
His wife got him to carve fruit for a coworker at the pharmacy where she works who was dissatisfied with one of those edible bouquets of fruit carved to look like flowers. “She started telling people,” Arroco says. One thing led to another and now the 54-year-old is back in business as Culinary Artworks.
“To me because most of it’s for families, it’s about family and being a good human being,” Arroco says. “When I was still in the Philippines, my father, before he passed away, he always said, ‘Be nice to everybody. Always be nice to them because it comes back to you.’”
Arroco’s fruit carvings are heavy, so he begins by buying wood to serve as a sturdy platter. At a local produce market, he orders a selection of fruit, including “the biggest watermelon you have.” He carves them in the kitchen of his Lowell home. When he’s done, he impales the watermelon on three sharpened dowels inserted into the wood to anchor the fruit in place.
“The most important tool that you need is called a Thai carving knife. It’s a very thin, flexible paring knife,” he explains. “I also bought a regular German paring knife that I ground into the shape I wanted.” In addition, he uses V-cutters and U-cutters that he’s custom made to allow him to slice precise designs.
“I love listening to music when I carve,” he says. “Anything with guitar solos.” He plays the instrument himself, and when the carving isn’t working he likes to put on something like Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” and strum along until he settles down.
“I learn from my mistakes that you cannot hurry,” Arroco says. “If I make a mistake, I have to start all over again.”