Where Y’Eat: Unmasking Halloween, Our Secret Food Holiday

Oct 26, 2017

It’s one of our greatest food holidays, never mind that there's rarely ever any cooking involved. It’s Halloween. So what if most of the food that makes this holiday tick is store-bought candy, dispensed one little bit at a time from your front steps?

It's the thought that counts and without the thought there is no Halloween, not really, not for kids, where every other iteration of Halloween starts out anyway. It’s kid Halloween memories we’re getting back to with all the adult costume parties and scary karaoke nights and horror-themed haunted houses. Kid Halloween memories start with candy, our first food crush, and they rely on a certain social pact.

If no one stepped up with candy and stayed home to hand it out, there would be no Halloween. And if no one dressed up and came around reciting trick-or-treat, there would be no Halloween. The spirit of Halloween is one kid, one house, one piece of candy and a line of memories made on one side of the transaction and rekindled on the other.

It’s no Thanksgiving, but Halloween does have the ingredients that make a true food holiday great. Let’s review:

There should be abundance. Just look at the trick-or-treat bags dragging after a few blocks. Check.

There should be anticipation. If you have any doubts about this, just ask some trick-or-treater in training if they’re excited for Halloween. Brace yourself for squealing. So, check two.

And there’s ritual, and symbolism. Halloween is full of that, and for both kids and adults candy is the medium.

In a holiday suspension of nutritional disbelief, a hunk of nougat covered in chocolate becomes an act of generosity, hospitality and civic engagement. What more could ask from a holiday food?

It’s not about cooking and family heritage and regional recipes, at least not for any normal, overbooked modern family. It’s about buying a bunch of candy at the store and hoping your supply matches up pretty well with the trick-or-treaters.

Still, Halloween is a family holiday, and it’s one that’s also social. At least it can be. It’s not just the give-and-take of candy giver and candy getter. It’s seeing a neighborhood come outside together to make it all happen. It doesn’t hurt that Halloween coincides with our good weather, a time when just stepping outside on mild night can be cause for celebration on its own.

Is there sometimes an ice chest for adults next to the candy bowl for kids? Maybe, maybe. Leave it to New Orleans to make trick-or-treating feel a little bit like tailgating.

But when it gets right down to it, Halloween is a spontaneous public celebration that has some generally accepted framework but relies entirely on people playing along and adding their own interpretation. Just swap beads for candy and we could be talking about Mardi Gras. No wonder New Orleans is so good at Halloween.

In this case though, the parade comes to you, one gaggle, group or solo trick-or-treater at a time. You just have to have the candy. And that’s why, even if you’re not dressed up in a costume on Halloween, everyone still has a role to play.