Closed Captioned For The Thinking Impaired

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Raising The Bar: Marbled Pumpkin Cheesecake Bars, A Real Halloween Treat

'Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world.
~William Shakespeare

The Druids celebrated a form of it. So did The Aztecs. The Spanish had their rendition, as did every other former agrarian society (including those barbaric Germanic tribes I'm forever teasing my husband about since his Dutch-German roots are most definitely Goth, Visigoth or Ostrogoth. He's a born Vandal.) Even the Catholic Church had to recognize the pagan rituals of the harvest that conflated harvest time with the dawning of the dead, the placating of the harvest gods, the advent of winter; though officially Halloween is considered verboten by the Church fathers. We won't see the Pope wearing a Freddie Kreuger mask anytime soon. It took good old Yankee know-how, however, to turn it into an industry.

I feel it incumbent upon me to say (by way of apology) in some ways there's a huge disadvantage being a writer born and raised in the inner-city, chiefly when it comes to writing descriptive passages about a subject as beloved as Halloween. Unlike my pastoral and suburban peers, I have no idylls to describe, no pumpkin patches I sat in during the long fall nights waiting in the tall cool grass for the moon to rise. No demon spiders spinning their webs in the barren branches of dead elm trees. No haunted houses. No scarecrows with raven eyes staring out into the blackness. There is no bucolic wonderment that seized these moments ingrained in memory. All my landscapes are interior. Mostly in the wooly dandelion fields that constitute my mind. This renders my writing about my Halloween experiences a distillation of ink spill. Of course, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once very rightly said where there is no imagination there is no horror, and one thing I did not lack as a child was imagination - I still remember the disembodied styrofoam mannequin heads that stood bald with eyeless faces on my mother's dresser. My mother had so many wigs and falls. All colors. All textures. The wigs themselves resembled wounded animals to me... the sight of them alone was frightful, trust me, especially when she bragged about those wigs being made from human hair, so that I would stand there paralyzed before passing them, seeing those heads as alive and screeching their resentment at being shorn every night, it really was a house of horrors. Add to that my poor aunt who thought she heard a chorus of demons and all the religious iconography scattered allover the place.... The Sacred Heart of Jesus with eyes that always followed you, the pictures of devils & pitchforks, of saints being mutilated, but this was a year-round terror. Nothing to do with All Hallow's Eve fright.

Nor do I associate food with Halloween. Not as such. Not directly.  I don't personally associate much with Halloween except maybe tooth decay and razor blades in apples. (Both things to be assiduously avoided at all costs.) Although pumpkin pies, fruit-sweetened breads laced warm with exotic spices like ginger, cardamom, nutmeg and cinnamon, and toothsome candy apples (whose sticky red glazed shells crackled under my teeth keeping my tongue and lips tinted with their goodness days afterward) were delicious indulgences as a child, I considered them part of autumn's bag of tricks, not necessarily Halloween’s. I suppose I can borrow from To Kill A Mockingbird and offer you, my discerning reader, a possible Halloween menu: dinner for two with Boo Radley; or swipe a line or two from Calvino's Under the Jaguar Sun, or DBC Pierre's Lights Out In Wonderland,  and proffer titillating recipes that will raise your hairs and goose your taste buds for all that is taboo from braised human tongue to spotted owl stew. Or I can do as my spouse suggested and write a review comparing the nuances in the most popular Halloween candies - write the definitive guide for the candy consumer with a discriminating palate. But let’s not and say I did.  Let's discuss the day itself instead.

The author doing her best to terrorize the 'hood

When I think of Halloween, what do I think of?  I think of the wanting... The wanton seed that plants its insatiable need in an infertile ground whose harvest renders little more than a cache of disappointment masquerading as mini-Reese's cups, Snickers and Nestle's Crunch bars (if you were lucky), tarnished pennies (a magic trick would have been preferable), or candy corn (a particularly unctuous unpalatable variety of fake sugary treat that resembled kernels of corn no right-minded costume-wearing child in East Harlem would ever eat).  No kids I knew ever felt they got enough candy, no matter how much their little plastic pumpkins or brown paper bags rattled with extorted goodies from weary adults who met our maniacal shouts of "trick or treat!" with the grim-faced resignation of a snaggle-toothed Jack-O-Lantern. Halloween was more burden than fun in the East River Projects. Times were hard, families poor. Buying bucket loads of candy to fulfill the glutinous tastes of hundreds of strange little grubby-palmed gluttons dressed in goblin garb was simply beyond most residents' ability.

Most neighbors wouldn't even open their apartment doors, and my family was a cornucopia of complexes, riddled with an inherent and abundant paranoia that made them unwilling to allow me to venture up and down the tenement halls anyway - even in the company of our neighbor's teenage daughter, Lizzy, who appointed herself my personal guardian angel. I hung up my gypsy shawl and princess tiaras by the time I was eight because I simply lost my taste for a holiday that every adult within my ken looked at with extreme trepidation, tempered with a practiced boredom. My personal ambition was to be adult in all things, so I wrapped Halloween in cobwebs and stored it in the back corner of my closet, but I never lost my taste for things macabre. Ghosts, demonic possessions, witches, monsters from the vasty deep and from the deeply psychotic always fascinated me and continue to do so. This penchant likely derives from my Catholic upbringing. You can't expect a child to believe in a sexy blue-eyed zombie ex-carpenter who hung out with fishermen and preached love, whose very body and blood we were meant to consume every Sabbath to save our immortal souls, and not have her develop a taste for all things morbid and grotesque.

Halloween itself -  an early 20th century American invention - has liturgical roots in the sacrament of harvest and death culture. Its masquerades, its Jack-o-lanterns, its offering of sweets to ghoulish little beggars... A quick internet search will tell you Halloween was derived from a Celtic tradition called Samhain. The Celts used the day to mark the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, and also believed that this transition between the seasons was a bridge to the world of the dead. Samhain. This ancient festival, the first day of winter. For the Celts, it also marked the first day of the new year. The vigil of the feast is Halloween, the night when charms and incantations were powerful. Up to recent time this was a day of abstinence, when according to church ruling no flesh meat was allowed. Colcannon, apple cake and barm brack, as well as apples and nuts were part of the festive fare. Colcannon was cooked in a skillet pot which had a large round bottom, three little legs and two ear-like handles at the sides, and consisted of potatoes mashed and mixed with chopped kale or green cabbage and onions... How over the millennia the holiday transitioned from a somber pagan ritual to a day of mayhem and merriment for children and adults is anyone's guess, but when westerners moved from an agrarian society to an industrialized one, our emphases obviously changed. However, Halloween as celebrated in America (specifically) whilst having its traditions rooted in the old is its own species altogether. A celebration of mass conspicuous consumption more than anything. A way for candy companies to sell their newly minted confections in the early 20th century.  Halloween parties for both children and adults had become a common way to mark the day. Candies made in the shape of corn kernels and pumpkins commemorated the harvest season. The Wunderle Candy Company of Philadelphia was the first to commercially produce candy corn in the 1880s.

The custom of begging for food from house to house on Halloween came from the old Catholic soul-sale custom. Once charitable in nature, "souling" took a popular turn as it evolved over the years. Irish Halloween begging always involved a masquerade... but who did the begging and what they were after varied from region to region. In Ireland's County Cork, a mummers' procession marked All Hallows. Prosperity was promised to those who gave food, drink or money to the revelers. Masquerading from house to house and asking for food or money was once practiced in America on Guy Fawkes Day, and for some years even on Thanksgiving. The Irish Halloween masquerade proved so popular it eventually evolved into 20th-century American trick-or-treating.

Halloween takes place on October 31st. The word Halloween is shortened from “All-hallow-evening,” the eve of All Hallow’s Day, which is now known as All Saints Day. (All Saints Day became was placed on November 1 by Pope Gregory IV in 835; All Souls Day on November 2 in 998.) Traditionally, the festival was a time used by the ancient pagans to take stock of supplies and slaughter livestock for winter stores. The ancient Gaels believed that on October 31 the boundary between the alive and the deceased dissolved, and the dead become dangerous for the living by causing problems such as sickness or damaged crops. The festivals would frequently involve bonfires, into which bones of slaughtered livestock were thrown. Costumes and masks were also worn at the festivals in an attempt to mimic the evil spirits or placate them.

October 31 was New Year's Eve, a night of evil and terror when all hell broke loose. Literally. Goblins and ghosts were abroad that night, while witches celebrated their black rites as the spirits and souls of the dead roamed the earth. To frighten the evil spirits and to bolster their own sagging spirits, they created a din with bells, horns, pots and pans, (just as we still do at midnight on December 31st), and built fires to frighten the witches or perhaps burn them if they might get caught. On the afternoon of October 31st, village boys would go from house to house collecting fuel for the midnight fires. Everyone was expected to contribute some peat or "coal pieces" to help burn the witches. Those who did not received dire warnings of the evil consequences that might follow.

Naturally, such traditions that merge the reaping of crops with death and its appeasement are not the sole purview of Western Culture: when I was walking through the Higashiyama District along the lower slopes of Kyoto's eastern mountains - one of the city's best preserved historic districts - there were specialty shops filled with hollowed out gourds which had a special significance in Taoist culture. In fact, the gourd, one of the most ancient of plants to migrate around the world from Africa, was heavily used in divination. Outside of Africa, evidence of gourd shards were found in Thailand's Spirit Cave. In the earliest versions of the deluge mythology (of which there are many in Asia), the gourd was always featured as the magic fruit of salvation. Millet and gourd are believed to be of sacred provenance from heaven according to the beliefs of the Taketaka tribe of Taiwan.

In Japan, the gourd is also associated with divinities and features in the earliest genealogical semi-mythical chronicles, the Kojiki.  The gourd is found in the names of deities in section “The Birth of the Deities” after the creation of the Japanese islands by the primordial pair Izanagi and Izanami, they were born from the deities who governed the river and sea domains: “…next, they gave birth to the sea-deity, whose name is the deity Great-Ocean-Possessor next, they gave birth to the deity of the Water-Gates, whose name is the deity Prince-of-Swift-Autumn ; next they gave birth to his younger sister the deity Princess-of-Swift-Autumn. (Ten deities in all from the deity Great-Male-of-the-Great-Thing to the deity Princess-of-Autumn.) The names of the deities given birth to by these two deities Prince-of-Swift-Autumn and Princess-of-Swift-Autumn from their separate dominions of river and sea were: the deity Foam-Calm; next, the deity Foam-Waves; next the deity Bubble-Calm; next, the deity Bubble-Waves; next the deity Heavenly-Water-Divider; next, the deity Earthly-Water-Divider; next, the deity Heavenly-Water-Drawing-Gourd-Possessor; next, the deity Earthly-Water-Drawing-Gourd-Possessor. (Eight deities in all from the deity Foam-Prince to the deity Earthly-Water-Drawing-Gourd-Possessor.)” — The Kojiki, Chamberlain 

The Irish brought the tradition of carving pumpkins into Jack O'Lantern to America. But, the original Jack O'Lantern was not a pumpkin. Pumpkins were a New World discovery. Ancient Celtic cultures in Ireland carved turnips on All Hallow's Eve, and placed an ember in them, to ward off evil spirits. We now place candles in ours, a tradition even I, The Grinch of Halloween, keep. "The vegetable most associated with Halloween...the jack-o'-lantern, which also had its roots in British folklore. Stingy Jack was a perennial trickster of folktales, who offended not only God but also the devil with his many pranks and transgressions. Upon his death, he was denied entrance into both heaven and hell, though the devil grudgingly tossed him a fiery coal, which Jack caught in a hollowed turnip and which would light his night-walk on hearth until Judgement Day...The Oxford English Dictionary gives a date of 1663 for its first printed record of the phrase "jack-with-the-lantern," and 1704 , "Jack of lanthorns," both referring to a night watchman...the jack-o-lantern is definitely associated by 1817 with spooky pranks--but not explicitly with Halloween or hollowed turnips. Although every modern chronicle of the holiday repeats the claim that vegetable lanterns were a time-honored component of Halloween celebrations in the British Isles, none gives any primary documentation. In fact, none of the major nineteenth-century chroniclers of British holidays and folk customs makes any mention whatsoever of carved lanterns in connection with Halloween....The Oxford English Dictionary provides no clue as to when the Halloween association began; it credits the United States as the primary source of the modern definition of the jack-o'lantern, followed by England and Ireland, but without dates or citations." ~Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween, David J. Skal [Bloomsbury:New York] 2002 (p. 31-2)

The Catholic Church being the savvy marketers and assimilators of culture they always were certainly capitalized on it: "Early Spanish observers...remarked on the fabrication of idols from edible grains and their distribution as talismans or articles of communion...pre-Columbian practices were simply annexed to the festival of All Souls'; sometimes with a conviviance of Franciscan friars who wished to encourage the rapid conversion of the indigenous population to Christianity...Writing in 1580, Father Diego de Duran was troubled by the way in which indigenous cults of the dead were transposed to All Saints' and All Souls'. He was particularly concerned that All Saints' had become a festival devoted to little children who had died, thereby emulating the pre-Christian feast of Miccailhiotontli...which had traditionally take place two months earlier. Mexican scholars disagree over the influence of these ancient festivals on the popular practice of Todos the Day of the Dead is sometimes called. But an overemphasis on the continuities with the pre-Columbian past can easily elide the fact that there are also striking similarities between the rituals of the Day of the Dead and the early modern observance of All Souls' Day in Europe. Yellow flowers of mourning were common to both sixteenth-century Spain and Mexico...In the old Castilian province of Zamora...ofrendas and banquets were a customary aspect of funeral rites. In Barcelona, food stands routinely sold seasonal sweets called panellets del morts or All Saints Day. A variety of other cakes and sweets also formed part of the festive fare in Catalonia, Sardinia, Portugal, the Azores, and Haute-Saone in France, just as soul cakes were widely distributed in pre-Reformation Britain. What seems unique to the Mexican Todos Santos...was the widespread consumption of anthropomorphic foods, or foods in the shape of humans. These included sugared skulls and figurines in the shape of humans. These included the sugared skulls and figurines that now attract international attention, and the pan de muertos, ' bread figures in the style of angels and human beings,' which took on 'a ritual character'...These kinds of foods---breads in human or animal form, in particular---were also made throughout the Iberian peninsula, though rarely for this holiday. There are grounds...for suggesting that the Mexican Day of the Dead was a complex mix of Mesoamerican and European influences, rather than a holiday onto which Christian observances were superficially imposed. In this respect, the Day of the Dead was not so very different from Halloween. Both shared a common European legacy as well as a dynamic fusion of pre-Christian and Christian belief. If this is the case, then their differences may be grounded not only in the peculiarities of that syntretism, but also in the ways in which the two holidays subsequently developed in the New Worlds." ~Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, Nicholas Rogers [Oxford University Press:New York] 2002(p. 143-146)

I must admit as an adult now in San Francisco where supermarkets and farmer's markets alike overflow with gourds of every variety from long and cylindrical to a prolate spheroid - the Cucurbita Pepo being the variety we love to carve and toss in Punkin Chunkin' contests-  I have reconsidered my position with regard to things Hallow Eve-d.  There's something about the light here by the bay that seems to tinge autumn days with a gilding the grey dingy concrete streets of East Harlem lacked, and I discovered that Halloween was more than just a date in the calendar one marked to remember to avoid  going out at night, but one that meant as much to the residents of this foggy city as any holiday could. It is Christmas, New Year's Eve & Easter all rolled up into one... Still, though here we are enmeshed in this kiddie culture turned cash cow spawning whole new industries, I could sense a deeper spirit. Particularly in the gay community.

The traditional Castro Halloween street party was first established in 1946 by Cliff's Variety Store owner, Ernie DeBaca, who decided to hold a costume contest for the local children. The kids came dressed in mostly DIY outfits and with items purchased from his all purpose store. They assembled in front of Cliff's., a stool was produced to serve as the stage, and the kids hopped up on top to show off their outfits. The one who earned the loudest applause from the crowd won. Simple democracy at its best. Afterwards kids paraded around the neighborhood trick or treating at other local businesses and homes. The children's costume contest and parade continued until 1979 when the crowds grew to the tens of thousands and were filled with drunken party-goers who turned the once quaint family affair into a Mardi Gras encrusted bar fight. Store shop windows were broken and Mr. DeBaca suspended his sponsorship of the children's contest.

By 1979 the Castro had become the epicenter of the growing SF LGBT movement and community for almost a decade. The Halloween party took on a decidedly adult air. Costumed revelers tried to outdo each other with elaborate and imaginative get ups and an air of mischief, sex, and fun that might turn into trouble was always in the air. During the 1980-1990's era the diverse and eclectic crowds expanded with numbers reaching nearly 150,000. Real problems began to surface by the early 1990's. Fights, muggings, gang violence and assorted random acts of violence were common place. Neighbors and locals alike began to avoid the party and Castro businesses who'd once welcomed the financial bump the party brought began to close early instead of staying open to reap the monetary rewards. In 2006 the massive street event came to a tragic halt when a gunman/men shot nine people in one evening. City Hall had enough and decided to end the 60-year-old Castro Halloween tradition once and for all. But in 2014, enough supporters overturned the decision and the revelry began again.

In my neighborhood, the stores on Union and Polk Streets welcomed grade school children so openly that a tradition began where public schools created a de facto but unofficial Halloween parade of cute little kiddies in costume taken to get candy during school hours in all the local shops because those children might not otherwise receive treats in their own neighborhoods. For a few years, when we had the first and only house we ever owned in a lovely neighborhood filled with children, for three glorious years, we opened the house up to trick or treaters. I'd empty out the local Walgreens and buy proper chocolate candy bars, M&Ms (with and without peanuts... I didn't want the kiddies whose parents decided they were allergic to nuts to go into Anaphylactic shock) with absolutely NO candy corn and decorate the house a week before. On the day itself, hubby and I would sit out in the entry hall in dining chairs, I'd order in sushi, so there would be no need to cook and we entertained every child within a 7 mile radius - the tall and the small. Children were bused in from other neighborhoods, from the Tenderloin, from the Mission, from Bayview, from the Sunset &  Richmond districts - from the poorer sectors.

We kept our doors open from 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. It was the best time of my life. Those kiddies were sweet. Their parents shy and standing in the background. Some had store-bought costumes, some had homemade ones, some had none... but all of them had big eyes and bigger smiles and even though I offered them an enormous bag full of candy, and allowed them to dip their hands in the bag to draw out as much as they wanted, they would rarely take more than one candy bar each... The sweetest child I met was one who was not quite schooled in the art of trick-or treating... He was just about two years old, when I offered him my bag full of candy, he reached into his own bag & put a cookie in mine... His mom smiled, I smiled, I thanked him, kissed him, and keep him still right here in my Jack-O-Lanterned heart.

As far as traditional American foods for the holiday are concerned, there are none. So I don't feel badly for stumbling as I try to come up with the quintessential Halloween meal. When contemplating what to devise for the home cook to serve as a perfect Halloween treat for those (s)he loves that doesn't come in a wrapper, I think of Keats and his Ode To Autumn with its season of mists and mellow fruitfulness:


Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, 
        Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
    Conspiring with him how to load and bless
        With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
    To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
        And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
          To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
        With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
    And still more, later flowers for the bees,
  Until they think warm days will never cease,
          For Summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.


  Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
      Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
  Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
      Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
  Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
      Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
          Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
  And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
      Steady thy laden head across a brook;
      Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
          Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.


  Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
      Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
  While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
      And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
  Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
      Among the river sallows, borne aloft
          Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
  And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
      Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
      The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
          And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Nothing says I love you in the fall like a freshly baked something made from a crisp tart apple or dear old Keats' swollen gourd  *insert canned laughter from obliging 1970s studio audience*

So who am I to argue with Keats? Pumpkin it is. Pumpkin swirled into a cheesecake batter with a gingersnap crust poured into a baking dish, baked until just firm, and cooled in the fridge. Heaven. It's the only way to combat all those hellacious demons from Hell.

Marbled Pumpkin Cheesecake Bars


2 cups finely crushed gingersnaps
1⁄4 cup finely chopped pecans
1⁄4 cup butter, melted
1⁄4 cup brown sugar
1⁄2 teaspoon cinnamon


1⁄2 cup canned pumpkin
1 tablespoon flour
1⁄2 teaspoon cinnamon
1⁄4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1⁄4 teaspoon ground cloves
3 (8 ounce) packages cream cheese, softened
1 cup sugar
1 1⁄2 teaspoons vanilla
3 eggs


Preheat oven to 325°.

Line bottom and sides of a 9"x13" baking pan with parchment paper or aluminum foil, leaving an overhang on all sides. Set aside.

CRUST: Blend cookies, sugar, and cinnamon in a food processor until finely ground; add pecans and butter and combine. Transfer crumb mixture to prepared pan, and press gently into bottom. Bake until fragrant and slightly firm, 12 to 15 minutes.

PUMPKIN BATTER: In a medium bowl stir together pumpkin, flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves until combined; set aside.

CREAM CHEESE BATTER: In a large mixing bowl beat cream cheese until smooth. Add sugar and vanilla, beating until combined. Add eggs, one at a time, beating at low speed after each addition just until combined.
Stir 1/3 of the cream cheese batter (about 1 1/2 cups) into the pumpkin batter until smooth. Pour remaining cream cheese batter over crust.
Place large spoonfuls of pumpkin batter randomly over cream cheese batter. Using the tip of a table knife or a thin metal spatula, gently swirl the two batters together. This should have a marbled look.
Bake for 25 to 30 or until center is just set.

Cool completely in pan on a wire rack. Cover and chill for 4 to 24 hours before lifting out of pan and cutting into squares or bars. Store any remaining bars in the refrigerator.

Will serve 12-15 little goblins or ghouls. 

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