Friday, October 16, 2009

How Sweet it is (or was): the Foods of Halloween History

One of our favorite ways to mark our holidays in this world is through food. In almost every culture, we designate some foods to be prepared primarily only once in the year. In America roasted turkey is reserved primarily for Thanksgiving, and until recently marshmallow Peeps could only be found at Easter. Pepernoten cookies were a Dutch favorite, and my Swedish family always made tiny pepparkokar cookies at Christmas.

This practice gives an importance to both the holiday and the food itself. The exclusivity of the food gave it additional value, while anticipation of the treat among your festivities differentiated the holiday from any old Saturday night. Seeing Peeps appear at my local drugstore was a reminder of all of the things I associated with Easter (which, to this 6-year-old, meant candy and an egg-hunt). Halloween through history has been no exception.

Since it falls at harvest time, many foods that were associated with Halloween were our traditional fall vegetables: squashes, pumpkins, corn or popped-corn, and crisp fall apples. Even cabbage was used in a fortune-telling game called "kaling."

Many of these foods were used for decoration. The jack-o-lantern image at left goes back to 1875. Dry cornstalks or colorful ears of corn have been porch decorations as long as I can remember. And the strange squash men depicted in th 20th century Halloween card above seem to have been a popular theme on printed materials--though I have yet to see anyone try to make one of these rather scarey little guys in any historic photographs.

Apples were also very important to a number of games, edible treats, and fortune-telling activities. Since Halloween comes right in the wake of the apple harvest, this is also a practical association. Candied apples have been around since at least 1908, when they were sold along the New Jersey shore. But they were also used in bobbing for apples, no-hands apple eating contests (depicted at right), and fortune-telling games. Children hoped that if you peeled an apple in one long strip and threw it over your shoulder, the letter that it formed when it fell was to be the first letter of your future husband:

Last night 'twas witching hallowe'en,
Dearest; and apple russet-brown
I pared, and thrice above me crown
Whirled the long skin; they watchen it keen;
I flung it far; they laughed and cried me shame--
Dearest, there lay the letter of your name!

--"The Charms," Emma A. Opper, 1903

Halloween cakes began showing up at parties in the 20th century. With the easy availability of refined white flour and sugar, frosted cakes acheived widespread popularity. By baking little charms into the cakes, you could "predict" the future of the person who encountered that charm in their piece. For instance, the lucky girl who got the piece with the ring baked into her cake could expect an early marriage. Hopefully participants in this game chewed with care.

Since fall is the time of the nut harvest, nuts were also the focus of a number of fortune games. Setting two nuts in front of a fire and watching to see if the heat made them split from one another was hoped to depict whether you and a sweetie would marry. The nourishing treat could be found in many home-made candies of the day.

Of course, to a 21st century child, Halloween means one food, and one food only--CANDY! The central activity of our modern Halloween has become Trick-or-treating. This has been going on since about the 1930s, when Tootsie Rolls, Marry Janes, and Squirrel (makers of Squirrel Nut Zippers) were top-brand candies. And really, what is a holiday without some candy attached to it?
Candy corn--we're back to that fall vegetable thing again--has been around since about 1895. The same multi-color technology was also used to make other candy in vegetable shapes like pumpkins or radishes. Chicklets gum goes back to the same time period. The exotic goodness of cocunut was added to many products in the first half of the 20th century. And beginning as early as the 19th century, chocolate candies were also associated with cooler weather since the treat was so susceptible to melting.
Food is one of the best ways to get a personal involvement with history. When I encountered C Howards violet mints last week (in packaging alluringly unchanged since their introduction in 1934), I immediately bought a package. I was suprised by the unusual flavor to say the least. But I could not fight the pull towards this little culinary time capsule.

In a 2003 NPR interview, author Beth Kimmerle had the following to say about her book Candy: the Sweet History: "Candy is with us at very special moments -- we have candy at movies, we have candy at Easter, and we have candy at significant holidays like Valentine's Day. People want those memories again, they want to be able to relive those days... They're remembering their lives through candy."
Why not try a little history yourself by unwrapping a tasty treat this month?
Curious about some of your specific candy favorites? Try Beth Kimmerle's books, visit her blog, or visit this retro candy online store to learn more.

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