By Cynthia LeJeune Nobles
I read somewhere that before the 1950s, the typical rural Louisiana child did not go trick-or-treating.
An extremely unscientific survey of a few older friends reveals that this is probably true.
There were, however, whisperings that kids in large towns roamed streets and went home with candy that was actually bought from a grocery store. And countless newspaper reports from as early as the 1800s divulge that ritzy Halloween parties had been going on in Louisiana’s larger cities. But for most country folks, October 31 was just another day — when farmers cut last crops, stored equipment, finagled over commodity prices, and prepared cattle for winter.
It’s no coincidence that Halloween falls near harvesttime. Halloween’s roots began 2,000 years ago in Ireland, where every November 1 the Celts held a harvest festival called Sahmain. Since the Celtic day began and ended at sunset, celebrations began the day before, on October 31.
These Irish also believed that on that day of celebration the dead returned to earth. So, in addition to storing grain and rounding up livestock for winter, the Celts wore grotesque masks to scare away spirits. To placate any ghosts that may have slipped in, they left offerings of food that they begged from neighbors.
The Romans, too, held a harvest festival, theirs dedicated to Pomona, the goddess of tree fruits, especially apples. To steer Catholics away from these pagan rituals, the seventh century Pope Boniface IV declared November 1 All Saints Day, also known as All Hallows Day. The evening before became Hallows Eve, and eventually Halloween.
Meanwhile, back in Ireland, the celebrations were often rowdy. When the Irish came to America, they brought their Halloween custom, which often took the form of pranks.
It was the Irish who first carved spooky faces in common vegetables of the season, particularly turnips and pumpkins. The pranksters also dragged cabbages tied with string through fields to terrorize travelers. It wasn’t uncommon for farmers to come home to toppled wagons and outhouses, gates off hinges, and livestock on barn roofs. The vandalism was also common in large cities, especially up north, where arson occasionally broke out.
In Louisiana cities in the early 1900s, fun-loving young adults went door-to-door promising not to do tricks if they got treats. But there was usually rowdiness, too, even in smaller towns, with houses splatted with rotten eggs and eggs filled with paint. Garbage cans and outdoor furniture would be tipped over, and anything else not tied down was stolen.
Although Louisiana’s farm kids didn’t do much trick-or-treating, some certainly did the prank part.
One particularly ghoulish rural trick was to leave coffins filled with wooden skeletons on doorsteps, which often frightened superstitious families out of their houses.
I can’t help but wonder if another skin-crawling horror may have kept rural residents locked inside on Halloween night. Our state’s infamous Rougarou is supposedly a shapeshifting, 8-foot-tall, half-man, half-wolf monster that roams our swamps. Many early Cajuns were afraid of the mythical beast every night of the year. But it stands to reason they would have been especially petrified on Halloween. (In honor of Louisiana’s homegrown monster, the town of Houma holds a Rougarou Festival every year in late October.)
The two world wars tamed America’s Halloween mischief. In the 1950s Halloween came back less dangerous, with a focus on children and candy. This sanitized version seemed to touch everyone, even rural Louisiana.
It’s hard to tie today’s Halloween celebrations with the holiday’s strong agrarian roots. In addition to pails overflowing with candy, October 31 has grown into a time for extravagant, sometimes racy adult costume parties. For many, it’s the unofficial start of the Christmas shopping season. For others it’s a day to binge on horror movies.
Unbelievably, Halloween is America’s second-largest commercial holiday. And we spend around $2.6 billion just on candy.
In my childhood, we kids out in the country certainly went trick-or-treating. But things were much simpler. Come October 31, most everyone under the age of 12 who lived up and down our then-gravel highway would dig through closets and transform ourselves into witches, princesses, devils, and farmers. (The latter would not take much effort.) Around twilight, our mothers would pack us into family station wagons and drive us down neighboring gravel roads to beg for homemade popcorn balls, cookies, and fudge. If we were lucky, we’d score a Baby Ruth. Or maybe chewing gum.
Our fathers couldn’t do the chauffer honors because they would be tired from a long day baling hay. Or they might have been cutting ratoon, “stubble,” their “second crop” of rice.
They had been busy harvesting, doing the activity that started the Halloween tradition.
Sweet Potato Soup with Cheesy Ghost Croutons
Makes 4 servings
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
½ cup chopped onion
3 cups chicken broth
1½ cups cooked, mashed sweet potato (canned is fine)
½ cup tomato sauce
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons honey
¾ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
4 slices white bread
4 slices Monterey Jack, White Cheddar, or provolone cheese, cut in half
Pitted black olives, cut into thin slices
1. Preheat oven to 400°F. Heat oil in a large heavy saucepan and sauté onion until translucent, Stir in remaining soup ingredients, except for lime juice. Bring to a boil and reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, 10 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in lime juice.
2. Meanwhile, cut 8 ghost shapes from the 4 slices bread, and 8 pieces of cheese slightly larger than the bread shapes. Place bread “ghosts” on a foil-lined cookie sheet. Top each with a piece of cheese. Cut the olives to resemble mouths and eyes and arrange them in a face pattern on top of the cheese. Bake until cheese is melted, about 2-3 minutes.
3. Puree soup with an immersion blender or in a blender. Ladle into bowls and top with croutons. Serve immediately.
Makes 2 loaves
I have a prolific persimmon tree, and I puree and freeze the overabundance for later use. If you have a hard time finding persimmons, pumpkin works just fine.
2 cups pureed persimmon or cooked pumpkin
1 stick unsalted butter, melted
½ cup vegetable oil
4 eggs, at room temperature
⅔ cup bourbon, or water plus 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
3½ cups all-purpose flour
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons baking soda
1½ teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon each cinnamon and allspice
1½ cups chopped pecans or walnuts
1½ cups raisins or dried cranberries
1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Oil 2 loaf pans and dust with flour. In a medium bowl, mix together the persimmon, butter, oil, eggs, and bourbon. Set aside.
2. In a large bowl, use a fork to mix together the flour, sugar, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and allspice. Stir the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients until there are no traces of dry flour. Stir in the pecans and raisins.
3. Divide the batter between the 2 pans. Bake until the center springs up when touched lightly, about 1 hour, or until a temperature probe inserted into the middle reads 190°F. Remove from pans and cool on a rack at least 30 minutes.
Sweet Dough Monster Cookies
Makes 6 dozen. Adapted from a recipe by Loretta Miller of Iota.
If you can’t find candy eyes use drops of icing or an edible marker to make eyes out of Skittles or M&Ms.
¾ cup whole milk
2 large eggs
½ teaspoon vanilla
4½ cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon each cinnamon and ground nutmeg
2½ cups sugar
1 stick salted butter, softened
Gel food coloring to color the dough
A small tube of dark writing icing or an edible black marker
1. In a small bowl, use a fork to beat together the milk, eggs, and vanilla. In a large bowl, use a fork to mix together the flour, baking powder, soda, cinnamon, and nutmeg. In another large bowl beat together the sugar and butter until well combined, about 3 minutes with a fork or 2 minutes with beaters.
2. Beat the milk mixture into the sugar mixture. Gradually add the flour mixture and beat until well combined. Divide the batter between 2 bowls. To make your desired colors, add enough of one food coloring to one bowl and another color to the other. Dough will be sticky. Cover tops of bowls with plastic wrap and refrigerate the batters at least 2 hours. In the meantime, decorate your “eyes” if you’re not using pre-made.
3. Preheat oven to 375°F. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Roll the dough out to ¼ inch on a hard, well-floured surface covered with parchment paper. Cut out cookies with a round 2- or 2½-inch cutter. Place cookies 1 inch apart. For soft cookies bake 9-10 minutes. For crisper cookies bake 11-13 minutes. As soon as you remove cookies from the oven, press in the eyes.
4. Cool cookies thoroughly on a rack, then squeeze on the mouths with the icing. Keeps 4-5 days in an airtight container.
Cynthia LeJeune Nobles
Cynthia Nobles is the cookbook editor for LSU Press and the author/co-author of several historical cookbooks, including A Confederacy of Dunces Cookbook, The Delta Queen Cookbook, and The Fonville Winans Cookbook.