I love holidays, mostly because I enjoy marking seasons and changes in the earth that human beings have decided are important over our brief history. I am always on the lookout for a “tradition” that hearkens back to something deeper than the commercial holidays we celebrate in America without bothering to ask why. In 2008, I decided I wanted to do something really traditional for Halloween, other than carving a pumpkin or putting on a costume. I thought I’d try to find a tradition from my own cultural heritage, which in broad strokes means the British Isles — Scotland, England, Ireland. I wanted mark the holiday by making a traditional Halloween dinner.
After a cursory Google search, I did not find any truly traditional Halloween recipes. This is probably because the holiday wasn’t really much of a “tradition” until America found it could commercialize it in the 1950s. Before that, All Hallows Eve was a Catholic celebration held the evening before All Saints Day and the following All Souls Day. You can see this tradition continuing in the Latin American Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations that begin on Halloween and continue through the first days of November. The Puritans who originally came to the U.S. from England (and probably most of my most recent ancestors) were staunch protestants who were known to shun Catholic traditions and equate them with witchcraft and Satanism. Even today, Halloween is considered by many Christians to be a Satanic holiday
due to the its roots in pagan religious observances , even though it is celebrated by Catholic Christians.
Going even further back, All Hallows Eve most likely originated from Samhain, the Celtic feast that marks the end of the harvest (as well as the calendar year) and the beginning of the dark half of the year. Very loosely speaking (and with apologies to my Wiccan and pagan friends), the pre-Christian Celts believed that the lord of darkness (who may have been named Samhain) would release the souls of all the bad people that had died the previous year (or demons, depending on who you ask) on this holiday to roam the earth for the night and basically torment the living. Rumor had it that if you dressed up like one of these bad guys, when you encountered them on the road they’d leave you alone because they’d think you were one of them. (This is where we get dressing up for Halloween.) Also, Jack o’ Lanterns were supposed to ward off these evil spirits with their fire, light, and big scary faces. And you could appease the spirits and keep them from destroying your house by offering them food, drink, or money if they did come to your door. When the early Christians took over this holiday, they replaced “appeasing visiting spirits” with “supplicating for the dead on your behalf (if you give me something to eat)”, which is where we get the tradition of trick or treating.
Okay, so “traditional” Halloween may be a lot more ancient and complicated than I had originally anticipated. Unlike Christmas or Easter, there aren’t necessarily foods or dinners associated with the night, at least in our more modern interpretations. Most recommendations I found in that original search were to prepare foods associated with the fall harvest, like potatoes and other root vegetables, apples, and, of course, pumpkins. But there wasn’t a set menu that was supposed to stand for something and mark the evening (at least, not in the English tradition).
But I did stumble across one recipe for something that sounded traditional enough for me: mash o’ nine.
Mash o’nine (apparently really Mash o’ Nine Sorts) is literally just a mash of nine things: potatoes, parsnips, turnips, carrots, leeks, cream, butter, salt, and pepper. Some recipes call for cheese instead of butter or peas instead of turnips, or whatever — but at the end of the day, it’s just nine things mashed together. You boil the root vegetables until they’re soft, blanch the leaks, and then mash them all together with the dairy and seasonings and bake it for a bit until the peaks are browned. According to at least one legend, you could bury a ring inside and serve it to unmarried guests, and whoever got the ring in their mash would be the next to find love (if they didn’t choke to death). (I have not been able to verify this legend with my short search on Google beyond a single reference to it, so take that as you will.)
On Halloween in 2008, I made mash o’ nine for the first time (without the ring). This was particularly auspicious as I got my wisdom teeth removed the next day and needed something soft to eat for the rest of the week. I’ve made it every Halloween since.
It doesn’t make me feel closer to my ancestors, or invoke cursed spirits, or even celebrate the loved ones I’ve lost to death. But it does remind me that, at least in the northern hemisphere, root vegetables are seasonal in the fall, and this is a great way to eat them. And more metaphorically, our holiday traditions can be a simple mash of whatever we want them to be. Also, mash o’ nine is easier to make than sugar skulls, which although I greatly respect their traditional value, I can’t technically claim as part of my heritage, even though I did grow up in New Mexico.
Happy Halloween, and I hope you have a warm serving of mash o’ nine waiting for you somewhere tonight.