How did pumpkins feed into Halloween?

Scary cut-out masks and comic carved faces are everywhere at Halloween – and mostly made from pumpkins these days in Britain.  But that wasn’t always the way: it’s a fairly recent ‘tradition’ that goes back only a few decades when the American celebration of Halloween found its way back to this side of the Atlantic.  It’s origins were here anyway, so in some senses it’s a return to the homeland.

Halloween, at the time when the first settlers in the US, was a popular feast commemorating the dead at the feast of All Souls, and so naturally emigrants took their traditions with them over there while we, here, let it fade for a few centuries.

In America Halloween thrived and to the observance was added the legend of Will o’ the Wisp, or Jack o’ Lantern, stories of strange and unexplained ghostly lights on distant fields on dark nights, fired up by stories of the undead, or fellows like Jack who made pacts with the devil who were then forced to range the earth forever with only a feeble light to guide them.  In Ireland, turnips were hollowed out into ‘heads’ with a coal lighting up the cut-out eyes and mouth; they took the idea to the States where, very soon, native pumpkins replaced rock-hard turnips.

Meanwhile pumpkin seeds were brought to Europe and slowly entered the food chain, and then the Halloween scene – and here we are today, with huge fields dedicated each year to growing thee plump orange vegetables, most of which end up as rough-out faces rather than any sort of food.

But stop!  It’s possible to do both!  Use that pumpkin flesh!  It makes delicious food – soup, pies, stir-fries and much more besides.  My favourite is soup, largely because it’s perfect for Halloween:  warming and comforting after all that scary stuff. And it’s well-behaved and easy to make.  You can make it in advance, leave it to go cold, heat it through three days later, cook it for an hour, even two, it doesn’t matter:  it’ll bear all sorts of treatment very well.

Get your kids to do the hollowing out and while they’re preoccupied, rough chop a couple of peeled onions (any sort will do), along with some carrots, swede, or any other root veg you have. This is not a precious recipe!  Pop a splash of oil into a big saucepan, along with some garlic if you like it, and not forgetting the pumpkin flesh, pile the whole lot into the pan, and sweat the whole lot for 10 mins, stirring so that it doesn’t stick on the bottom.  Pour over a litre or so of water, or chicken stock, or veg stock, hot or cold, bring to the boil. Cook it for 30 mins, at least, until all the veg is soft. If you have a hand blender, get to work with it, or mash away with a spud masher until it’s all reasonably smooth. Add more liquid if it’s too thick, and some pepper and salt, perhaps a dash of chilli, maybe some herbs – bay leaf is good. Serve, with a dollop of yoghurt or cream if you like, alongside a chunk of bread, or some sausages. There you have it: healthy, hearty, velvety gorgeousness for a cold and spooky night.