Halloween and Fresh Produce

25th October 2016

Halloween is believed to have originated from an Irish festival known as Samhain which marked the passage between the summer harvest and the dark of winter. It marked the time of either the slaughter of or gathering in of livestock and the moment where an inventory was taken of the stocks from the harvest for the winter. It also happened the day before the date (November first) when the Celts believed that the spirits of the people that had died during the year moved on to the other worlds. On this date the Celts believed the ghosts mingled freely with the living souls.

It was tradition to burn huge bonfires in fields and there was a superstition that the fairy spirits would then be lurking in the shadows. To distract these spirits from entering houses people would carve rudimentary faces into large turnips or potatoes and put candles inside them. This, in theory cautioned, any passing fairies from entering the buildings and helped light the roads for travellers (win-win as we’d say in modern times).

The carved vegetables are called Jack O’Lanterns due to an old Irish folklore tale about a man named Stingy Jack who took on the devil and ultimately lost. Legend has it that denied entry to either heaven or the underworld his spirit roamed the countryside carrying the lump of burning coal the devil gave him in a hollowed out turnip.

So, between being the stocktake at the end of harvests, taking the burning off of summer crop fields a little too far and using vegetables to ward off spirits Halloween/Samhain was already intrinsically linked to produce.

Then Irish immigrants arriving in North America discovered the pumpkin and the deal was sealed.

Pumpkins have been grown in North America for 5000 years and are native to the Western Hemisphere. They are widely used in the states to flavour pies, puddings, soups and breads.

Pumpkin seeds should be planted between the end of May and mid-June. They take between 90 and 120 days to grow and by October are bright orange and ready to pick. This October harvest made them the obvious choice for the carved vegetable lights to ward off spirits in this new Halloween version of Samhain in America.

Pumpkins are low in calories, fat and sodium and high in fibre. They contain Vitamin A, B and potassium and are a good source of protein and iron. Americans are right to cook so much with them! Interestingly enough though the variety that makes the best Jack O’ Lanterns (Howden) is not the best eating variety as it is chosen for carving due to its thick stem and shallow flesh in relation to size. Sugar pie, Kaboucha and Carnival are harder to carve but make for much better eating.

So, despite the fact that it’s not really about the pumpkin itself it is nice that Halloween does involve celebrating a vegetable little eaten in the UK and that produce finds itself at the centre of the festivities. After all, crops and the feeding of populations does really govern us and our world rather than (as we tend to believe nowadays) the other way round!

I for one am definitely thinking I should try and do something inventive with my discarded pumpkin flesh this year…