TRANSCRIPT Trick or Treat: Soul Cakes, Candy Corn, and Sugar Skulls Galore!

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, Trick or Treat: Soul Cakes, Candy Corn, and Sugar Skulls Galore!, first released on October 26, 2021. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

NICOLA TWILLEY: So quick fire round before we dive into the history. Favorite Halloween candy.

HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: Oh, this is a no brainer: Babe Ruths. I convinced my children when they were little that all the other candy was for them. But the Babe Ruths went in the bag for the mom.

JOANNE FREEMAN: Well the best thing about Halloween candy to me, it’s not necessarily that I have one favorite one. I don’t, I mean chocolate. It’s got to be chocolate. My favorite, absolute favorite thing is that they come in these little mini sizes. And my true confession here is: Halloween comes around and I go and buy like massive bags of mini candy, which I then use for months thereafter because they’re the perfect size. So Halloween is now important to me in a different way, which is massive amounts of chocolate in little non-guilt-inducing sizes.

TWILLEY: Speaking as someone who didn’t grow up with Halloween or trick or treating and has learned about it as an adult, I do feel as though this is the main purpose of the holiday: the entire premise is you get to consume a truckload of sugar and feel like you’re somehow doing the right thing.

CYNTHIA GRABER: That’s totally true! I mean, in my twenties it was all about the costume parties, which I loved, and I did also love dressing up as a kid. Bobbing for apples was kind of fun, although haunted houses always scared me. But as long as I can remember, you just couldn’t celebrate Halloween without candy. It was absolutely critical.

TWILLEY: But you, Cynthia, are not as old as time. And in fact, neither is the marriage of candy and Halloween. It’s actually surprisingly recent. That’s one of our big questions this episode: when did candy find its life partner, Halloween?

GRABER: In case you’re wondering why we’re all about Halloween candy, well, that’s because you’re listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Cynthia Graber—

TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley. And we are also all about balance, so if candy is half of the trick or treat equation, what about the tricks? Where does this particularly American tradition of trick or treating come from?

GRABER: Plus, since there was apparently a time before Halloween candy—though that’s really hard for me to imagine—how did we celebrate back then? Were there special Halloween non-candy foods?

TWILLEY: And honestly what the hell is Halloween anyway? I didn’t grow up celebrating it in the UK—is it just an American thing? Or what about Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico—is that related?

GRABER: All that, plus the truth about apples laced with razor blades. Gastropod is part of the Vox media podcast network, in partnership with Eater.


RICHARDSON: I’m a professor of history at Boston College.

FREEMAN: And I’m a professor of history at Yale University.

GRABER: Great! And hosts of…

TWILLEY: And together you are…

FREEMAN: Together, we co-host…

RICHARDSON: Together we are magical. LAUGHTER

FREEMAN: We are a dynamic duo.

RICHARDSON: On the podcast Now and Then.

TWILLEY: The podcast Now and Then is, like Gastropod, part of the Vox Media Podcast Network. And we really like Now and Then, so we figured out a way to work with them to make this special episode.

GRABER: Heather Cox Richardson, she’s the first voice you heard, she’s a specialist in American history starting in the 1800s. Heather particularly focuses on the Civil War and its aftermath. And Joanne Freeman is a specialist in everything before that, like the Revolutionary War time and the early building of the country. Every week, the two of them get together to make sense of what’s in the news by exploring its roots in American history.

TWILLEY: It’s like eavesdropping on a conversation between two friends who happen to understand how we got to where we are now much better than almost everyone else. Finish listening to this episode first, but then you should check out Now and Then, I feel like you’ll really enjoy it.

GRABER: Back to Gastropod—Joanne told us that Halloween is at its core a particularly American holiday.

FREEMAN: One of the things that I love about Halloween, just sort of broadly thinking about the history and meaning of Halloween, is that it’s partly like pre-Christian Celtic ritual, it’s partly Scots Irish. It has something to do with marriage, and capitalism, and candy, and Christian angst. And that’s just kind of an American blend to me. There it is, like, all in one.

TWILLEY: Halloween first seems to appear in America as a holiday—something to celebrate—in the second half of the 1800s. But Heather told us back then, it was not Halloween as we know it. Instead, Halloween was all about young women figuring out that all important question: who were they going to marry?

RICHARDSON: So they would go, they’d eat special foods with the idea that it would give them visions of their future husbands, they would peel apples and throw the apple peels over their shoulders to hope that it would fall into the pattern of their future husband’s initials. Or they would look in mirrors with a candle and hope that they would see their betrothed. So there’s this idea of this sort of special spiritual moment where you can see your future. But it’s also really interesting when that happens, because of course, that’s the period when young men are going to cities or are moving west, and a lot of women are being left behind and wondering if in fact they’re going to find husbands. This is when we start to think of spinsters, that is, single women who spin at home, as being something negative because they’re never going to leave spinning alone at home. So the linkage of Halloween and this idea of, “Who am I going to marry?” gets linked into that historical moment of: “Really, who am I going to marry?”

GRABER: This plays zero role in Halloween today. I certainly never worried about who I was going to marry when I put on my black pointy witch’s hat and carried my plastic orange pumpkin around to fill with candy from the neighbors’ houses.

TWILLEY: So where did this first American iteration of Halloween as a fortune-telling holiday come from originally?

GRABER: Well, a lot of American colonists were from the British isles, and there’s a tradition there already in the late 1700s of young women, romance, fortune telling, all connected to Halloween. But, so where does that come from? What’s the origin of Halloween?

FREEMAN: So it is initially a pre Christian Celtic sort of festival that goes back 2000 years. But it morphs over the years and the centuries into a lot of different things.

TWILLEY: The history of Halloween is truly a very confusing thing. There’s a book called Trick or Treat by Lisa Morton that kind of teases it all out, and also shows how a lot of the supposed Halloween history you read online is not particularly accurate. But one thing most historians do agree is that the earliest origins of Halloween lie in a Celtic holiday called Samhain, it’s spelled SAM-HAIN, but apparently it’s pronounced SOW-in, which is something I only just learned!

GRABER: Remember, in our recent barrel episode, the Celts were a people that lived in the British Isles and all across Northern Europe a couple of thousand years ago. They invented barrels, but they also had deep mystical beliefs like most people at that time, and they had a holiday on October 31 and November 1 that was called Samhain.

TWILLEY: This moment marked the end of the summer and harvest, and the turn toward winter. Historians think the Celts believed the sun was dying before being reborn in the spring. Meanwhile, lots of sheep and other animals were being slaughtered for the winter. So there was a lot of death going on. And on that one night, the Celts believed a door was opened between this world and the afterlife.

GRABER: Then came Christianity, and the pope and all the other early Catholics weren’t so crazy about the Celts or anyone holding on to their pre-Christian pagan celebrations. But they found out that the Celts didn’t want to give up their holidays, including Samhain, so the Christians just kind of covered it up.

TWILLEY: Instead of banning Samhain, in the 800s, the Pope moved an existing Christian holiday celebrating martyrs who’d died for their faith to November 1. That became All Saints Day, also known as All Hallows Day, and the night before became All Hallows Eve, or, you know, Halloween.

GRABER: Originally there was no candy or trick or treating, or even any apple-based fortune telling, but there was still a connection to the afterlife, both from Samhain and from the dead martyrs. That connection was so strong that Christians added on another holiday, November 2, that one was called All Soul’s Day, and this day celebrated not just the martyrs but everyone who had died. And that took care of Samhain. Now it was Christian.

TWILLEY: No one knows exactly what people ate as part of those new-old celebrations, but, by the early 1500s, there’s some written evidence in the UK suggesting that there was a long-established tradition of special foods for Halloween—particularly something called the soul cake.

GRABER: Like all holiday desserts in England, soul cake has dried fruit in it, and it’s spiced, and it’s a little dense. But the point is that soul caking became a thing, children would go house to house and they would give a little rhyme or a music performance of some sort, and they’d get a soul cake. Yum!

TWILLEY: In the mid 1600s, this Halloween tradition was banned in England when we broke with the Roman Catholic church and all holidays were abolished. Which is why I didn’t grow up celebrating Halloween at all. But in more remote parts of the British isles, like Scotland, people kept the tradition alive. My sister in law, who grew up partly in Scotland, remembers performing special songs for treats on Halloween when she was a kid.

GRABER: And people in Scotland and in Ireland developed their own traditions. Like in some places they used to carve turnips on Halloween.

TWILLEY: And like Joanne said, the Scots Irish are the ones who first brought Halloween to the U.S. There was huge immigration of especially Irish people in the 1840s and 50s. And at the same time, there was another big shift going on in America: the rise of the middle class.

RICHARDSON: In the late 19th century, you get the rise of leisure class and the rise of more formalized parties. So they are in fact holding birthday parties for example, and real weddings, you know, with a reception and a cake and all that sort of thing in the late 19th century beginning really in the late 1870s and early 1880s.

GRABER: And these middle class folks somehow caught hold of the Scottish and Irish celebration of Halloween and they turned it into a party. In the mid-1800s you start to get the first mentions of Halloween parties, which is actually the way that Halloween was celebrated, complete with romance and apple-centered fortune-telling.

TWILLEY: By the 1890s, the Scots tradition of turnip carving had become the American jack-o’-lantern, which honestly is an upgrade, pumpkins are much easier to hollow out than turnips and they offer a bigger canvas anyway. And, of course, they’re native to the Americas.

GRABER: And then somehow—and really nobody knows exactly how—tricks became a part of the holiday.

RICHARDSON: You know, you read about, Oh, they played pranks on each other. But it was really pretty violent stuff that night.

TWILLEY: Heather says this was really thuggery, not pranks—by the 1920s and 30s, there were newspaper reports about gangs of youth roaming the streets on Halloween, overturning cars and sawing down telephone poles—these tricks were not just harmless fun.

FREEMAN: I think when you step back and look at Halloween over the sort of long haul, you do see different moments where there are different anxieties that reflect very much something American about that moment.

GRABER: And that moment in the early 1900s is a pretty stand-out moment in American history. It’s generally seen as the time period with the worst inequality—think about the super wealthy robber barons who were founding all the museums, while so many people were starving—though to be fair, it’s no longer the American period of the worst inequality, we’re living through that right now.

FREEMAN: But it feels very much like a thing that would come about at a time of the beginning of excess, like the Gilded Age—times when there’s a lot of excess and a lot of money and a lot of things probably felt like they needed a little comeuppance of some kind. So perhaps that’s part of it.

TWILLEY: Things got so bad that towns in America considered banning Halloween. But instead, following the example of the Catholic church, they decided it would be more effective to co-opt it—cities and organizations like the Boy Scouts and the YMCA all organized parades and costume contests and parties instead. They sanitized Halloween.

GRABER: And then at the same time, sugar had become more available. We talked about this in our soda episode: Before the 1900s, sugar was an incredibly rare treat. But by the early 1900s, you could get it more regularly and affordably, and there were actual candy companies and they wanted people to buy more candy.

TWILLEY: Back then, the big candy holidays were Easter, Christmas, and bizarrely, Washington’s birthday, which is in February and which was apparently the occasion to bust out some marzipan cherries and cocoa-dusted logs. Whatever they are.

GRABER: But so candy companies wanted to create an even more candy-centric holiday in the fall, and they suggested Candy Day.

FREEMAN: And as so many other things in American history, the push is partly just about commerce and capitalism, right. And I love this mostly because of the way in which they so bluntly describe the motive here. In 1916 the National Confectioners Association announces that the second Sunday of October is going to be known as “Candy Day.” And they explain the goals of Candy Day. What’s Candy Day supposed to be? And this is a quote from the National Confectioners Association: “The only motive of the NCA executive committee is to aid every manufacturer, jobber, and retailer in increasing his profits through increased sales on Candy Day.”

TWILLEY: There was a mass giveaway of candy to orphans and old people to mark the holiday, and lots of marketing muscle. It was quickly rechristened the Sweetest Day, and it was all about remembering to take time to be kind and generous and bring a smile to everyone’s face amidst the hustle and bustle of early October.

GRABER: But Halloween was just a couple of weeks later, and kids celebrated that with sweet food, too. They’d go house to house to different parties and they’d get things like apples and popcorn balls and other homemade treats.

TWILLEY: This moment, in the late 1920s and 1930s, is when you get the very first mentions of trick or treating. And back then, the treats were food and Heather says some of the tricks were too.

RICHARDSON: One of the big tricks was to fill a bag with flour and it was a long thin bag with flour and they’d have a slight tear in it. So they would go and they’d hit people with the bags of flour and that would break all over them and that was just hilariously funny. I know, I kind of miss what is so funny about that as well. But it was hilariously funny to hit people with bags of flour.

GRABER: So here you have it, there’s trick or treating in America complete with sweet foods, there’s a candy industry that wants to sell candy in October, and then there’s the rise of modern childhood, really.

TWILLEY: After the Second World War, there’s a baby boom, and the government subsidized mortgages for white people and you get the rise of suburbs full of young families and picket fences.

GRABER: And people really got into this family-friendly kid-focused holiday. Like in this song from the 50s by an American-Canadian bandleader named Guy Lombardo.

GUY LOMBARDO: Go out on the street / for a trick or a treat / You’re a INAUDIBLE to strike it rich. / Halloween, Halloween / All other holidays fall between / The night of all hallow’s / so light up the tallow / and make it a bright Halloween.

TWILLEY: And Candy Day disappeared, because candy and Halloween were now going to be together forever.

RICHARDSON: The actual take off of Halloween as sort of a vehicle for pumping candy into people takes off after World War Two, when sugar rationing has taken off. And by then, people are not so keen on this whole prank idea. And that really falls into disfavor by the time of World War Two out of concern that first of all, the people are going to get hurt. But second of all, that that might hurt the war effort by you know, using resources that should be used for World War Two. So the whole idea of sort of changing this holiday to be one that celebrates the lack of restrictions over sugar, but also sort of children—think of the baby boom, and the freedom that and the plenty of America after World War Two is really wrapped up into the taking off of Halloween as a candy holiday.

FREEMAN: But what’s interesting, too, is even at that early point, so even in 1950—on the one hand, there’s this sense that there’s Halloween and candy and you know, maybe not horrible thuggery, but still pranks. I don’t know, egging and you know the sorts of things that sort of went on, certainly when I was trick or treating. But even at that point, there was some discomfort with what Halloween was, which again, is one of the interesting things about this holiday is that it sort of morphs together all of these fears and anxieties and desires and habits and rituals that all blob together within American culture.

RICHARDSON: And instead we start to get the massive advertising of candy corn.

GRABER: Yes, the story of candy shaped like corn and tasting like… I’m not sure what it’s supposed to taste like, but it does taste exactly like candy corn? That’s coming up, after the break.


GRABER: By the 1970s and early 80s, Halloween wasn’t just a candy-based holiday, it was totally entrenched in American culture. I will never forget that iconic scene from the 1982 movie E.T., where the kids are taking E.T. trick-or-treating, he’s covered with a sheet to pretend he’s ghost, and he thinks a kid dressed like Yoda is his cousin.


TWILLEY: But it wasn’t all family-friendly fun at the 70s Halloween party. There was a new anxiety.


REPORTER: While kids are thinking about collecting candy and goodies, parents should be thinking about their safety. Police are expecting a fun and safe Halloween, but say that parents should be on the lookout for what goes inside their child’s basket.

POLICE OFFICER: Start looking for any opened wrappers, anything that might look manipulated in any way.

REPORTER: When in doubt, just throw it out. If the candy feels, smells, or looks weird, or has been opened, toss it.

REPORTER: With these headlines, parents want to be sure they don’t want to miss a thing. So many hospitals and urgent care centers will let you bring in all your treats for an X-ray. SOUND OF CANDY BEING DUMPED ON A HARD SURFACE


RICHARDSON: Oh, I love this. I mean, I love what happens in the 70s because the 70s and then what happens in the 1980s are really interesting about Halloween, because as Joanne will say in spades, whenever the country becomes anxious about the changes going on in it, they begin to be concerned about what’s happening with the children. And there is in 1970 an op-ed in the New York Times which suggests that strangers might use trick or treating to poison children. And there since then there has been this litany of, you know, the idea of razors in apples, you know, again unconfirmed. And it was just sort of speculating, maybe that nice lady down the street, or I think the quote is, “Maybe the kindly old lady down the block may have a razor blade hidden inside.” Well, what does that mean when you start to look at the older women and say, “Oh, she looks like, Oh, I don’t know, a witch.” You know, just at the time that a majority of women are starting to work outside the home, because of the extraordinary pressure of the inflationary 1970s. 1960s, 1970s.

FREEMAN: That’s connecting to the fact that you have children dressing up right as witches and sort of that component as well. They’re sort of the Celtic, you know, according to some, you know, Satanistic, for evangelicals, at least, sort of declaring that it has something to do with Satan.

TWILLEY: This is weird twist that Joanne pointed out: Halloween started as a pagan holiday that was co-opted by early Christians, but in the past few decades American evangelicals have decided that actually, it’s all about Satan and witchcraft. Just another thing to hate.

FREEMAN: Assuming that the sort of kindly old lady quote unquote, the evil old woman who, for some reason is planting razor blades in apples, kind of goes along with that tradition as well. And, you know, I’m curious, actually, for all of you, I remember vividly that fear. And I remember my mother telling me that we weren’t allowed to take any fruit. If people offered us fruit, we weren’t allowed to do that. And my mother inspected our candy to make sure that the package wasn’t like ripped or pierced or something, you know, that it wasn’t some sort of random propagandistic thing. It was something that was taken very, very seriously.

RICHARDSON: And people began to think that this was going to be affecting Halloween candy as well. And in fact, Halloween candy sales for 1982 dropped by 20 to 50%. And 40 American cities canceled the holiday altogether out of fear of poisoning on the children.

TWILLEY: This fear, that evil old ladies were planning to poison kids with adulterated Halloween candy—there’s no evidence it was ever really a real threat. Some disturbed people heard the news stories warning about the risk and were inspired to do it themselves, but even those copycat crimes were and are vanishingly rare.

FREEMAN: It was kind of a myth. But it was a myth that tied so powerfully into the sort of American mindset of that moment that it really didn’t matter if it was a myth. It was very believable in that context.

GRABER: This myth was one of the things that helped really lock down the packaged candy side of trick or treating—no more apples or homemade goods, thank you very much. And the other critical innovation was the invention of the fun size servings of candy, you know, the little ones.


KIDS: Trick or treat!

VO: Last year, one of everyone’s favorite candies appeared in a Halloween sized pack.


VO: And word spread quickly.


GIRL: Is this the house that gives Skittles?

BOY: See, I told ya!

RICHARDSON: And they start making the smaller ones in the early 1960s and 1961, I think. But when you get the inflation crisis of the 1970s, that’s going to make sugar prices spike. And when that happens, the candy market starts to take a hit. And it makes sense to make them smaller and smaller and smaller.

TWILLEY: Apparently in some places in Oregon full size bars are still expected, but the rest of the U.S. makes do with the quote unquote fun size.

GRABER: So fun size, like smaller sized versions of basically all candy appear in the stores around Halloween time, if they’re not small candy bars, then they’re small packages of bite-sized treats, such as the Brigadoon-like candy that appears once a year—yes, I’m talking about candy corn.

FREEMAN: Do I like candy corn? So here’s the thing. There’s a… it feels to me, as a person who does not like candy corn, that there’s this massive candy corn constituency out there. And if you come forward and say—

RICHARDSON: Sounds like the name of a rock band, the massive candy corn constituency.

FREEMAN: The CCC! If you come forward and you say that you do not like candy corn, everyone’s out to get you. Like I feel very shy about admitting that I do not like candy corn.

TWILLEY: If you are not American, you may not have encountered this mythic candy corn or its constituency. Again, as with so much to do with Halloween, candy corn’s origins are a little fuzzy, but it was supposedly invented by a candy maker in Philadelphia in the 1880s.

GRABER: It was part of a cornucopia of candies. It was one of a bunch of candies that were kind of paying homage to the fall harvest, they were molded into shapes like chestnuts and pumpkins and other plants. Corn at the time wasn’t actually a common food in America, it was more frequently food for animals, so another name for the tri-color candy which was indeed meant to look kind of like a kernel of corn was “chicken feed.”

TWILLEY: This new chicken feed candy was obviously popular in the fall with the harvest season, but it also showed up in Easter baskets with the bunnies and lambs, and people ate it all year round.

GRABER: But this doesn’t answer the very most important question: What the hell is it?

BETH KIMMERLE: So candy corn is fondant. That’s what we call it. And so the bakers that are listening will know fondant, obviously from fondant icing.

GRABER: Fondant is basically a paste-like icing made of sugar and water and something to make it pliable.

KIMMERLE: Depending on the brand—not always, but depending on the brand—each of those three layers may or may not have a separate flavor. And the basic flavor, the sort of you know go to flavor, is vanilla.

TWILLEY: This is Beth Kimmerle, you will remember her from our licorice episode. She works in food product development, including designing new candies, and she is the author of a book called Candy: The Sweet History.

GRABER: In the list of the top 10 Halloween candies, candy corn is on the list. It’s number 10, it’s not the highest, and that’s because it’s polarizing. Some people absolutely hate it. And some of us love it.

GRABER: Okay, here we go.

TWILLEY: Candy Corn opening time. SOUND OF BAG OPENING I mean, once you open candy corn, you should prepare to consume a bag of it.

GRABER: I’m a little nervous because I cannot eat this entire—sorry—I cannot eat this entire bag of candy corn, but it’s really hard to stop.

TWILLEY: It is really hard to stop. BAG RIPPING All right. Separate the layers. I’m just doing the yellow part.

GRABER: Tastes the same as the whole thing did.

TWILLEY: Yeah, tastes sweet and of vanilla. CHEWING I think it has a buttery note. And I don’t know why.

GRABER: It’s not just vanilla sugar. Like there’s some kind of caramelly buttery notes to it.

TWILLEY: Oh my God, I can feel myself going into a diabetic coma already.

GRABER: God, I can feel myself not being able to stop already.

TWILLEY: We have to remove this from the premises.

KIMMERLE: It’s sad to say I don’t think it is a universal favorite, but I think people are having the wrong kind. I’m gonna go out there and say that people don’t like it because they don’t know what they’re missing. And they’re missing like a high quality delicious experience.

GRABER: I love the normal stuff you find in the drugstore, but I was shocked to learn that there is actually higher end candy corn, it’s not all Brachs.

TWILLEY: Apparently the gourmet stuff is often aged or what confectionary people call ripened, which ends up changing the consistency a little. How you heat the sugar also affects the development of those butterscotch or caramel notes. Then there’s the question of whether you’re using real vanilla flavoring or not. All of these can improve your baseline candy corn experience.

GRABER: Beth told us the most easily accessible fancy candy corn is the Jelly Belly variety, they bought the company Goelitz, and they’ve been making candy corn for more than a century.

KIMMERLE: That’s like a classic especially for me because I grew up in the Chicago area and Goelitz, which is now Jelly Belly, makes one of the most divine candy corns you’ve ever had. Still to this day, they pump up millions and billions of Jelly Bellies and they still managed to make a beautiful fondant candy.

TWILLEY: So of course then we had to try the high-end candy corn too.

GRABER: So I was expecting something dramatic. I mean, the texture was definitely different, it wasn’t quite as mushy. It was a little more straight vanilla tasting, it didn’t have any of the buttery kind of caramelly notes that Brach’s did. I mean, frankly, if you put either in front of me I’d eat a handful easily. But the difference was subtle—they are definitely both recognizably candy corn.

KIMMERLE: And so I don’t know, I just think it’s like iconic. You know, that’s like an iconic shape, the colors, everything about it is iconic Halloween.

TWILLEY: In fact, it’s so iconic Halloween that it’s a problem. Candy corn has become a niche seasonal product. Brachs and Jelly Belly now struggle to convince people to eat candy corn at other times of year—they make pastel lavender and green bunny corn for Easter and red and green reindeer corn at Christmas.

KIMMERLE: I saw some Brach’s candy corn that was flavored like Thanksgiving dinner. And I just looked at the bag and thought, Oh man, you know I’d love to taste it just from a flavoring standpoint. Like is it spot on? Or what does the turkey taste like?

GRABER: I have outed myself as a candy corn lover, but I really don’t want to know.

TWILLEY: Moving swiftly onward. The point is, in America, you’re almost guaranteed that candy corn will show up somewhere in your Halloween celebrations. But really, it’s all about the classics. Maybe with a little Halloweeny twist.

KIMMERLE: Man, you know, they’ve changed over the years but it’s also sort of like, you know, this is their bread and butter. So they don’t really mess with the best very often. So it’s much easier to do these line extensions, which are different flavors and different formats.

GRABER: We saw some Halloween fun-sized candy bars that had glow-in-the-dark wrappers, Reese’s peanut butter cups come in the shape of ghosts, there are Peppermint Patty pumpkins and Hershey’s tombstones. But it’s just the greatest hits in different shapes and maybe slightly different flavors.

TWILLEY: But even so, everyone has their favorite. Hence the post trick or treat sorting ritual.

KIMMERLE: One of my clearest memories is the dump, right? So when you get the pumpkin head all full and you dump it on the ground and you become for a magical moment, your own Willy Wonka or your own you know little candy store operator, right? Now my preference has changed through the years but I think you know, I’ve always loved a Kit Kat. And my sister who’s 11 months older than I am, she was completely in the opposite direction. So that kind of worked out nicely between the sisters because we all had a favorite and we could kind of swap. And then of course my mom took whatever tax she took off the top.

GRABER: Unsurprisingly, the commercialism and spending around Halloween has skyrocketed in recent years. People go to town with decorations, which really never happened when I was a kid. Costumes are very fancy and expensive things. And candy purchases are also through the roof.

KIMMERLE: Something like 80 something percent of all households buy Halloween candy, which is, which is just, you know, that’s a really high number. And that’s a large number. And the other big holidays for candy, obviously, are Valentine’s Day, the winter holiday, and I think you know, Easter falls somewhere on that list. But nothing like Halloween.

TWILLEY: According to the confectionary industry, Americans are planning to spend a really kind of disturbing 10 billion dollars on Halloween this year, and 3 billion of that is going to be sugar-focused.

KIMMERLE: American consumers shop more than once for Halloween candy. So if you think about it, it’s sort of genius. You go to the store when the Halloween candy first comes out and you buy it, right? Because you think okay, I better buy it now because it may not be there. And then what happens once it goes home? You eat it. And your family eats it and your kids eat it or your kids go, Mom, that’s not what we want, we want the other thing with the googly eyes and the marshmallow tail. And so then you go and buy the right thing and you buy two bags just in case you know. So the interesting thing about Halloween candy is people shop for it at least two times, maybe even three. So it’s really it’s a candy permissive—t is THE candy permissive holiday.



VO: Is it too early to start celebrating Halloween?

VO: Well, if you’re celebrating by eating a Reese’s… then… no, you’re actually late. Not sorry! Reese’s. DOOR SLAMS SHUT

TWILLEY: Forget Samhain and fortune telling and even pranks—these days, Halloween has become just a massive excuse for spending money on home decorations and candy—two great things that Americans love!

GRABER: Heather and Joanne point out that what also makes this holiday particularly American is how it’s just a blend of so many different things. America is the only place where Halloween gathered all the parts of itself together to become Halloween.

FREEMAN: I mean, I know that it starts out obviously not being American, and Halloween comes from a Scottish term for All Hallows Eve. So on the one hand, none of that is particularly American. In a way the American part is how it’s celebrated.

RICHARDSON: What turns Halloween American is the fact it’s got that family focus and it’s not explicitly religious. By the time people are going for candy after World War Two, there isn’t the association with that holiday as being particularly religious as when we were talking about this. And I was saying that there was an attempt among candy makers and dry goods salesmen to make Easter a gift giving holiday in the late 19th century. And it just didn’t take off. And Joanne made the perfectly good point that Easter was explicitly very Christian, no matter what you did to it, and that simply didn’t get the kind of traction in that period that a non-religious holiday was able to.

FREEMAN: Yeah, actually interestingly, that’s true that as someone who’s Jewish, right, Easter was problematic. Whereas Halloween, despite all of the people claiming that somehow it has something to do with Satan, wasn’t religious at all. And I think, you know, most of the people observing it—as opposed to people being afraid of it—don’t assume that it’s religious, either. I don’t know, I think one of the interesting things about Halloween is the ways in which it can take different shapes at different times to reflect different moments in American history—that in a sense, the holiday itself can put on different costumes depending on the demands of the moment.

TWILLEY: America truly owns Halloween—but, as with so much of American culture, what happens in America does not stay in America. Like I said at the start of the episode, growing up in England in the 1980s and early 90s, I never went trick or treating. That wasn’t a thing. But in the past couple of decades, it has become one. Halloween spending in the UK went from a piddly 12 million pounds in 2001 to 280 million pounds last year, at the height of the pandemic.

GRABER: Halloween is taking over the world—but it’s also meeting up with some local celebrations that take place this time of year—sugar skulls and bone bread coming up after the break.


TWILLEY: There are a lot of celebrations to do with honoring and feeding ancestors and the dead, all around the world, and a lot of them take place at around about this time of year.

GRABER: And in some countries where Christianity became the prominent religion, it merged those existing traditions with the All Souls and All Saints Days. Margaret Magat is a folklorist and she grew up in the Philippines. There, the two-day holiday is called Undas.

MARGARET MAGAT: And it starts with, you know, cemeteries getting all cleaned up, and people making plans to reunite with their loved ones, both the living and the dead, in the cemetery.

TWILLEY: The Philippines was colonized by Spain in the 1500s. They brought Catholicism with them, but it layered over a belief that spirits were everywhere and in everything, all around you.

GRABER: And this became part of the Filipino celebration of Undas. Margaret described her memories of the holidays from when she was a kid.

MAGAT: I remember going into the cemeteries and there’s this air of festivity. People laughing, talking feasting, we would bring a lot of dishes with us that were already prepared

TWILLEY: Some of this food was put on ancestors’ tombs as an offering but the living did a lot of eating too.

MAGAT: And my favorite was usually taho, which is the type of silken tofu that’s been simmered in a caramelized water syrup that’s served with what we call sagot, or what is known as boba here, which is tapioca pearls.

MAGAT: And I loved eating that and I also loved all the other fried stuff.

TWILLEY: It sounds kind of fun and certainly very tasty. And the Philippines is not alone in throwing this kind of food-focused graveyard party. Probably the best known of these kind of celebrations of the dead around Halloween time is in Mexico.

SARAH CHAVEZ: So Día de los Muertos, it’s celebrated or observed, a tradition that’s been observed throughout Latin America, most people are familiar with it. Its origins being in Mexico that have roots in pre-Hispanic traditions.

GRABER: Sarah Chavez is a writer, and she co-founded a group called the Collective for Radical Death Studies, AND she’s the executive director of a nonprofit called The Order of the Good Death.

CHAVEZ: So lots of good deathy things!

TWILLEY: Sarah told us that the origins of the Day of the Dead celebrations go back to pre-colonization indigenous culture.

CHAVEZ: And so during this time of year, pretty much through September, October and even beginning in August, so it was a month-long series of events that took place where indigenous people prior to colonization during the harvest time really took time to honor their dead. And they would leave offerings. They had a much, much different idea and relationship with death and mortality than we’re familiar with. Death and their dead and their ancestors were really connected to things that were life-giving. The land, the food that they ate, water, all of those things were connected to death and the dead.
GRABER: And then, like everywhere else, the Church showed up and said, nope, you can’t practice your traditions, and the locals said, screw you, we’re still going to practice them, we’ll just layer your holiday on top.

TWILLEY: And Sarah says that like in the Philippines, a big part of how these traditions have always been celebrated is through food.

CHAVEZ: Food was a huge part. And I think that’s pretty much the same for every culture, and every tradition, is that special foods are always part of ritual. They elevate something ordinary into something special. Now we offer the food on the ofrenda and we believe that the spirits come, and they visit, it’s very much like a family reunion, right? So they come and they visit and we offer them their favorite things to eat and drink. And it’s believed that they take the essence of those things and then later on, you can eat them and share with your friends and family and neighbors.

GRABER: It wasn’t just at the tombstone, some of these original food-related deathy things took place at the funeral, too. Sarah told us people would make figures of the deceased out of amaranth.

CHAVEZ: And amaranth is a grain that ended up being outlawed by the colonists, because it was used in very sacred rituals. So they would make these figures of the deceased out of amaranth. And they would place them on these really lovely, like grass reeds, and then place the food offerings and the drink offerings in front of them.

TWILLEY: Today, there are a couple of foods that are associated with Day of the Dead celebrations in particular. One is elaborately decorated skulls made out of sugar.

CHAVEZ: You’ll see a lot of brightly colored tin foil in really vibrant colors: golds and hot pinks and purples that are often used for the eye sockets, and then colored icing as well.

GRABER: Like most things related to this holiday, nobody knows exactly where the sugar skulls come from.

CHAVEZ: So there’s a lot of debate about the sugar skulls’ origins, some believe that it’s tied to the amaranth figures that I mentioned before. And that these have evolved into what we know now as a sugar skull. When colonists introduced sugar and sugarcane to Mexico, it became really, really popular. And this desire for sweet substances really increased pretty rapidly.

TWILLEY: Sarah says, by the 1700s, sugar skulls were the norm.

CHAVEZ: So at this time, children and other people would actually go into the cemeteries and approach funeral processions, and ask for una calavera or calaverita. And they would be given you know, a molded skull of sugar, and maybe a little bit of money in exchange for saying prayers for the soul of the deceased. And then this practice then evolved to where these sugar skulls ended up on ofrendas. But also were given to the living or exchanged between the living as a token of kind of affection. Sometimes they’re customized with the recipient’s name written across the forehead. So they serve as this really interesting symbol of affection, and yet a reminder of our mortality.

TWILLEY: Just like in the US, there’s a ton of sugar being consumed around Halloween time in Mexico—but there’s something very different about a personalized custom decorated sugar skull compared to a mini Snickers.

GRABER: Another famous sweet Día de los Muertos food is pan de muerto.

CHAVEZ: Pan de muerto is a sweet bread. And the one that you’ll most commonly see, or that people will be most familiar with, it looks like a bread roll that’s about as big as the palm of your hand, it has a flat bottom, and it’s rounded on the top. And that’s meant to indicate a grave mound. So over that, you’ll see some dough going across the top of it. And that’s actually meant to represent bones. And they’re actually scented, they’re often scented with an orange water. So they have this really lovely fragrance. And that’s again, something that’s really included to delight the dead and attract them through scent as an offering.

TWILLEY: I am not dead as far as I know, but I am a huge fan of pan de muerto, it starts showing up in my neighborhood in L.A. in early October, and it’s not too too sweet and I kind of love it. But it turns out that I have not yet explored the full range of dead bread.

CHAVEZ: There are many types of pan de muerto, depending upon region. So in Oaxaca, and also in Bolivia, what you’ll see is their bread is shaped like little babies, and they actually have a face.

GRABER: The shapes of these death breads shifted a bit with the times recently. Last year, during the pandemic, people actually started making bread coffins instead of bread babies in Bolivia, and they replaced the baby faces with the faces of masked doctors and nurses.

CHAVEZ: And they also started creating these little virus breads to go with them, and they would paint them green and have little toothpicks sticking out of them. They’re works of art, and they definitely reflected the experience of death and mortality at the time. So they’re really unique and sad and beautiful. Just like Día de Muertos is.

TWILLEY: Sarah told us that you can find special foods for the dead on October 31st all around the world.

CHAVEZ: There are quite a few really great ones. So in Spain, there’s huesos de santo, which is saints bones, and they’re these three inch cylinders of marzipan. And inside is a filling that’s supposed to look like bone marrow because they’re saint’s bones.

GRABER: Sarah told us that in Italy they eat cookies that are bone-shaped, and they’re dusted with confectioners sugar so they look kind of dusty and decomposed.

CHAVEZ: I think my favorite, though, is another Italian cookie for All Souls Day, called the fave dei morti, which is beans of the dead. And these are these buttery almond flavored cookies. They originally were shaped like beans, which I realize sounds weird. But if I tell you the history, it just gets even weirder: is that ancient Greeks and Romans actually thought that the souls of their dead ancestors were just hanging around in fava beans.

GRABER: I have a hard time imagining my ancestors hanging around me in fava beans, but I guess it’s better than hanging around in candy corn?

TWILLEY: I think so. Even the gourmet kind. But that does raise a different question. Why exactly are everyone in the northern hemisphere’s ancestors all hanging around and coming to visit in the fall—at the end of October specifically?

CHAVEZ: I think it has a lot to do with, you’ve got the harvest time. And so you’ve got this bounty of things, people coming together in community and working together to preserve, to get ready for the winter. And the winter, you know, prior to things like electricity, and really secure shelter, and infrastructure and things like that, was really kind of a frightening time. It was cold, like freezing cold, and dark. So there were more predators around. Facing your mortality, like were you even going to survive the winter, was a reality. So I think people really had to find ways to come to terms with, that might be the last harvest season they’re going to live through, or you know, their loved ones would live through.

GRABER: And to come back to Halloween here in America, there are vestiges of the original Samhain connection to death in our celebrations here. We have skeleton decorations on houses, and people dress up like ghosts. There are haunted houses where dead people jump out at you.

TWILLEY: But just like Heather and Joanne said, Halloween really reflects where we’re at as a culture. And Sarah told us, that’s true for how we deal with death here in the U.S. too. We kind of don’t.

CHAVEZ: So it’s really become this thing that we absolutely fear and I think that’s one of the reasons why in the U.S. we love Halloween so much is there’s no place in our culture or society where we are allowed to talk about death. So how do we do it? We do it at Halloween, we do it by eating cookies that look like severed fingers, and putting graveyards in our front yards and dressing up the skeletons. You know, this has become our weird little outlet for talking about something that’s really a momentous occasion in our human existence and in our life experience.

GRABER: But in a weird way, Halloween’s candy focus, and even that beloved or hated candy corn—it all does actually make sense.

CHAVEZ: When you look at the history of food and death and how it’s been used across different cultures, sweets and candy and death have really had a long history together. So you see a lot of different cultures and religions actually traditionally serve a specific kind of candy during funerals. And this really serves as a reminder that although grief and death is a very bitter and sad experience, that that candy, the sweetness of that candy reminds us that life is still sweet for the living.

TWILLEY: Thanks this episode to the fabulous team at Cafe and in particular Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman, the co-hosts of Now and Then. Go listen to them wherever you get your podcasts.

GRABER: Thanks also to Beth Kimmerle, Margaret Magat, and Sarah Chavez. We have links as usual on our website. And a huge thanks as always to Sonja Swanson, our producer.

TWILLEY: Stay safe out there, spooky ones, and we’ll be back in a couple of weeks with a brand new episode. If you’re listening to this on the Now and Then feed, don’t forget to come subscribe to Gastropod.