Q. Between the bags of candy, scary movies, and pumpkins, Halloween is high on my list of favorite holidays. But it does all seem a bit wasteful. Am I unleashing some sort of environmental horror by buying and carving a pumpkin? What’s the best way to be a responsible jack-o-lantern carver?
A. Dearest Laura,
Does Halloween have its own version of the Grinch? You know, a grouchy character who attempts to ruin All Hallow’s Eve by filling people with guilt about their plastic masks, sugar-bomb treats, and profligate pumpkins? What would we call such a character — the Hallomeanie? In any case, while I must occasionally remind you all about palm oil in candy, I do not relish the Hallomeanie role. Halloween is fun. Carving pumpkins is fun. So it delights me to not have to tell you to cease and desist with your holiday merrymaking: I think it’s fine to enjoy a spooky pumpkin once a year.
To do this right, Laura, I recommend that you consider all stages of the pumpkin life cycle, from growth to distribution to use to disposal. To begin at the beginning: The guidelines we use for food also apply to food-turned-décor. If you can, go for a jack-o-lantern that grew to round, shiny maturity on an organic farm. True, organics tend to be spendier than conventional squash, and they might be harder to find, but a fungicide- and pesticide-free pumpkin protects both you (should you eat it, but more on that later) and the planet. Pumpkins rank No. 25 out of 51 types of produce on the Environmental Working Group’s pesticide guide, meaning that while they’re not the worst offenders, they’re still turning up positive for some chemical residues.
Then there’s the distribution question. Naturally, we want to minimize the distance our squash travels from patch to porch. That’s why farmers markets are such an excellent place to shop: You’ll be guaranteed a locally grown pumpkin (assuming, of course, that your market carries only local produce — which not all markets do), and shipping a load of them in one truck from the farm to the neighborhood market is fairly efficient. Compare that to 100 cars driving to a pumpkin patch to take home 100 individual pumpkins, and you’ll see what I mean. This is not to condemn pumpkin patches, mind you; I like a good hayride as much as the next environmental advice columnist. Just be mindful of your own transportation emissions and get there without driving if you can.
Naturally, growing your own backyard pumpkin is best of all, but I’m guessing it might be a bit late for that this time around. Maybe next year?
Once you have pumpkin in hand, it’s time for the fun part — decorating! And I suspect this may be where your concerns about waste kick in, Laura. After all, pumpkins are food, and here we are leaving all that beta carotene to rot on our front steps. It’s worth noting that the sturdy, Headless Horseman-size pumpkins we typically use for carving jack-o-lanterns are bred for looks, not for taste. Even so, you don’t have to throw away those stringy guts: Use them in soups, breads, and muffins. And of course, roasted pumpkin seeds make for one of the best seasonal snacks out there.
And if you simply can’t abide by wasting any part of an edible squash? Choose a smaller, yummier variety (think sugar pie or cheese) and adorn it with marker, stickers, ribbons, construction-paper cutouts, whatever — as long as it leaves the surface intact. Then, whip up a nice pumpkin puree on Nov. 1 (a wonderful antidote to too many fair-trade chocolates).
Finally, there’s the question of disposal. You live in a city with compost pickup, Laura, so if you opt not to eat your jack-o-lantern, composting it will be simple for you. Those who aren’t so lucky can also return their pumpkins to the soil from whence they sprung, no compost pile necessary: Just take it out back, smash, cover with leaves, and let Mother Nature do her thing (I wonder if we could tap America’s reserves of rowdy teens to do this for us). You might also consider donating your spent squash to the zoo — plenty of them will gladly hand it over to their elephants, tigers, and bears for a snack or enrichment item (we’re talking puzzles for meerkats, people).
Pumpkins are just one part of Halloween, of course, so before we go let me point you to some perennial advice on treats, costumes, and home decorations. And may I also suggest a scary movie or two, Laura? Something tells me you’d love a triple feature of this, this, and definitely this.