Want to hear something terrifying? In 2001, the UK spent £12 million on Halloween. Last year, say analysts Mintel, spending was set to hit £320 million. Now our third-biggest event, after Christmas and Easter, Halloween is growing faster than an army of the undead in a zombie apocalypse movie.
Quite why is a fiendish riddle inscribed on a goat’s skull placed inside a blood-stained pentagram. American cultural imperialism, rampant consumerism and millennials are all in the blame frame, particularly given that the latter are more likely to blow money on ‘sexy’ witch outfits (never have commas been more inverted) or hand-painted Mexican El Día de Muertos sugar skulls.
For those who grew up with 31 October as a trivial precursor to the serious business of Bonfire Night, it is baffling – and increasingly difficult to digest. For Halloween is now a chilling feast of dubious foods. It is a Frankenstein’s monster of evil edibles, creepy candies and freaky fancies. Alliteration and puns seem to be its chief creative motors.
This is less of an issue for kids. Let them enjoy the sugar rush. Using Halloween to score points in a debate about childhood obesity is a joyless non-starter. The issue runs far deeper than this one festival. That said, as the dad of a young son, I instinctively bridle at the aisles and aisles of jelly fangs, candy floss cobwebs and chocolate bats that appear in October, the pester-power they provoke and how it means Halloween, Bonfire Night, Christmas and New Year now all blur into two months of non-stop, limited-edition confectionery.
That constant novelty vastly inflates kids’ expectations. Back in the day, if you were lucky, trick-or-treating meant choosing from a tin of Quality Street (what could be scarier than potentially getting a strawberry cream?). Today, entitled kids expect a pick ‘n’ mix of high-quality confectionery behind every front door. We buy treats in. We lay on a spread for them, lest we be seen as miserable. Does it make the kids happy? No. Just greedier.
But all that is literally child’s play compared to the way adults have embraced Halloween. All week, even in usually serious restaurants, you can’t move for spooky specials, Dracula-themed ‘stake nights’, plates of bloody, worm-infested intestines (sausages, pasta, tomato sauce) and cocktails bobbing with lychee eyeballs under graveyard fogs of liquid nitrogen. Is this what we want food to be? A playground haunted by meringue ghosts?
The worst element of the modern Halloween, however, has to be the pumpkin lantern. It is a genuine shock these days to see one – gap-toothed, wonky eyes, off-centre triangle nose – that has been carved by a child. Instead, the grass verges around Britain’s primary schools are annually littered with stencilled creations as intricate as the finest tattoo art. And plainly created by parents.
All this causes enormous waste. More than 30% of people think pumpkin flesh cannot be eaten, reports the Pumpkin Rescue campaign, and, despite being told to eat more pumpkin risottos, soups and raviolis, we still bin 18,000 tonnes of pumpkin annually. Not gourd. Not gourd at all.
My tip? If your family harasses you for ghoulish treats that are a waste of money and food, really bring the gore. Take the Nordic Food Lab’s suggestion that pigs’ blood can replace eggs in cakes, and get your kids baking with blood. Or serve them calves’ brains for tea. Trust me, they’ll be far less demanding next Halloween.
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Tony Naylor writes for Restaurant magazine and The Guardian.