A lot on the plates of the superstitious

There's a whole caldron of foods that have a stirring history of spooking us out


Double, double, toil and trouble! Fire burn and caldron bubble! There's nothing like the familiar words of William Shakespeare to get us in the Halloween spirit.

But ever wonder why Shakespeare decided to add a dash of eye of newt and toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog in the caldron? Obviously not to entice his guests to chow down. So why conjure up such a delightful mixture? Superstition, of course.

Superstitions and food have gone hand in hand for ages. Barry Swanson, a food historian at Washington State University, says that not only was garlic used in the past "to keep the werewolves away," but also to "exorcise worms and other ghastly things from the body."

According to Lewis Spence, a late-19th and early-20th century author of various books on mythology, the occult and folklore, the ancient Egyptians used garlic to dispel evil spirits.

They believed that young children could be killed in their sleep by a vampirelike ghost that sucked their breaths. The children were instructed to wear wreaths of garlic around their necks for protection. The ancient Egyptians also believed that the consumption of onions and eggs promised fertility.

The ancient Romans are credited with the practice of "ducking" (commonly known as "bobbing") for apples, a Halloween tradition still practiced today. Their goddess of fruit, Pomona, was honored during a yearly festival held near Oct. 31. It was custom for Romans to offer nuts and apples in hopes of having a "fruitful" crop-harvesting season.

But while Egypt and Rome are sources of food superstitions, neither compares to the deeply rooted food festivities of the Irish. A popular dish served at the dinner table on All Hallow's Eve was colcannon. Consisting of mashed potatoes, parsnips and chopped onions, the dish had a ring, thimble and china doll baked into it. The finder of each trinket would be rewarded with the promise of marriage, children or spinster status in their futures.

Picking cabbages is another Irish pastime in which the children would partake while romping through fields blindfolded. The size and shape of the seized vegetable was thought to determine the appearance of the future spouse.

The modern-day jack-o'-lantern also has its roots in Irish soil. The activity of pumpkin-carving began from an old Irish tradition intended to "keep away the evil spirits," says Swanson. Instead of pumpkins (the Irish did not have them at the time), the Celts opted to use hollowed-out turnips, rutabagas and potatoes. From a distance, when a lit candle was placed inside, "they looked like skulls coming at you," says Conrad Bladey, Linthicum-based author of The Irish Customs of Halloween.

Irish folklore tells us that "Jack," a notorious, stingy drunk, had a run-in with the devil one evening. He was barred from both heaven and hell for foolery. So Jack lit a coal and placed it inside a turnip to light his way as he was condemned to forever roam the earth.

Boxty - round, flat cakes made with raw potatoes, cooked mashed potatoes and flour - was another favorite Irish treat served near Halloween. The chant that accompanied the dish, "Boxty on the griddle, boxty in the pan. If you don't eat boxty, you'll never get a man," was intended to provide women with the hope of future marriage engagements.

Bladey explains the tradition of eating boxty: "If you wanted your kid to get married, they couldn't be scrawny."

The practice of trick-or-treating began with the English. They'd trek from door to door, throughout towns, and go "soul-caking," or "souling" - begging for small buns in remembrance of the dead. The donors of the cakes were promised extra prayers for their dead relatives. Such superstitions involving food were thought up to "help people get through the hard times," says Bladey. These tales were initiated "as a way of self-preservation," he adds.

Food superstitions

Rice: The contemporary custom of throwing rice at weddings, as a symbol of peace and prosperity, stemmed from a time when people thought rice would appease the evil spirits so they would not bother the newlyweds.

Salt: A Hungarian tradition, salt is thrown on the threshold of a new house to protect the inhabitants from evil spirits.

Mustard Seed: Superstitious Europeans sprinkled mustard seed on the roofs of their homes to keep away vampires.

Beans: During Japan's festival of Setsuben, beans are scattered in dark corners and entrances of the home to drive out evil spirits.


Traditional Boxty Cakes

Makes 12

1/2 pound hot cooked potatoes

1/2 pound grated raw potatoes

2 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking soda



1 1/2 cups buttermilk

3 to 4 tablespoons butter for frying

Drain, peel and mash the hot potatoes. Stir in the raw potatoes, flour and baking soda. Add salt and pepper to taste. Mix well with enough buttermilk to make a stiff batter. Shape into 3-inch patties, about 1/4 inch thick. Fry in butter on hot, greased griddle until crispy and golden on both sides.

Per serving: 197 calories; 5 grams protein; 4 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 36 grams carbohydrate; 2 grams fiber; 9 milligrams cholesterol; 384 milligrams sodium

--Courtesy of Conrad Bladey

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