Leaning in close, a small blade grasped firmly between two fingers, Mina Patel makes a small, nearly surgical incision. Then, flipping her knife, she attacks again, this time at an angle. Using the knife point to pry, just a little, she removes a section of skin and reveals the pink flesh below. As she does so, the transformation she began more than six hours earlier comes closer to completion. Her watermelon is one step closer to becoming a field of flowers.
For more than 20 years, Patel has been transforming seemingly ordinary fruit and vegetables into elaborate, if transitory, works of art. Under her careful hand, turnips become blooming blossoms, apples transform into birds in full feather and melons are the medium for any number of elaborate designs.
She said carving fruit dates back more than 700 years and was originally a way to honor Thai royalty. While Patel has yet to present one of her carved creations to a king, she said her motivation is similar. She said she believes it’s a way to make an extra effort, to honor and impress guests.
“People eat with their eyes,” she said. “That’s what I think. If food looks wonderful, people love it.”
For Patel, each project begins with her canvas and the question of what a piece of produce may produce. Like a sculptor assessing a piece of marble, she looks for the design within.
“I don’t even think about recipes anymore,” she said. “If the color is good and the shape is nice, I think about what I can make.”
Before she begins, she sketches a design. Sometimes, she said, she will follow it. Sometimes the project goes in a direction she didn’t expect.
“It happens a lot,” she said. “You start with one design and end up with something else.”
The knives Patel uses are specifically crafted for fruit and vegetable carving. The blades, she explained, are very thin and very sharp. Her husband, Suresh Patel, an engineer at Savannah River Site, opens a kitchen drawer filled with scalpels and knives. Some of the knives, he said, cost as much as $80 and require special care.
“When I am finished with this, I will clean it and sharpen it,” she said, holding up a small knife sharpened on two sides. “Watermelon can be tough on a knife.”
Although Patel has carved wedding centerpieces and taught workshops, she is quick to dismiss the idea that carving could be a career. She is an accountant and her carving is a hobby.
“If I made this my profession, it wouldn’t last,” she said. “I do this because I love to do it. I don’t know if that would be true if it was a job.”
What’s important, Patel said, is that she continues to challenge herself, to make designs more elaborate.
“All the time I want to do more,” she said. “It’s why I want to go to Thailand. I may not carve for royalty, but I would love to see where it began.”