Halloween Special: Food fit for a witch

Preparing for tomorrow

Ready for carving

Hurrah, Halloween is nearly upon us! I am a huge fan of Halloween – I love the weather at this time of year, the food, the costume parties (though admittedly it has been a few years since I last went to one), all of it. I feel about Halloween the same way a number of my friends do about Christmas. I will in fact be hosting a Halloween dinner party tomorrow, and thinking about Halloween food prompted me to write a blog post.

There don’t appear to have been many foods associated with Halloween (a.k.a All Hallow’s tide, Hallountide, Hollontide and many more variations) or All Soul’s Day during this period. I found a few references to the day itself during an extremely unsystematic poke around EEBO – a proverb suggestion that people to “Set trees at Allhallontide and command them to prosper: Set them after Candlemas and entreat them to grow” (John Ray, A collection of English proverbs. 1670), and a mention in Hollinshed’s chronicle: “In this eighteenth yeare of Kyng Henryes raigne, on all hallowen day, or first of November, great lightning, thunder, and suche a hayle storme chaunced, that the people were maruellously amased therewith” (Raphael Holinshed, The firste [laste] volume of the chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande. 1577). Evidently then it was a day people were familiar with. Here’s a particularly interesting mention which hints at the supernatural elements of the day, albeit in a very religious context:

Wee read (quoth the Author of the booke called Sermones discipuli de tempore that in old time good people would on All-hallowen day take bread and deale for all Christen soules. And one good Woman a widdow, who had in store but three pecks of flower, did make it all into loaues and deale it, saying to them that receiued it, Remember to pray for the soule of my Mother. And one of them praying very earnestly for the soule of this good Womans Mother, her Mother appeared vnto her and told her, my daughter by her charitie and thou by thy good prayers hast now helped me out of Purgatory; Tell my daughter that shee sell her Cow and goe presently to Rome to the Popes Holines for a Pardon for her sinnes, and then shee may be eased of such paines as I haue indured: which being told to her daughter, shee reioyced much and did as shee was bidden, and went to Rome, and had Indulgence. And the Pope by divine revelation knew before shee came of all that had happened to her.

John Gee, New shreds of the old snare. 1624

The bread in question appears to just be ordinary bread, however, so I can’t find any recipes that refer to it directly as being bread for this occasion. Ronald Hutton talks about “Soul-mass cakes” in The Stations of the Sun as being a food associated with All Soul’s Day, so I had a look for that and found only a dictionary entry: “Soul-Mass-Cakes, still given (in some places) to the poor on All-souls day” (Elisha Coles, An English Dictionary. 1677). There were no recipes. They were apparently a kind of oaten cake, so I tried looking for oat cake recipes and found one in Hannah Woolley that didn’t even involve any oats! Just flour and water, so not terribly exciting, and no evidence that this was similar to a “soul mass cake” at all. 

In the absence of any “Halloween food” as such, I’ve decided to get a little fanciful and revisit a favourite subject of mine by looking at the kinds of foods eaten by those characters that at least in modern times we associate with Halloween: witches. 

I have mentioned food and witchcraft before, and I think it’s an endlessly interesting subject – where does the line between recipe and spell lie? Food as medicine was immensely popular in the 16th and 17th centuries – when do you stop being a cook and start being a healer, or indeed a witch? Food features quite heavily in two very well known “witchcraft plays”, so I thought we’d take a look…

Firstly, let’s look at Thomas Middleton’s The Witch. As there’s no EEBO copy I’m using this edition. This is one I’ve mentioned before, in one of my very first posts actually. Hecate, the witch, is always eating something unpleasant. The play begins, as they often do, with a wedding feast – prompting one character to say “Here’s a marriage sweetly honoured in gorged stomachs And overflowing cups!” (1.1.35). One of those overflowing cups is in fact a skull which the Duke forces his new bride to drink from, never mind that it “was once her father’s head” (1.1.117). Before the witch has even turned up, food related things are looking pretty macabre. Hecate’s magical arts generally involve boiling up one disgusting thing after another, roasting corpses by the fire, and seeking revenge through spoiling food: “I’ll mar their syllabubs and frothy feastings” (I.2.65). For love charms, she suggests lampreys, which were commonly eaten around this time (go ahead and google them if you want a proper Halloween fright!) or the bones of a green frog (1.2.209). Her customer offers her “a toad in marchpane” and suggests that she enjoys “fried rats and pickled spiders” (1.2.224). Witches, it seems, are keen on eating some rather odd things. The last line of this scene is particularly interesting though, the witch’s customer has elected to join her for dinner, since she says that she can provide “the best meat i’th’ whole province” (1.2.225), and her son Firestone has this to say:

How apt and ready is a drunkard now to reel to the devil! Well, I’ll even in and see how he eats; and I’ll be hanged if I be not the fatter of the two from laughing at him! (1.2.232)

The message is pretty clear – indulge yourself too much in food and drink, and you’ll be easy pickings for witches!

At the risk of repeating myself, I want to mention Act 3 Scene I of Heywood and Brome’s The Late Lancashire Witches (1634) once again. I am a little bit obsessed with this scene, evidently! It’s a wedding feast, but some spirits come along and wreck havoc on it. First, a spirit turns the bridal cake into bran, then a leg of mutton becomes a horn, and all the food is transformed or, as it turns out, teleported away. Just as the guests are all getting increasingly annoyed and alarmed, two of the witches appear to clarify the situation:

O husband, O guests, O sonne, O Gentlemen, such a chance in a Kitchin was never heard of, all the meat is flowne out o’ the chimney top I thinke, and nothing instead of it, but Snakes, Bats, Frogs, Beetles, Hornets, and Humble-bees; all the Sallets are turn’d to Iewes-eares, Mushromes, and Puck fists; and all the Custards into Cow sheards!

Later we see the witches them eating all the food, although it is interesting to see that they don’t get much enjoyment out of the food itself, despite being delighted with their trick. When Mistress Generous says “This meat is tedious, now some Farie, Fetch what belongs unto the Dairie” she seems more excited about the prospect of stealing what belongs to someone else than actually eating. The boy suggests this too with the line “Meat lie there, for thou hast no taste, and drinke there, for thou hast no relish, for in neither of them is there either salt or savour”.

It’s hard not to read this all as, at least partly, some kind of comment on the immorality of excess. Greed is a sin, after all, and one which leaves you vulnerable. Too much overindulgence can perhaps leave you unsatisfied, dulling the senses. It’s all rather reminiscent of the story of Hansel and Gretel, isn’t it? It was their eagerness to eat the gingerbread house that led them into the witch’s lair, and then she in turn tried to eat them. The link between food, overindulgence, cannibalism and witchcraft was clearly still around in the 19th century, and the idea of witches wanting to eat people (particularly children) is still common today.

Perhaps I ought to rethink my plans for a feast after all…

Happy Halloween everyone!

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