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For more than 20 years, hundreds gather for South Austin Halloween party and pumpkin bake-off

Addie Broyles
abroyles@statesman.com

One of the biggest, longest-running Halloween parties in Austin has its roots at the White House.

When Laura Joseph was a child, her family lived near Washington, D.C., and one spring, when President Lyndon B. Johnson was in office, her family was invited to attend the annual Easter Egg Roll.

Celebrating a holiday on such a grand scale was a feeling she never forgot, and for more than 20 years, she and her husband, Cater, have been re-creating that community experience for both Easter and Halloween in her own white house, a grand Greek Revival home built in 1875 in the Zilker neighborhood just south of Lady Bird Lake.

“When I moved to a white house with a big lawn, I started to host,” says Joseph, a master gardener whose historic property is also known for its elaborate gardens and a large purple martin sanctuary.

The fall festivities started as a relatively simple pumpkin-carving party under the carport in the early ’90s, but it evolved as the neighborhood kids who attended grew and word of the fun spread.

Not long after the party started, Joseph — a three-time winner of the Statesman’s Christmas cooking contest, coordinated by former food writer Kitty Crider — added a pumpkin bake-off that has grown to now include more than 40 entries a year.

This wasn’t her first bake-off to coordinate, though. As the daughter of sweet potato farmers from Big Sandy in East Texas, Joseph had started a well-received sweet potato cook-off in the Eanes School District, where she worked. “I thought, ‘Why not try pumpkin?’’’ The response was overwhelming. “There are people who work on their dishes all year,” she says. The winning cooks take home bragging rights and a 4-foot-tall trophy that rotates between winners.

For the past two years, I’ve helped judge the contest, eating my weight in pumpkin bread, pie, bars, cookies, soup, hummus and even pumpkin kibbeh, a vegetarian spin on a popular Lebanese dish, and pumpkin mac and cheese, a winner at this year’s party. But not every dish has been so great. Joseph recalls a “really awful” seven-layer dip that used pumpkin instead of avocado. “There was so much of it,” she says. “People tried to eat it, though.”

Even her own pumpkin contribution — a drink she called PumpkinPalooza Punch, which she serves in a carved-out pumpkin and gourd — has evolved over the years. “Less pumpkin, that’s the key.”

Everyone pitches in to put on the event, which takes place sometime in the week before Halloween. Neighbor Tom Giebink has been “the pumpkinmeister” for more than a decade, helping children of all ages clean and carve pumpkins to take home. “Tom can find the most glorious things to say about a little pumpkin that just has two eyes,” Joseph says. “The kids just adore him.”

Joseph and friend David Gordon, who is also the chef at the Hilton downtown, have perfected the art of making spaghetti for hundreds in her regular-size kitchen, but this year, she hired the Peached Tortilla to serve tacos.

Even though she’s retired from the school district and her own children have careers and kids of their own, the parties continue. The Easter Egg Roll includes a visit from the Easter bunny, an egg hunt with dozens and dozens of plastic eggs, a puppet show and games, and Joseph hires a band for the Halloween extravaganza. (Joseph met this year’s band, the Coffee Sergeants, by chance. They’d just released an album called “Purple Martin Sanctuary,” which Joseph stumbled upon when searching for something related to the gourd birdhouses.)

Neighbor Charlotte Boyle says that hardly a month goes by that Joseph isn’t hosting some kind of party, either with fellow gardeners or just family who live nearby. Janice Morgan put it this way: “She’s the pied piper of the community.”

Joseph says that she and her husband see the parties as part of their obligation to give back to the neighborhood. “We are both really thrilled to be part of the neighborhood and in a historical home,” she says. “We love to share it.”

It’s their gift of an extravagant holiday experience, just like the one she experienced when she was a child. “I just love any excuse to get the neighbors together.”

PumpkinPalooza Punch