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Hearth to Hearth: Halloween, The Food and the Frolic

Hearth to Hearth: Halloween: The Food and the Frolic – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – November 2002

Most recognize it’s original name—All Hallows Eve—and remember that this was the time when spirits of the dead returned to earth to roam their old haunts and perhaps make contact with those still among the living.

Some may know that this holiday has evolved from an ancient one. During Europe’s Dark Ages (400 to 1000 A. D.) the Celts ruled much of Northern Europe, and their customs were often incorporated into the later cultures of France and Britain. Of these, Ireland was the last Celtic stronghold and the place where certain early holiday rituals have survived most clearly. Today our notions of Halloween and the foods we associate with it are derived from this history.

In the Celtic calendar, October 31 began the new year with a sacred, three-day holiday called Samhain (the Lord of the Dead), a time of harvest, feasting and revelry, as well as honoring the dead. This is a clear and universal new year pattern of birth and death, endings and beginnings. It was in many ways a most logical time to celebrate as the gathering and storing of fall crops harvests had by then been completed and herds of cattle reduced in size. In the manner still used by farmers, those least likely to produce well the following year were killed, butchered, and roasted for a thanksgiving feast. The Celts, now secure in their stores of food that would carry them through the winter, believed that on the eve of the holiday, the separations between earth and spirit world were weakened, and the souls of the dead could return and visit briefly. Large fires were lit by priests to ward off the evil forces, while candles were set in windows to guide friendly ancestors home. While Celtic holiday dishes are now lost to us, it is likely that they made much of seasonal harvests.


The connection between Halloween and the following recipe seems to be in the apples.
All Hallow’s Pudding; From Captain’s Lady Cookbook—Personal Journal, Circa: Massachusetts 1837-1911, Vol. II. Edited by Barbara Dalia Jasmin, Springfield, MA: Captain’s Lady Collections, 1982.

“Butter a large baking dish. Cut up thick slices of 6-7 large cooking apples. Take 11/2 cups flour; 3/4 cup Barbados sugar and 3/4 cup loaf sugar; 11/2 teaspoonsful cinnamon; 11/2 teaspoonsful ginger; 11/2 teaspoonsful mace and 11/2 teaspoonsful nutmeg. Mix together; add 21/2 cups of milk, stir well and pour over the apples. Blend in 1 cup of butter. Mix all, bake in medium oven for about 2 hours. Stir. Cover with sauce.

With the weakening of Celtic culture and strengthening of Christianity, the Church made great efforts to root out all non-Christian, Pagan observances, and attempted to discredit its spirits as evil witches, devils, goblins, etc. But as so often happened in such cases, the new regime was not able to completely eradicate old and popular beliefs or rituals, and so it adapted them to its own purposes, keeping certain central themes or forms, and changing their significance. What had been the celebration of often-friendly communication with ancestral spirits became for the Christian world a dread moment when evil was afoot. The early Catholic calendar remade All Hallows Eve into a somber fast day, far more in keeping with Church practice than Celtic, and used it to counter the presumed dangers of spirits abroad. Halloween now preceded the rescheduled feast day of All Saints Day, a day set aside to honor the worthy souls who had not achieved formal Church recognition. So far as we know, the All Saints Day feast was not structured around special dishes, but was simply the best one could put forth, and was generally a compilation of family favorites.

Despite Church efforts at eradicating Celtic Samhain, many of the old customs remained active in the countryside. The new crop of nuts (English walnuts) and newly-gathered apples (also representative English foods) were the central food icons here, and were used in honor of the holiday by convivial groups enjoying good company at the hearth. In certain parts of England the holiday was called Nut Crack Eve, perhaps another reference to the harvest and the custom of cracking and eating nuts and telling fortunes with them. Nut kernels were tossed into the fire to prophesy budding love affairs: if they smoldered and stayed put so would the relationship, but if they popped and jumped out of the fire, the relationship would soon cool. In another version, a pair of nuts (the lovers) were placed together near the heat, and their reaction to the flames was similarly portentous. In some variations, apple peelings were tossed over one’s left (always left) shoulder, and the initial they resembled as they fell to the floor would identify a new love to come.

Another old English tradition featured pancakes or cakes at Hallowe’en. Perhaps these were the soulcakes fed to beggars in exchange for prayers on behalf of holy souls. (Incidentally, these beggars were often children in costume, an omen of more light-hearted things to come.) One legend has it that sometimes the beggars fell on the cakes greedily and forgot to pray, at which a wise woman reshaped the cakes into circles—symbols of eternal life and yearly cycles—to keep the praying focused. Another version from Yorkshire has it that the holiday is called “Cake Night,” in which carolers sang their way from house to house with the following refrain:

Soul! Soul! for a soul-cake!
I pray, good misses, a soul-cake!
An apple or pear, a plum or cherry,
Any good thing to make us merry,
One for Peter, two for Paul,
Three for Him who made us all.

Still another version of Cake Night touts a cake in which a token is hidden (usually something relatively valueless like a bean) and the lucky person who finds it in his or her portion wins something. (Note that this little game is associated with other holidays—Kings Cake on Twelfth Night, for example, but on Halloween, when fortune-telling is an important element, both cakes and Colcannon are its vehicles.)


The following recipe is most often cited as the Irish holiday dish. Although recent cookbooks invariably use cabbage as the central ingredient, I suspect that the alternative use of turnip is the key to its Halloween connection, and may have preceded cabbage in this association.

Cale Cannon, made at Hallow-e’en; From The Old Virginia Cook Book, Richmond, VA., 1894
Boil one small cabbage, two turnips, one parsnip, two onions and half peck Irish potatoes; when done cream the potatoes, cut the vegetables fine, and mix together well; add three quarters pound butter, and little milk if it is not soft enough; plenty of pepper, and salt to taste; serve hot. A nice dish with roast beef. -Mrs. Julia A. D’Alton.

By the late nineteenth century and early twentieth, apples and nuts continued to be important features in the social gatherings and new parties organized for young people. Ducking or bobbing for apples was a favorite—a large tub of water held a number of floating apples, and each participant tried to secure one without the use of hands. The trick was to use one’s head to push the apple against the bottom of the tub or against its side wall where it was possible to get hold of it with one’s mouth. A successful contestant emerged from the soak dripping, grinning and with an apple in his or her teeth. Another such game was less drenching—apples-on-a-string was as it sounds, apples tied by their stems and hung from the ceiling at about head-height.

Again the player held his or her hands clasped behind, and, as the apples swung around, tried to grab one using only his or her teeth.

In Ireland, where the idea of the old Celtic feast remained, a number of Halloween dishes honored the day. Colcannon was the dish most mentioned—it was made of mashed potatoes, cabbage or turnip, perhaps onion, all sauteed in butter. Colcannon, at Halloween, was another of those dishes in which tokens were hidden to foretell the future. One source reported that the standard tokens included a ring signifying a bride, a button for the bachelor, a thimble for the spinster, and a coin for the one who would become wealthy. And among the Irish, it was often followed by an apple dessert (yes, apples again), frequently in Dumplings.

As was the case with English apples and nuts, the festive food had to be something available to all—there is no sense to a holiday food that only a small portion of the populace can afford. As potatoes were a later introduction, it is possible that the dish originated in the nineteenth-century, or that the ubiquitous turnip (already part of the Halloween story) had originally shared the pot with cabbage. An Irish legend tells of Jack, a clever blacksmith who outwitted the devil and was, after death, rejected by both heaven and hell. Faced with the prospect of no resting place, this lost spirit set a live coal in a carved out turnip (the common large root vegetable of the time) and carried this “lantern” to light his wanderings until the Judgement Day. Here is a clear connection to the All Hallows Eve visits of the dead.


This Irish recipe typifies the cake of Soul-cake, and is another of those cakes in which a fortune-telling token is hidden. In some a gold ring is baked in it, and the lucky recipient is to be married within the following year. Obviously this is a cake for a gathering of young un-marrieds. Barm Brack is used throughout the year, but particularly at Halloween.

Barm Brack; From Theodora Fitzgibbon, A Taste of Ireland, London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1944, 1994

  • 4 cups flour
  • 1 cup milk, room temperature
  • 11/4 cup sultanas (white raisins)
  • 2 heaping tablespoons butter
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 cake yeast
  • 1 cup dried currants
  • 1/2 cup candied orange peel
  • 3/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 egg
  • Sift flour, spices, and salt together, then rub in the butter. Cream the yeast with 1 teaspoon of the sugar and 1 teaspoon of the milk. Allow to froth.
  • Add the rest of the sugar to the flour mixture and blend well. Add the milk and beaten egg onto the yeast mixture and combine with flour mixture.
  • Beat well with a spoon or with the dough hook of an electric mixer for about 5 minutes, or until stiff but elastic.
  • Fold in dried fruit and peel, cover with a cloth and let rise in a warm place until doubled.
  • Divide in half and place each in a greased 7” cake tin. Cover and let rise again for 30 minutes.
  • Bake in a 400 degree oven for about 1 hour, or until it tests done.
  • Glaze top with 1 tablespoon sugar dissolved in 2 tablespoons boiling water and return to oven for 3 minutes.
  • Cool on wire rack. Serve in slices, buttered. If stale, toast and serve buttered.

When the Irish arrived in America in the middle nineteenth-century they carried with them their Halloween lore and the turnip’s place in the holiday. But here they found pumpkins in abundance, larger, far more dramatic, already hollow and better suited to carving and lighting from within, and the pumpkin became the logical successor to the turnip. And so it was the Irish who inadvertently got the carved pumpkin going, the “Jack o’Lantern,” and along with it, the place of pumpkin pie as an essential element of the holiday’s table.

Of course one cannot discuss Halloween food without the pranks: In the name of “evil spirits” abroad, Halloween became the once-a-year time of legitimized juvenile vandalism! By the late nineteenth-century babies were mixed up in their carriages, fence gates and garbage pails were of necessity brought inside to security. Root cellars, barns, and poultry houses were locked and kitchen gardens cleared of anything worth salvaging, including the pumpkins that might have been smashed if left outside. (As so many northern areas had already experienced frost, most of the edibles had already been taken indoors anyway.) One was lucky to get home without being pummeled with socks that had been filled with flour, and that imparted a healthy “sock;” sometimes people were pelted with eggs and tomatoes. Youngsters carried colored chalks to mark each other’s clothing, and there was no safety on the streets. Perhaps it was a self-defense measure that inspired the creation of Halloween parties, often as costume affairs, as well as the organized “trick or treat” forays we still know. “Chicken Feed” and “Candy-Corn” candies were, of course, promoted as a Halloween specialty (although it is available year-round today). For a long time UNICEF supplied youngsters with special identifiable cartons to solicit money for disadvantaged children around the world, either instead of or alongside candy, but the candy frenzy has won out. Sadly, the home-made cupcakes and cookies, candied apples, peanut brittle and fudge that were the early prizes of a neighborhood visitation have given way to fears and the convenience of commercial candies, sealed, wrapped, and protected against tampering.

Perhaps today it is worth a moment to reflect on the pathways of civilizations and the times, long past, when apples, nuts, turnips and pumpkins were the symbols of eternal human concerns. It has been a long journey to the Halloween of today, during which most of the meaning and the cookery has been lost.

Alice Ross brings 25 years as a dedicated food professional teacher, writer, researcher and collector to her Hearth Studios, at which she teaches workshops in various aspects of hearth, woodstove and brick oven cookery. She has served as consultant in historical food for such noted museums as Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg and The Lowell National Historical Park in Massachusetts. Ross wrote her doctoral dissertation in food history at the State University at Stony Brook. Currently, she is involved in a major kitchen report on Rock Hall Museum, a 1770’s Georgian mansion on Long Island. Dr. Ross’ e-mail address is Her web site is

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