Ruth ‘Dusty’ Anderson, 1944
I used to enjoy Hallowe’en. Back in the 70’s, the British Hallowe’en was a charming, subtle affair: a ghost story read aloud at nursery school, a spooky cartoon on the BBC perhaps; bobbing for apples (remember that?). In the fading twilight, my now-departed grandmother taught me how to carve little turnip lanterns at the kitchen table. And that was that. No Trick or Treat. I doubt very much if the parents were even aware that it was happening- they had far more important things to worry about: strikes, the collapse of the British Economy, the three day week, inflation, the threat of redundancy: boring grown-up problems like losing your job, going out of business and the threat of nuclear war.
But today, the American Pumpkin Festival is out of control. There are many, many, civilised, indeed lovely, things about America and Americans: their incredible museums, their massive bookshops, the beautifully stocked newsagents, the brown paper bags you get in supermarkets, the films of Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Whit Stillman; Kermit and the Muppets, Scooby Doo and the Mystery Machine, Charles Schulz and Peanuts; Monopoly, Tom and Jerry refrigerators, the Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, Julianne Moore, the Dry Martini Cocktail, Coca-Cola, shrimp gumbo and chile-con-carne (always served with plain crackers); Frasier and Niles Crane, Orson Welles, Vogue Magazine, the Philadelphia Cricket Club, the Chrysler Building, San Francisco, Manhattan and Georgetown, Washington DC; Bunny Mellon, Patricia Highsmith and Tom Ripley, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, the paintings of Mark Rothko; Edgar Allan Poe, Richard Scarry and Vincent Price.
Ellen Drew, 1941
But over here we’ve imported all the worst things from America: political correctness and dumbed down celebrity culture, reality television, prancing majorettes and hearty cheerleaders, liposculpture and trout pouts, Country Clubs, checked golfing ‘pants’ and electric buggies; fat people, money belts, Segway portability vehicles, ugly SUVS, Chrysler cars; the musty smell of pumpkin and the sickly taste of cinnamon; food to ‘go’, rather than to ‘takeaway’, multiple television channels of infinite boredom (advertising breaks every fifteen minutes), Easter Parades, white stretch limos, lieutenant pronounced ‘loootenant’, upward inflections at the end of every sentence, Baby Showers and High School Proms; Facebook, Hummers, the Franklin Mint, EuroDisney and Kentucky Fried Chicken; hockey ‘moms’, the bland ’Have a Nice Day!’, ‘Missing You Already!’, the dreadful ‘Save the Date’, scary clown mania; Donald Trump.
The latest madness is Black Friday. Come the day, British Twitter is now full of ‘Black Friday this’ and 'Black Friday that'. But Black Friday is the day after Thanksgiving. And may I remind the increasingly hysterical British media that, as yet, we don’t have Thanksgiving here? Thanksgiving is a specifically American (and Canadian) celebration, which, commemorates, I gather, the landing of a container’s worth of persecuted English Non-Conformists on Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts in the early 17th century. It’s a bit like asking the Americans to celebrate the execution of Guido Fawkes. And why should they do that?
So it’s with great regret that I am going to have to add the American Hallowe’en to the index. Come the 31st, the mean streets of SW8 are full of threatening, marauding gangs of masked, acned youths and their pushy, earnest parents demanding sweeties- sorry Honey, ‘candy’. Which is one of the reasons we barricade the front door, turn off the lights and pretend that we’ve gone to Positano for the week.
I try very hard not to rant, I really do; I know it’s horribly unattractive (especially as I reach the zenith of Late Youth); but these days I spend about a quarter of my time shouting at the computer and television screen. Over the last ten years, the world has gone barmy.
Betty Grable: How to Marry a Pumpkin?
Historically, of course, this is all nonsense, and Hallowe’en is a worthy example of a Scottish, Irish or Northern English tradition exported to the American states, jiggled about a bit and then sold back to us. In the same way that Seattle re-imagined the Italian Coffee House, Chicago the Neapolitan pizza and San Francisco Chinese Chow Mein.
And in that tradition here’s my version of an American style Black Bean Soup, very suitable for the chill days of late October, with Mexican hints suitable for the Day of the Dead festival on November 2nd. The sort of dish they might serve up at Jo Allen’s in Exeter Street:
You can either use tinned black beans or dried beans which you need to soak overnight in cold water. In a pan, cook some chopped smoked bacon in butter for a few minutes. Next, stir in a chopped onion, chopped carrot, and two crushed cloves of garlic. It might also be a good plan to throw in a finely chopped green chilli. One of those fiendishly hot small ones. I'll leave that up to you.
Next, you need to add cumin. If you've got time, you can dry-roast some cumin seeds in a hot frying pan, and then when they're popping, take them out and crush them in a pestle and mortar. Otherwise you could use powdered cumin. Add the cumin to the pan, and stir in. Cook for a few moments. Tip in the black beans, some chicken stock, and a liberal dash of my favourite Tabasco Sauce. I like the green, slightly milder stuff.
Simmer on a very low heat with the lid on for about an hour and a half. You want the soup to be thick and velvety. The black beans should thicken everything up. Serve with sour cream, and chopped chives. A spicy Mexican Salsa might be a good plan too.