Emma Freud experiences the madness of Halloween in the Big Apple, complete with costumes, parades and plenty of pumpkin.
Halloween in Manhattan is massive. It may have begun its undead life as a pagan ritual, but in modern New York those cultural roots have been left far behind. Now Halloween has nothing to do with remembering the departed and everything to do with a lavish and witty pumpkin-flavoured celebration of stupid, sexy, gothic mischief, which begins a week before the big night at the Tompkins Square Halloween Dog Parade.
Desperately trying to embrace our new town’s major cultural event in order to fit in, we dressed our small dog in a Supergirl outfit, complete with logoed T-shirt, satin cape and netting tutu, and wondered if she’d win a prize. What fools we were. As we approached Tompkins Square, we discovered the full extent of our competition: there were groups of dogs dressed as the complete cast of The Wizard of Oz, and I spotted the full line-up of Village People. We passed the Pope (a dog) on a throne being worshipped by fans (dogs) equipped (somehow) with camera phones.
As we got closer we found a dog dressed as a lobster sitting in a saucepan on top of an oven, a pup version of the Flintstone family and about 20 dogs dressed convincingly as Donald Trump (turns out it’s quite an easy look for a canine to achieve). The best was the dog in black tie with a neck cone that held an oversized stick of olives – he had come as James Bond’s Martini. The whole thing was a glorious celebration of camp, animal love and made me think that I had finally found my people.
So, for Halloween itself, I realised I had to up my game and decided to create Little House on the Prairie: the zombie version. I ordered a 19th-century Pilgrim dress and found two tiny versions of the same outfit that fitted both our dog and our rabbit. I then splattered the outfits in fake blood and transformed myself into the dead version of Laura Ingalls Wilder – with my pets as convincing matching accessories.
If I’m honest, I couldn’t say that the dog enjoyed her dress, and after about 20 minutes the rabbit began to eat his own bonnet. But the real joy that night was the costumes that paraded down our street: we saw two 6ft rats holding a giant pizza slice between them, a Bride of Frankenstein walking hand in hand with a giant poo emoji, and two people dressed as sushi frolicked with girls wearing only underwear and strings of fairy lights. I have rarely enjoyed a parade more: it was only exceeded by the feast we created at home later, which was based entirely around the humble pumpkin.
In our old area of London, roughly one house in every 10 pops an apologetic pumpkin onto the doorstep on Halloween eve. In America, virtually every house has multiple pumpkins on display at least two weeks before the big event. They sit on window ledges and porches, get piled up like totem poles and, once the day arrives, are adorned with scarves and hats to make pumpkin men.
In New York during October, pumpkin flavouring is added to almost everything. This was an innovation for me, and on your behalf I tasted pumpkin breakfast cereal (filthy), pumpkin cappuccino (weird) and crisps (delicious). Also pumpkin popcorn (fun to say, disgusting to eat), ice cream (meh), waffles (hello), beer (it’s beer, what’s not to love), yogurt (jury’s out), porridge (porridge-y), granola (delicious), cheesecake (result), butter (why?), doughnuts (it worked), chocolate (it didn’t), bread (moist), macarons (soggy), caramels (vom), bagels (wrong), almonds (ish), Oreo cookies (no) and pumpkin vodka (now we’re talking).
What became clear was that puréed pumpkin (which is always used with a heady mixture of pumpkin pie spice – cinnamon, nutmeg, ground ginger and cloves) is more than the sum of its parts. It’s like the scent of mulled wine for the Brits: pumpkin recipes exemplify time off work, kids off school, parties, holidays, traditional values, vintage movies and old-fashioned morals.
Say the word ‘pumpkin’ to an American and they start to glow. Desperately trying to cash in on pumpkin love, I leave you with my ultimate autumn recipe. Seriously, enjoy!