Sarah Lohman is a historic gastronomist. She recreates historic recipes as a way to make a personal connection with the past, as well as to inspire her contemporary cooking. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Four Pounds Flour. In this series, Lohman combs Etsy for items that speak to America’s culinary past.
I was a trick-or-treat migrant. My mom would import me from my rural home to the neighborhood she grew up in, a suburb with houses closely packed on postage-stamp-sized lawns. These city blocks, not the country ones that stretched for miles, were prime candy-collecting territory. In between the houses that passed out hard candies and pennies, there were places where elderly couples passed out full-sized candy bars — sometimes king sized! I’ll never forget the feeling of adventure, pressing onward into the night, my pillowcase getting heavier and heavier with my candy treasure.
Reflecting on my memories today, I’m struck by the strangeness of the Halloween tradition: how did we end up running through the streets, in costume, demanding candy in the first place?
The celebration of Halloween has its roots in the Celtic festival of Samhain, which means “Summer’s End,” a harvest festival. When Catholicism came to the British Isles, converts made a conscious effort to transform pagan holidays into Christian holidays. In the 8th or 9th century, November 1 was declared “All Hallows Day,” a holy day to honor the saints and martyrs of the church. October 31 became All Hallows Eve, and the practice of “souling” was observed on this day: the poor would travel door to door, asking for fruits or other foods, and would often be given a “soul cake.” These cakes, made with spices, fruit and sometimes saffron, were thought to free a soul from purgatory.
When Irish immigrants came to America in the 17th and 18th centuries, they brought All Hallows Eve traditions, which blended with American “mumming” traditions. Practiced on Thanksgiving and New Year’s, mumming involved parading the streets in rags or cross-dressing, playing music or making noise, and demanding food and drink from homeowners. Additionally, Harvest Festivals were celebrated in farming communities, which brought men and women together to shuck corn and dance. Women paring apples might throw an apple peel over their shoulders; when it hit the floor, it would reveal the initials of the girl’s future husband.
These harvest festivals became more modernized and domesticated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as “Hallowe’en” theme parties. These parties included decorations and flirtatious games, like “ducking for apples,” and served harvest-themed foods like pumpkin pie, sweet cider, doughnuts, popcorn, and dishes of nuts and candies. The earliest candy to be associated with Hallowe’en at this time was candy corn, first produced in the 1880s and commonly known as “chicken feed.” According to The Atlantic:
“Candy-making oral tradition credits the invention of candy corn to George Renninger, a candy maker at the Wunderle Candy Company of Philadelphia…At that time, many candy makers were producing ‘butter cream’ candies molded into all kinds of natural or plant-inspired shapes, including chestnuts, turnips, and clover leaves. The real innovation in candy corn was the layering of three colors. This made it taxing to produce (all those colors had to be layered by hand in those days). But the bright, layered colors also made the candy novel and visually exciting.”
The 1920s and 1930s saw an increase in these Hallowe’en-themed parties, as well as an increase in general carousing and naughtiness on Hallowe’en night. The first mention of the phrase “trick or treat” in a 1927 article lists some of the pranks that were pulled:
“Hallowe’en provided an opportunity for real strenuous fun. No real damage was done except to the temper of some who had to hunt for wagon wheels, gates, wagons, barrels, etc., much of which decorated the front street. The youthful tormentors were at back door and front demanding edible plunder by the word ‘trick or treat,’ to which the inmates gladly responded and sent the robbers away rejoicing.”
WWII sugar rationing greatly decreased the Halloween festivities, but the post-war era gave birth to Halloween as the holiday we know today. Americans were moving in droves to suburban communities, and activities were greatly focused on the family. Halloween transitioned fully from a threatening, prank-filled holiday to an innocent exchange of goodies. In addition to manufacturing pre-made costumes and Halloween decorations, companies began to launch Halloween-themed candies, although homemade treats like cookies and caramel apples were still commonly distributed. Trick-or-treaters often entered each home for punch, homemade sweets, and activities.
To incorporate some of the homemade in my holiday, I tried my hand at making Chicken Feed, better known today as candy corn, from scratch. Handmade, they taste vastly better than their commercial counterparts, while still managing to trigger the same childhood memories.