Do you annually waste nourishing squash flesh on bourgeois porch displays? Jettison the traditional jack-o’-lantern with this one simple trick
Illustration by Ben Sanders
They say the first jack-o’-lanterns were carved from turnips centuries ago, carried through the evening by Halloween revelers or left in windows to ward off restive spirits. But caught up in the eerie proceedings and unmatched joy of carving root vegetables, these superstitious louts and lasses—likely drunk on elderberry wine and logy from eating too much lamb—were unknowingly summoning another kind of evil, one that would come back year after year to haunt the world for generations on end. I’m talking, of course, about the horrors of Halloween food waste.
Scary turnip jack-o-lantern via Wikimedia Commons
Each autumn, even more hideous than the season’s goblins, wraiths and sexy nurses, is the goofy porch pumpkin, the clumsy handiwork of some untalented child, rotting away in front of an otherwise neat suburban home. Sure, it all seems like harmless fun, but walk down any tree-lined street in the western world—block after block of brazen waste, left out in public as if these people were somehow proud of their foul excess. Like the human sacrifices of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, jack-o’-lantern carving catches regular families in a dark seasonal ritual, as they cheerily sleepwalk through the most banal-seeming of sin.
Of course, you can always shrug it off if you don’t consider the bigger picture, but think of it this way: In the UK last year, over 36 million pounds of pumpkin ended up in landfills—roughly the equivalent weight of 1,500 double-decker buses. To put things in stark perspective, that’s enough food to feed about 18,000 people annually. While hungry, hungry Americans have a slightly better track record of actually eating the scooped out orange flesh, we also have around six times the population, (and Halloween is considerably more popular of a holiday), so you can only imagine how much American squash ends up in the garbage instead of in people’s bellies.
So should you feel ashamed this year as you slice that gourd into a jagged, wicked smile? The answer is “yes.” You should feel quite ashamed, indeed. It may be hard to explain to a child, but if you just patiently point out to your little son or daughter that the real reward comes not from fun and candy, but rather in doing the right thing, he or she will certainly understand perfectly and not throw a tantrum. Instead, this year, consider a new tradition that could be just as much fun for the whole family as pumpkin stabbing: Paint a bucket!
Most families already have a bucket lying around (possibly left over from some sort of ice-water related challenge), and if you don’t, they’re pretty cheap. Buckets are sturdy, utile, and can be repainted every year to suit your evolving tastes; they won’t rot, causing lousy smells and attracting insects, and they come in a wide variety of materials. If you really want a lantern effect, you can pull your Christmas lights out of the mothballs early this year, and wrap your festive holiday pail for a warm, joyous atmosphere. Picture it: As all your ignorant neighbors proudly display their poor civic commitment and disregard for those less fortunate than themselves, you can proudly stand by your bucketful of glowing social benevolence, watching the wee, adorable trick-or-treaters crunch through the fallen leaves on their gleeful Halloween parade.
The face of excess. Photo by stu_spivack/Flickr
But the scourge of Halloween waste doesn’t end with jack-o’-lanterns. This year, 35 million pounds of candy corn will be produced and according to my (highly scientific, I assure you) assumptions, roughly 34.5 million pounds of that will either be tossed directly in the garbage or spit out on the floor in abject disgust. Seasonally speaking, untold acres of arable farmland are turned over to the cultivation of “ornamental” squash, land that could otherwise be growing perfectly good food, like delicious stinging nettles or parsnips. But it’s not all bad news: While it may not carry the symbolic weight of pail painting, this year, the East Bay Municipal Utility District in Oakland California will be collecting pumpkin carcasses after Halloween. The squash will be used as biofuel, turning what would otherwise be trash into a renewable source of electricity.
So as you sit by the hearth with your loved ones, laughing, drinking hot toddies, and meticulously painting your favorite bucket, you can think of those first Holloweeners touting their luminescent turnips, and know that you are participating in a new tradition that will surely, over time, become as enduring and beloved as the wasteful, frivolous jack-o’-lantern.