a woman in a halloween costume holding a pumpkin

Halloween and traditions linked with food

Halloween tradition of carving pumpins

Today I want to talk about how food is an irreplaceable element of Halloween celebrations. In the past weeks and days, we have been carving our own pumpkins and competing for the best design.
But do we know why we are carving pumpkins? 

 Most of you know that the pumpkin lantern is associated with Jack-o-lantern. The Irish claim to be the first to tell the story of Jack. The legend tells that Jack was a miserly man who once tricked the Devil into transforming himself into a sixpence, then snapped the money into his pocket and made the Devil promise not to come after him for a year. When the Devil returned for Jack after another stingy and spiteful year, Jack tricked him into climbing up a tree to pick a big, beautiful apple from a high branch.

Jack quickly carved the sign of the cross in the tree’s trunk, preventing the Devil from climbing down, and made him promise not to come after Jack for ten years. When Jack died, he went to Heaven, but Saint Peter refused entry due to his stingy nature. Jack attempted Hell but was surprised to discover that the Devil refused to let him in. The Devil had to keep his promise, and besides, he wasn’t particularly fond of Jack. As a punishment, the Devil cursed him to walk the earth forever, guided only by a lantern made from a carved turnip and one coal from Hell to light It up. When Irish immigrants arrived in America, they were awestruck by the native pumpkin’s size and carving potential. They replaced the turnip with the pumpkin; this is how the Halloween jack-o’lantern that we know nowadays was born.

Halloween and Food Waste

Of course, the real horror story is what happens to the pumpkins after Halloween; of the 15 million pumpkins grown in the UK every year, less than a third are eaten. Several businesses have implemented innovative waste reduction initiatives to combat the Halloween horror story. In 2014, Hubbub, for example, launched ‘Pumpkin Rescue,’ a campaign aimed at bringing communities together by organizing hundreds of events to reduce pumpkin waste (everything from communal meals to large-scale festivals). We also have https://www.lovefoodhatewaste.com/, a recipe-sharing portal where you can look for the many strategies we can implement to reduce waste. Many recipes will have to do with reusing pumpkin pulp and pumpkin seeds. I am aware that all of you listeners are trying to tackle food waste, and perhaps if you learned about these initiatives, you might be interested in them.

But let’s go back to Halloween and the tradition of celebrating it with food. We have seen that food has long been associated with the dead in rituals that span many cultures. These began as pagan rituals and were later incorporated into the Catholic religion. Dia de Los Muertos is celebrated in Mexico with important altars for departed dining (come and have a look on our instagram @thefoodscienceaddict to check how they look like)

This is what Sofi (one of our listeners/readers) will talk about. She is from Puebla, Mexico, and she will tell you more about the tradition of Dia de Los Muertos and how food is an essential element of the celebration. She will ask an interesting Halloween-related question about food waste too. Over to you Sofi:

Dia de muertos (podcast script)

My name is Laura Sofia Fernandez Rodriguez I’m Mexican, more specifically I live in Puebla and today I’ll be sharing a little about the mexican tradition “Dia de muertos”

Dia de muertos is a celebration that has its beginnings in our prehispanic history, as one of the celebrations dedicated to the deceased, celebrated during the fall when there was an excess of food from the summer.

 Dia de muertos is celebrated from October 31st to November 3th. On October  31st  a candle is lit to invite the death relatives to visit the family. The 1st, is a date dedicated to those who died young, like children. This date is called ‘santos difuntos’ that translates as holy deceased.
The 2nd of November is the real dia de muertos or day of the dead, which is dedicated to the adult deceased and is also the most famous day. The last day, another candle is lit all night to guide the spirits back.

Halloween and Food Traditions in Mexico

In the celebration of dia de muertos an altar is built with specific structures and ornaments; just for you to remember, Mexico is a combination of our prehispanic roots and our evolution into a Spanish colony, due to this, many elements may seem contradictory, but at the end, we are great at mix. The most popular altars are built with 2, 3, and 7 levels. The one with two levels refer to heaven and hell, the one with three levels refer to heaven, hell and purgatory, and the one with seven levels – which is  the closest to the original tradition – refers to the 7 chambers needed to reach mictlan which is the underworld to the Mexicas.

Food has an important role during dia de Muertos and indeed is also used to decorate the altar as an offer and a gift to our deceased, and some of them have purposed to their presence. The altar for dia de muertos should display a glass of water , this is there in order to cease the thirst of the dead and to purify their souls.
Salt is another element that can´t be forgotten in the altar. We might think about salt as a nice ingredient to help boost the flavour and aroma of our dishes but, during dia de Muertos, it is also traditionally used as a mean to   keep the bad spirits away and to purify the altar. 

 Regarding the food placed in the altar, some things are important to always add, for example the calaveritas or dulce de alfeñique, that you might be familiar with are the iconic decorated skulls. Well, calaveritas or dulce de alfeñique are skulls made from sugar or chocolate and decorated with natural food colourings and sequins to draw the eyes.
These are placed on the altar to represent each member of the family that is already gone, so an altar can be placed for a whole family instead of a single person.

 To make sure that our visitors (yes, the spirits of the dead) are happy and well received, we add fruit to the altars.
If you have visited Mexico during these time of the year, you might have tried pan de muerto (bread of the dead). This is a particular bread formulated with orange blossom – it is modelled with funny shapes to represent the bones and the skull of our decease relatives.

But you might ask if there is a criteria for the food we add into the altar?
Well, we choose the food according to what was the favourite dish of our deceased relative. This is why it is rare to see the same altar between different families.

In the Tabasco region, the most common dishes placed are tamales de chipilin: a corn dough mixed with pork lard, and a edible leaf called chipilin. This is then shaped with another chipilin leaf, and a cold beverage made of cacao, corn, water and sugar that is called pozol.

In Puebla, you find mole. This is a paste added to chicken that comes from a mixture of dried and cleaned chilly peppers, fried tortilla, peanuts, toasted spices and sesame seeds; this gets grinded, then cooked in hot oil.
Chicken stock and chocolate is added and finally it can be served over the chicken pieces and  tortitas de santa Clara. These are cookies made with pork lard, and in the top of the cookie they are filled with a sweet made with pumpkin seeds.

A favorite dish is chalupas: small tortillas fried in pork lard. They get covered with salsa some chopped onion and shredded pork meat.
Types of bread that are only baked in this season are the lisos.
These are a pork lard bread not sweet or salty formed by two bread pieces. Such bread is also known as pan encimado; this would mean something like ‘bread on top’, because two layers of bread dough are stuck one above the other.
This bread as well as the punchi, that is a sweet kind of blue corn puree spiced with cinnamon and orange, are traditional dishes only prepared in Puebla. Dulce de calabaza, is also a fall dessert, here in Mexico, the orange pumpkin gets boiled with cinnamon, clove, piloncillo, and quicklime. Candies made with milk in different pretty shapes, among other things, as well as sweets are also placed in the altar.


Beverages as well are set in the altars! Depending on the relatives ,soda, beer, tepache made with pineapple, pulque made with maguey or tequila made with blue agave are placed in the altar. A beverage that is super traditional is café de olla, this is a coffee seasoned with cinnamon and sweetened with piloncillo. At the end if the altar is dedicated to several family members that end looking like a feast.

The food in this case is considered ‘sacred’ so it remains untouched the whole night of the 2nd of November and can be removed the following day. Some people say the food shouldn’t be eaten, but some others eat the food that was placed on the altar. Legend says that food looses its flavor.

What would you do in this case? Would you throw away the food or consume it anyway?

I hope you enjoyed this small contribution, don’t lose the opportunity and try to make your own altar and hope you’ll enjoy this Halloween season.

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