Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortals ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore?”
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!” —
Merely this, and nothing more. – Edgar Allan Poe
Horror tales, vampires, ghouls, candy, jack-o-lanterns, and spooky music all have their place in modern Halloween traditions. There is something special about Halloween that helps us look at the world as a magical place – one where tales of ghosts and urban legends just might be true. Here on Washington Street, we love Halloween, but you know we can’t make it through a holiday without thinking about the foods that go along with it.
Alas, other than candy bars and milk chocolate, Halloween does not seem to have a rich association with food that so many of our other holidays do. However, since Halloween was originally a harvest celebration, we thought there must be some food traditions involved. We decided to take a look through the history books to see what we could discover.
Halloween is our modern American rendition of several ancient celebrations. The mystical phenomena of Halloween come almost directly from the Celtic night of Samhain, when it is said that recently departed souls could travel to the next realm. As northern Europe converted to Christianity in the third and fourth century, the mystical elements of Samhain remained in the forms of divination and fortune telling. These supernatural elements, combined with the timing of the autumn harvest, make food a perfect medium to celebrate both traditions.
In Ireland, and Celtic regions of Britian, Barmbrack is one of the most important Halloween food traditions. Barmbrack is a fruit-filled bread that is steeped in fortune-telling lore. Along with fruit, the bread contains a variety of tokens, such as a coins, rings, rags, thimbles, or straw. Your future, from marriage to a poor harvest, could be foretold based on what token your piece of bread contained. It was not just the living who depended on Halloween traditions for good fortune, though.
Soul cakes may be the original trick-or-treat snack. More precisely, they are small currant breads that would be given to beggars. In exchange for the cakes, the beggars would say prayers for recently deceased loved ones, helping to usher them into heaven.
No Irish food tradition would be complete without potatoes. The combination of harvest festival and mysticism coalesces in Colcannon. Colcannon is a dish of whipped potatoes and kale, that, like Barmbrack could hold charms that would divine your future.
The American Halloween is descended from these European celebrations, but Dia de los Muertos is, perhaps, the most well known relative of Halloween. Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a celebration of those who have passed on. Temporary altars are erected to honor the lives and spirits of loved ones. Most altars include offerings of food and drinks, decorations, and objects that represent the soul of the beloved. Pan de Muerto, a Day of the Dead bread, is a traditional centerpiece of the altar. It is a sweet bread, either shaped like, or decorated with shapes made to look like bones.
Hot chocolate is also a common offering associated with Dia de los Muertos. The cacao bush is native to Central America, where the beans are stone ground, mixed with spices, and simmered with milk. There are several variations on this, and regional differences can be quite pronounced. In most situations, though, the ultimate goal is to honor and appreciate those loved ones who have left this realm.
The undercurrent of the supernatural may be the most obvious thread that holds us to the ancient practices. Food traditions, however, are present, and bond us to our neighbors and ancestors. But lest we forget, Halloween would not be complete without a little scare. In the words of Vincent Price, “It’s as much fun to scare as to be scared.”