Cover

HALLOWEEN SPECIAL

I spy a cookie monster

Shabnam Minwalla | Updated on October 30, 2020 Published on October 30, 2020

Say cheese: Most traditional Halloween foods are replete with symbolism   -  ISTOCK.COM

This Halloween, try wheedling unfriendly spirits into good humour with pumpkin pies or toffee apples

* Well before Starbucks discovered pumpkin spice and American confectioners discovered the marketing magic of black and orange candies, Halloween was a time of sugar and spooks

* Over the centuries, soul cakes evolved into another Halloween staple — an Irish bread called barmbrack. This bread is rich with fruit as well as charms

* Marshmallow ghosties, boiled sweet eyeballs and chewy skulls will have filled the shops in the US at the moment

It didn’t matter that the acronym hadn’t yet been born when I was a teenager. Every single year, like clockwork, a sullen cloud of FOMO (fear of missing out) arrived alongside the shadowy evenings of October.

Here I was, sitting in Bombay, studying for my terminal exams. While everybody else — or so it seemed — was gearing up for horror-filled times. The doomed blonde in the latest slasher film. The residents of Riverdale in my Archie comics. The bears and bumble bees in my old picture books. Just about everyone was daubing themselves with fake blood, carving pumpkins and wandering the neat streets of small-town America, tricking and treating and amassing a pile of sweet, sticky goodies.

I adored sweet, sticky treats. But even more than that, I adored ghouls and goosebump-inducing encounters. Naturally then, I wanted a piece of Halloween, which effortlessly mixed and matched these disparate elements into a single evening.

Well before Starbucks discovered pumpkin spice and American confectioners discovered the marketing magic of black and orange candies, Halloween was a time of sugar and spooks. The festival borrowed heavily from pagan traditions that held that every year, between October 31 and November 2, the veil between this world and the next was especially flimsy. This allowed restless spirits to slip from the world of the dead into the world of the living. You needed to protect yourself, which is why you donned creepy costumes to out-spook the spooks. And stocked cake and candy as a second round of defence — to wheedle unfriendly spirits into good humour.

I wasted many teenage hours thinking about grumpy travellers from the other world, as well as toffee apple and pumpkin pie. Still, when I finally found myself in the middle of an American Halloween, it was a letdown. I spent the evening dressed as a black cat (unimaginative, but low-cost), hanging out with a bunch of wine-swigging witches, Draculas and evil clowns. But there wasn’t a nasty spectre or soul cake in sight.

Clearly my hostess didn’t know that the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America declared that “On that night it was traditional to give soul cakes to visitors to their households in return for promises to say prayers on behalf of dead relatives. They also put lanterns made from vegetables in the windows to welcome ghosts and wandering souls... By the twentieth century, Halloween parties for both children and adults had become a common way to mark the day... Candies made in the shape of corn kernels and pumpkins commemorated the harvest season.”

Most traditional Halloween foods are replete with symbolism. Apples and nuts were believed to have prophetic powers and played important roles in various games. Which was why October 31 was also referred to as Nut Crack Night and Snap Apple Night. Similarly, soul cakes were meant both for the bad-tempered dead and for the hungry trick-or-treaters.

It’s a pity that these cakes have fallen out of fashion, but you can be venturesome and take a crack at this recipe from a cookbook compiled by Lady Elinor Fettiplace around 1604: “Take flower & sugar & nutmeg & cloves & mace & sweet butter & sack & a little ale barme, beat your spice, & put in your butter & your sack, cold, then work it well all together, & make it in little cakes, & so bake them, if you will you may put in some saffron into them and fruit”.

Over the centuries, soul cakes evolved into another Halloween staple — an Irish bread called barmbrack. This bread is rich with fruit as well as charms. Each charm has a meaning: A coin promises that you will be rich; a ring that you will marry soon; a stick that you will marry unhappily, and so on. Sadly, barmbrack, too, has been bumped out by frozen pies and mass-produced candies. By the 1920s, wrote Jane Eddington in Chicago Tribune (October 1921), the American shops were heaving with “a profusion, even a confusion, of candies in orange and black. There were orange gumdrops, orange jelly beans, orange buttercups, and chips and hard candies. And there were black gumdrops and jelly beans and buttons and all possible devices that were ever seen in black candies...”

From then on, the Halloween jamboree has only become ghostlier and ghastlier. Marshmallow ghosties, boiled sweet eyeballs and chewy skulls will have filled the shops in the US at the moment. While these fancies aren’t freely available in Mumbai, we can do just as well with a little creativity.

My three daughters are November and December babies, which made it easy to link birthday parties to Halloween. And to serve monster cookies, ghost-shaped dosas with sliced olives for eyes, and little jellies concealing black plastic spiders. My favourite trick, though, was to cut large eyes out of old magazines and to stick them to the bottom of transparent glasses. These glasses were then filled with raspberry soda (Blood Fizz) and served to my small guests. You should have heard the squeals and screams when the little girls drained their glasses and spotted a single eye goggling at them from the bottom of the glass.

Finally, I felt I had found my Halloween.

PS: I managed to sample toffee apple at an amusement park in California. It felt like too much apple and too much mess.

PPS: Halloween remains my favourite event of the year. I’ve just finished writing a horror book, and a chunk of the action takes place on Halloween in the Dadar area of Mumbai. There are no pumpkin pies or corn candies in evidence, but I do guarantee a genuine ghost.

Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and author

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

Published on October 30, 2020
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor