Happy Hallowe’en, to one and all!
While Saturday may have been the night for wild hallowe’en revelry and fantastical fancy dress, I always like to mark the day itself with somewhat of a quieter, more traditional gathering, with a hearty, seasonal meal, a spot of pumpkin carving and perhaps a game or two of apple bobbing. Throughout history food and feasting has played an important role in hallowe’en festivities, going back to it’s pagan roots as a celebration to mark the end of the harvest. Nowadays there are few foods as readily associated with halloween as pumpkins, you can’t move for them in the supermarkets at the moment, although more often than not they are used purely as hallowe’en decorations and the soft, sweet flesh is discarded without a moments thought. Pumpkins are not only delicious, seasonal and cheap, but they are also incredibly versatile; they make fantastic dishes, sweet or savoury. So what better excuse than to create a halloween feast based on that most magical of foods, the humble pumpkin.
Our obsession with pumpkins at halloween may seem like a rather severe case of the Americanisation of hallowe’en, but Britain has a long and surprising history with all things pumpkin related. Tonight, as we watch gratuitously gory horror films, in a room glowing in the gentle light of gruesome carved jack-o-lanterns, my friends and I will feast upon warming spiced pumpkin soup and good old traditional pumpkin pie… just as our ancestors might have (well, without the films)!
Halloween is, and always has been, a time shrouded in mysticism, magic and superstition. The festival, as it is celebrated now has it’s roots in the pagan festival of Samhain, which took place on the 31st of October. Communities would see off the summer and celebrate a good harvest with communal feasts, while at the same time preparing themselves for the cold, dark winter months ahead. It was believed that on this date the walls between this world and the ‘otherworld’ were at their thinnest, allowing otherworldly spirits through, free to roam the land. As darkness fell bonfires would be lit on hillsides, to ward off evil spirits, and lanterns carved out of hollowed out vegetables, usually turnips or beets, would be lit, and set outside doors, some say to guide the souls of the dead back home, some say to protect the home from evil spirits.
With the Christianisation of Britain existing pagan festivals were superimposed with christian values and merged with religious holidays on the christian calendar. All Souls day, the 1st of November, was believed to be the day that souls of those that had died in the last year departed the earth forever, and as such it was a day set aside for prayer in order that wondering souls might be given a safe passage to the after life. As the 31st of October was the last day in which these spirits roamed the earth, it was also believed that this was the day that spirits would take revenge on anyone who had wronged them in life or generally cause trouble, and precautions were taken to protect people against this, such as the use of hollowed out vegetable lanterns.
The common term ‘jack-o-lanterns’ for these hollowed out vegetable lights, comes from Irish folklore. The story goes that there was once a man so mean and so crafty that he managed to trick the devil out of his death. There are many variations on the tale, but one of them tells how Jack managed to persuade the devil to climb a tree, thence trapping him up there by drawing a crucifix on the trunk, thus blocking the devils descent. After a few days Jack agreed to let him go, on the promise that when he died he wouldn’t go to hell. Some time late, on a cold late October eve, Jack did die. Naturally, due to his bad behavior he was rejected from heaven, and when he was sent down to hell the devil wouldn’t let him in there either, so he was left to roam the earth forever more, guided only by the light of a hollowed out turnip which the devil presented him with.
In the nineteenth century, when large celtic communities emigrated to America, their halloween customs and traditions, including their love of jack-o-lanterns were taken with them. Up until this point halloween was completely unheard of in America, and was only celebrated at first in the Irish and Scottish areas, but by the early 20th century it had become an America-wide festival. Of course, on arrival in America it was discovered that pumpkins made much better jack-o-lanterns than turnips on account of both their shape and size, and their already hollow inside, so turnip jack-o-lanterns were all but forgotten.
Although not indigenous to Britain, according to a medieval treatise on horteculture, De Naturis Rerum, some types of pumpkin have been grown on a small scale in kitchen gardens since the Norman invasion in 1066. With the discovery of the America’s in the 1500s, along with other novel foods, the pumpkin as we know it today, became a highly prized ingredient and recipes from this time for pumpkin can be found in abundance, especially popular as a sweet pie filling! When the pilgrims left for America in 1620 the popular pumpkin pie travelled with them, where, up until this point, the recipe has remained virtually unchanged, steadily growing in popularity to the extent that it is now considered an American national dish. In Britain, on the other hand, the pumpkin more or less fell out of fashion, although recipes can still be found in seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth century recipe books. It was seen as a staple, seasonal autumn dish, popular, but not surrounded by the hype that surrounds the pumpkin pie in America. My favourite recipe for pumpkin pie at the moment is one (out of five different recipes) found in Mrs Beetons Book of Household Management. Interestingly, in the chapter on American traditional food, there is not a single pumpkin recipe to be found. I was particularly drawn to this recipe because it includes brandy, always a good thing in my opinion! It really is most delicious, with its light and creamy texture and oh-so-autumnal flavour. The combination of sweet pumpkin and nutmeg is just perfect.
So, wherever you are, why not give a very traditional autumn dish a go this halloween. You’re sure to love it!
Have a spooktacular Halloween, and as always, wishing you a fun and food filled eve!