October 30, 2012
The commemoration of the last day of the ancient Celtic calendar was a major influences on how we celebrate Halloween, but one significant tradition has (thankfully?) not survived. Kale, that leafy salad green, was a tool of marriage divination, identifying life partners for men and women in ancient Scotland and Ireland.
But first, some context: According to the Celtic calendar, on the morning of November 1, spirits and the supernatural “bogies” were free to roam the night of the 31st and into the morning as the new year represented the transition between this world and the otherworld. To fend off the spirits and to celebrate the coming year, Scottish youths participated in superstitious games on Halloween night that were thought to bring good fortune and predict the future marital status of partygoers.
Scottish bard Robert Burns describes the typical festivities for the peasantry in the west of Scotland in his poem, “Halloween,” originally published in both English and Scots in 1785. The 252-line poem follows the narrative of 20 characters and details many—often confusing—folk practices: Burning nuts, winnowing the corn, and the cutting of the apple:
“Some merry, friendly, country-folks,
Together did convene,
To burn their nuts, and pile their shocks of wheat,
And have their Halloween
Full of fun that night.”
Also included among the party games mentioned in Burns’ poem is our first Halloween kale matchmaking activity, known as ”pou (pull) the stalks.”
1) Pou (Pull) the Stalks
In this Scottish tradition, instead of trick-or-treating, young, eligible men and women were blindfolded and guided into a garden to uproot kale stalks. After some time digging in the dirt, the piece of kale selected was analyzed to determine information about the participant’s future wife or husband.
In Burns’ poem, for example, the character of Willie, tries his luck and pulls a stalk as curly as a pig’s tail. He isn’t too happy about it:
“Then, first and foremost, through the kail,
Their stocks maun a’ be sought ance;
They steek their een, and graip and wale,
For muckle anes and straught anes.
Poor hav’rel Will fell aff the drift,
And wander’d through the bow-kail,
And pou’t, for want o’ better shift,
A runt was like a sow-tail,
Sae bow’t that night.”
The analysis was pretty literal according to Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween by David J. Skal—meaning poor Willie’s curly-Q’d root didn’t look too promising. Characteristics of the stalk were thought to reveal signs about the potential partner: A short and stunted stalk meant just that for the player’s future mate. Tall and healthy, withered and old, and so on—even the kale’s flavor was thought to hint at the disposition of the future spouse (bitter, sweet, etc.). The amount of dirt clinging to the stalk post pou was believed to determine the size of the dowry or fortune the participant should expect from their husband or wife. A clean root meant poverty was in the cards.
“A lad and lassie, hand in hand,
Each pull a stock of mail;
And like the stock, is future wife
Or husband, without fail.
If stock is straight, then so is wife,
If crooked, so is she;
If earth is clinging to the stock,
The puller rich will be.
And like the taste of each stem’s heart,
The heart of groom or bride;
So shut your eyes, and pull the stocks,
And let the fates decide.”
2) Cook Up Some Colcannon
If you’re not satisfied with letting the “fates” determine the man or woman you will spend the rest of your life with, perhaps this Irish tradition may interest you. For Hallowe’en—what Christianity would later call All Hallows’ Eve—kale was used in the traditional dish, colcannon, or “white-headed cabbage” when translated from its Gaelic roots cal ceannann’. Charms hidden in the mush of cabbage, kale and chopped onions, were thought to determine who at the table would be the next to tie the knot. If you were lucky enough to find a ring concealed in your meal, no longer would you spend your Halloween dinner single and sighing—wishing you’d find a piece of metal in your food. The other hidden object was a thimble, which meant the life of a spinster for the lady lucky enough to discover it. Eating the dinner trinket-free seems to be the best of the three situations, but I suppose it depends on who you’re asking. If the Halloween dinner were up to me, the only thing on the menu would be candy.
April 18, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing series, we asked you to tell us about the most memorable meal of your life. A pattern emerged from the stories we received: nothing focuses the mind on a meal like hardship, hunger or disgust. Today’s entry reminds us that meals don’t have to be traumatic to be memorable (and that sometimes food tastes even better if you reject standard table manners).
Emily Horton is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C., who specializes in food and culture and is an enthusiastic cook. As she explains about her story: “What inspires me most, as a cook and a writer, are traditional foodways and remarkable ingredients, which is where the food I wrote about in this essay takes its cues. This meal was so memorable to me in part because it was so fresh in my mind, but also because it epitomized what I value most in cooking: simple, unfussy food made stellar by way of local and seasonal ingredients, and the shared experience of cooking and eating with others.”
The Magic of Kale
By Emily Horton
Kale is best eaten with the fingers.
I don’t think we had specifically planned to make dinner. But it was already around 6:00 when my friend John came by; it was a Friday and warm, and there were dogs to be walked. This being March, when warm days are a tease and thus impossible not to ravish, I thought company would be just the thing. “I’m bringing kale,” he said.
In my kitchen he emptied his bag of its contents: a bunch of Siberian kale, sweet, tender and mossy-hued. If it’s not the variety responsible for inspiring those “Eat More Kale” T-shirts, it should have been. We cooked it in a Dutch oven over a low flame, slicked with a glug of olive oil, a few dribbles of water and some sea salt, until it turned into a silken, glistening heap. We emptied the greens onto a plate, grabbed juicy bits with our fingers. Forks have no place here. We’re not sure why. “It’s so much better eating it this way,” he said. I nodded. We finished the plate with fewer words; we hadn’t bothered to sit down. I credit the kale for its sumptuousness. John says my technique is magic (it’s nothing special, and I’ve since taught him how to replicate the results). But flattery gets a person everywhere, and when he asked if I might bring him another beer from the fridge (could I open it, too?), I only narrowed my eyes a little.
“I have an idea,” I said. I remembered a dish I had coveted all winter, refusing to make for one, that had seemed too lusty of a thing to be eaten in solitude. We set about cracking walnuts, pounding them with garlic (actually, John took both of those tasks because he’s a better sport than I am), grating copious amounts of cheese. We stirred butter into the walnuts, then the Parmigiano, then olive oil. We boiled fresh linguine, nutty with spelt and oat flour, saving a bit of the cooking water. I turned everything into a bowl. The pesto covered the pasta now like a creamy coat, and the heat coaxed such a fragrance from the walnuts, heady and floral, that we understood why adding herbs would have been something of an interruption. We took the single serving bowl to the table, two forks, in the interest of minimalism.
John sat back in his chair, the wicker one without a match, and closed his eyes. “Wait a second, I’m having a moment.” There were bits of walnut shell in the sauce that my teeth kept catching. I decided not to care.
October 26, 2010
If Lisa’s post about the connection between chocolate and child labor has made you reconsider your Halloween candy-buying habits, here’s an alternative for you to feed the trick-or-treaters: kale!
Yeah, you’re right—that’s probably not a good idea unless you want your house egged. But did you know that kale has a historic Halloween connection?
According to the book Halloween: An American Holiday, An American History, by Lesley Pratt Bannatyne:
Cabbage and kale, unlikely magical tools that they may seem, were assumed by the Irish to possess great fortune-telling power. The foods were plentiful throughout the British Isles, and young people pulled up kale plants to judge the nature of their future spouses from the taste (a bitter stalk meant a bitter mate), the shape (straight or curved, indicating the condition of the spine), and the amount of dirt clinging to the root (degree of wealth). The divination worked best if the kale was stolen; it was most telling if practiced on Halloween.
This ritual of “pulling the kail” (kale) was so popular that it even inspired poetry. In “Halloween,” written in 1785, the great Scottish poet Robert Burns lyrically describes young people running into the fields, blindfolded, to select their plants on “that night, when fairies light”:
Then, first an’ foremost, thro’ the kail,
Their stocks maun a’ be sought ance;
They steek their een, and grape an’ wale
For muckle anes, an’ straught anes.
Poor hav’rel Will fell aff the drift,
An’ wandered thro’ the bow-kail,
An’ pou’t for want o’ better shift
A runt was like a sow-tail
Sae bow’t that night.
In other words: A silly lad named Will, having pulled up a kale plant with a stem as curly as a pig’s tail, is pouting about his future hunchback wife. Poor guy.
Kale may not have supernatural properties, but its natural ones are pretty potent: one cup of boiled kale is packed with vitamins A, C and K, as well as potentially cancer-fighting isothiocyanates and anti-inflammatory flavonoids. And it can taste fantastic, prepared properly. Try these ideas if you’re not a believer yet:
3. Simply sauteed kale, seasoned with a squirt of lemon juice and crushed red pepper, is one of my all-time favorite foods. It could get even better with toasted cashews.
4. Give it an international twist: Seasonal Chef has seven ideas, ranging from spicy African kale with yams to Portuguese kale-sausage soup.
What’s your favorite way to eat kale?