Friday, October 29, 2010

Corn-y Halloween!

Chicomecoatl,  Aztec Corn Goddess

Happy Halloween 2010!

The meaning and practice of this ancient holiday has changed drastically over the 2000-years-plus of its existence -- but there is something about the fall festival that's irresistible. Maybe it's the weakening of the sun, the falling leaves, or the weird combination of death and sweetness that calls on those of us in the species Homo sapiens sapiens to take to the darkness and celebrate our own dark side.

The roots of Halloween grow in the British Isles and northern France, the ancestral homeland of the Celts, who also brought us Stonehenge and the Druids (good name for a rock group). In the Celtic calendar, the harvest signified the end of the year, and fell during late October, according to our calendar. The fields were cleared and the stubble was piled up. People extinguished the flames in the family fireplace, and everyone came out to the fields to burn off the old stubble, tell fortunes, feast and otherwise celebrate the old year, a festival known as Samhain. At the end of Samhain, everyone lighted torches from the now-dying bonfires and took them home to re-light their home fires. 

After dark, things got creepy, because the old year ended at sunset. The new year wouldn't start until the dawning of a new day - at sunrise the next morning. During the hours betwixt dark and dawn, the boundaries between the world of the dead and that of the living were blurred. That meant the dead were free to roam the land. The dead were a hungry bunch and seemed to prefer sweet foods. Back then, that meant apples and other fall fruits. People dressed up like the dead -- like skeletons, ghosts, goblins, and ghouls, so that they could fit in with all the dead people wandering around looking for mischief. People carved special lanterns with scary faces to help their disguises. These jack-o-lanterns were usually carved from turnips. Pumpkins came later, from a New World that the Celts didn't know about. 

Halloween is still celebrated in the old Celtic lands, but it's not that big a deal. No, Halloween has reached its zenith in America, where it is a secular event that celebrates our unique way of mixing and mashing cultures into new forms. I already mentioned replacing turnips for jack-o-lanterns with the much superior pumpkin. Consider corn, more accurately called "maize".

Betty Fussell, American Corn Goddess
Corn is the basis of all American cuisine. If you doubt that statement, I suggest you read The Story of Corn, by the distinguished food writer Betty Fussell.  Maize was domesticated by the Aztecs at least 8,000 years ago, in what is now southern Mexico. Maize spread quickly throughout North America and into South America. By the time the European settlers arrived, most Native Americans had stopped hunter-gathering and switched to growing maize and other crops, including beans, squash, chile peppers and tomatoes. Pumpkins are a type of squash.

Settlers from the old Celtic lands brought their Halloween traditions, such as carving jack-o-lanterns and dressing in scary costumes and wandering around in the night trick-and-treating. But corn -- and the corn harvest -- coincided time wise, and became part of the fall celebration, hence Indian corn was used as a decoration and popcorn balls quickly became a Halloween treat.

Enter that very special and distinctively American sweet, candy corn. Now candy corn was invented in the 1880's by a German candy maker who had immigrated to the US and ended up living in Illinois, surrounded by cornfields. Of course, in those years, most Americans lived on farms or in small towns. They got a kick out of the marzipan-like candy that looked like corn. The big sensation in candy corn was that every kernel had three colors! The inventor had figured out a way to use corn starch (!) to keep the sections of hot sugar syrup separate as they cooled. So there is real corn in candy corn. What a sensation!

These days, we take a ho-hum attitude toward candy corn here in the US. But in some parts of the world, it's special. One of my favorite food bloggers, who goes by the mono-name, Adrienne, is an anthropologist-turned-writer in London, England.  She is fascinated by those American foods, popcorn and candy corn, and recently posted an article in her witty blog, Coffee in a Teacup.  She also developed a recipe that combines popcorn and candy corn. Here it is, for your Halloween enjoyment. Even if you don't try to make it, at least read her description of making popcorn - something we Americans take for granted.

Candy Corn and Candied Corn (adapted from Cooking Light)

¼ cup butter
8 cups popcorn (I did mine on the stove to make it slightly healthier but microwaved is fine too)
8-10oz/ 200-300g marshmallows
a good sprinkling of salt
1 cup+ candy corn


Make your popcorn.  I made mine by coating a medium sized pot with sunflower oil and heating it over the stove, making sure to coat the entire bottom and onto the sides.  Then add 100g corn maize kernels and cover with a lid, lightly shaking the pot from side to side.  Continue to shake the pot while the corn pops (you can hear it- it's very exciting!) - this not only helps the unpopped kernels to cook, but also keeps the freshly popped corn from burning.  You know the corn is popped when you can no longer hear or feel many raw kernels, and when there is a lull of 5 or more seconds.  Transfer your popcorn to a large bowl and sprinkle generously with salt.  Next add your candy corn to the bowl, taking care not to let them all sink to the bottom.  You'll want them spread evenly throughout your mix if possible.

In a small saucepan, melt your butter and marshmallows with a dash of salt over a low flame, stirring periodically as it begins to melt.  Do not allow it to bubble.  Once fully melted remove from heat and pour the melted mixture over your popcorn.  Mix thoroughly trying to evenly coat all of the corn.  Let cool for 5 minutes.

Line a baking tray (or two) with grease proof paper.  When your mixture has cooled, spray your hands with cooking spray first, then take a handful and squeeze the mixture together to form balls slightly smaller than tennis balls.  The marshmallows will work as glue allowing you to press tightly to form compact balls.  You may have to respray your hands every couple times, as the mixture is incredibly sticky!  Leave to dry/set on the baking tray for 30 minutes or so.  Then wrap the balls individually in clingfilm and give away as soon as possible (they probably will only keep for about 3 days or so) to anyone in need of a bit of Halloween cheer, perhaps reminding them about good dental hygiene as these things will certainly stick in your teeth... in a good way of course!


Lisa said...

I've always loved popcorn balls. Candy corn, however, that stuff is vile! ;)

Very interesting post, never thought about how corn entered the traditions of Halloween.

Happy Halloween. Boo! :D

Deb Duchon said...

Happy Halloween to you, too, Lisa. Thanks for stopping by!

Darcy said...

Thanks for the great article, Deb! It's interesting to see the beginnings of candy of my favorite fall treats!

Deb Duchon said...

Greetings all - Here is a follow-up comment, courtesy of my friend, Caroline, who lives in Brittany, the Celtic region of France. Thought you would be interested. Caroline says that Halloween is a very minor event, "France has sort of resisted the Halloween thing - maybe their Catholicism reacting to the pagan sides of it, but also a rejection of the pure commercialism of it, as it has become - candy and polyester store-bought costumes. Plus there has been too much pranksterism. I gather that it is a bigger event in Paris and larger cities, but the only thing I have seen out here is that the local botanical garden has had some pumpkin carving events, and put up a "haunted house"..

JodieMo said...

Great article. It really is fascinating how some traditions have stuck with us through hundreds of years, even if it is highly commercialized. And, for the record, candy corn is not ho-hum in my house, it is eagerly awaited every year just like egg nog. :)

The Blue Faerie said...

Thank you, Deb, for this recipe. I've had corn kernels in my cupboard for a few years now, but I've never popped them b/c I didn't know how. I'll have to try this now and ferret it away from my husband. :)

gardengeri said...

my banker had Kandy Korn painted fingernails.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this article, fun and interesting. I love how the popcorn balls look with the candy corn in them. Don't know if I could eat one though!

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