The festival of Halloween isn't the only historic event capable of making us shudder on Oct. 31. This Saturday also marks the death anniversary (1925) of magician Harry Houdini. And the birth anniversary (1815) of Karl Weierstrass, the German mathematician whose calculus innovations have succeeded in frightening countless students through the years.
From a gastronomic perspective, though, Halloween is more a holiday worth celebrating. Here are just a few reasons why:
"Halloween is back on track," says Philip Kimball of the National Confectioners Assn., which represents 100 U.S. candy manufacturers and 200 industry suppliers.
The industry's fifth annual survey of consumers reveals that 93 percent of all households with children under 12 plan to participate in Halloween this year, either by allowing their children to trick-or-treat or purchasing candy to distribute. And 80 percent of all households plan to participate.
The candy folks couldn't be happier. When the poll was first conducted in 1983, following the Tylenol and food-tampering scares of the early '80s, the findings proved less-than-sweet: that year, only 77 percent of households with children under 12 (and 69 percent of all households) intended to take part in the festivities.
You'd probably need a shovel to scoop out, and a machete to carve, the world's heaviest pumpkin -- a whopping 671-pound squash grown by Howard Dill of Windsor, Nova Scotia, in 1986. But bigger isn't necessarily better as far as taste is concerned; the best eating pumpkins, say those who grow them, are about 10 to 12 inches in diameter. And according to Avis Renshaw of Mom's Apple Pie in Herndon, the best pie-making pumpkins include the full-flavored neck pumpkin, which resembles an elongated butternut squash, and the common, small, dense and meaty sugar pumpkin, widely available in most markets. Renshaw knows her pumpkins: Mom's Apple Pie, she reports, has been turning out an average of 800 pumpkin pies a week since early October.
The French turn it into jam and soup, Italians use it to stuff ravioli, and Yugoslavs and Poles cook it together with cream and herbs and serve it as a side dish.
Pumpkin is, however, a foodstuff indigenous to the Western Hemisphere -- before Columbus, it was unknown in Europe. Fittingly, a number of New American-style Washington restaurants will be featuring the squash on their menus this Halloween. Among the treats to expect: ginger-spiked pumpkin soup at City Cafe, honey-baked baby pumpkin with pheasant at 1789, pumpkin ice cream and pumpkin soup laced with Smithfield ham at Prime Plus, and curried pumpkin soup and pumpkin cheesecake at Suzanne's. The West End Cafe is going a step further: patrons wearing costumes will receive a choice of a complimentary slice of pumpkin cheesecake or what owner Herb Kaplan is calling a "l'orange pumpkin shooter."
Meanwhile, restaurateur Jason Wolin, whose Foggy Bottom Cafe will be offering a pumpkiny version of Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme's sweet potato pecan pie, is threatening to trick his rivals: "I'll be wrapping toilet paper over all my competitors' doorways," he laughingly suggested.
Aside from the pumpkin's sundry decorative and culinary applications, the vegetable once served as a guide for barbers, during the days when 17th-century Blue Laws called for all New England males to sport round haircuts -- hence the phrase "pumpkin head."
That familiar holiday confection known as candy corn, conceived in the early 1930s, was originally identified not with Halloween, but with the fall harvest. So says Larry Dicke of Jacobs Suchard/Brach, the country's largest producer of candy corn, which sells an estimated $10 million of the honey-flavored cream candy annually.
There are two varieties of candy corn: the traditional yellow-orange-white kind, and "Indian" corn, sold only in autumn, which is similarly white-tipped, but has a brown (chocolate) center.
What to do with all that candy corn? For starters, try stuffing it into a pinåata. Portside, at 106 North Lee St. in Alexandria (683-6221), carries two styles of individual-size pinåatas ($2.29) -- one in the shape of a pumpkin, the other, a witch's face -- both of which can hold a generous fistful of candies.
The store's line of seasonal goodies spills over into small flat crates of mixed spices and drink additions ($12.99 each). Each light wooden box includes a packet of mulled wine and cider spice, 10 whole nutmegs, a bag of sweet spiced ground chocolate, and a bag of cinnamon sticks. It looks smart, smells wonderful, and best of all, tastes terrific when used along with the enclosed recipes.
When her children were young, Mary Goodwin, chief nutritionist with the Montgomery County Health Department, solved the problem of their coming home after trick-or-treating with more candy than she thought was good for them: She simply bought back most of their sweets, and tossed them away.
Goodwin points out that there are a number of healthful alternatives to doling out candy on Halloween: apples, bananas, oranges and other firm fruits can be offered to children one knows (and to whose parents you are known) and popcorn (perhaps flavored with cheese and herbs) is an appropriate treat for older children (younger children might choke, she cautions).
What's the nutritionist dishing out this weekend? Goodwin plans to offer a choice of bagged raisins or peanuts (unsalted, naturally).
Still another alternative to candy is Roy Rogers' SafeTreats coupon book ($1), which includes 10 coupons for free sundaes. The booklets are available at all Roy Rogers locations and redeemable by children 14 years old or younger through the end of November.
Trick-or-treaters won't be the only beneficiaries -- proceeds from the SafeTreats program go to local Easter Seals societies. Last year, more than $143,000 was raised this way, reports Roy Rogers Restaurants.
Like other squash, pumpkins lend themselves well to all manner of cooking methods:
To bake: Halve pumpkin, removing stringy portion and seeds. Cut into 2-inch chunks and peel. Brush with melted butter and bake in a 350-degree oven about 45 minutes, or until tender.
To boil: Place peeled chunks in boiling salted water and cook 15 to 20 minutes, or until tender. Drain and mash, or for a smoother consistency, pure'e in a blender.
To steam: Place peeled chunks in a vegetable steamer or colander in a pan of boiling water. Cover tightly and steam approximately 50 minutes, or til tender. Mash and use in desserts, or as a vegetable side dish, seasoned with butter and salt and pepper.
Faced with leftovers? Pumpkin freezes well. Simply boil or steam the squash, as directed above, then mash and cool the mixture. Spoon into freezer containers, leaving about 1/2 inch for expansion, and seal tightly.
Good news on the nutrition front: Pumpkin is "a really good source of Vitamin A," which gives us "shiny hair and healthy eyes." This according to Debbie Mattes-Kulig, a registered dietitian with Bite by Bite, a nutrition consulting firm.
Each half-cup serving provides 157 percent of the US RDA for Vitamin A (and only 40 calories), says Mattes-Kulig, who adds that recent studies indicate that half of all children do not get enough of this vitamin.
Herbalist Estelle Abernathy of Newport News knows there's more to pumpkins than pie and jack-o-lanterns. Her self-published, homey-looking, spiral-bound "Pumpkin Corner" cookbook proves the point, with scores of recipes for snacks, beverages, breads and casseroles. (The book is available locally from Cox Farms near Centreville, Va., for $4.99, or by writing to Strawberry Patchworks, 11597 Southington Lane, Herndon, Va., 22070. The price is $6, including postage and handling.)
But if it's still pumpkin pie you're after, Abernathy offers a few suggestions for improving on the standard:
Try flavoring the filling with 2 tablespoons brandy.
Layer an unbaked pie crust with marshmallows, then add the filling. As the pie bakes, the marshmallows will rise to the top of the pie.
Drizzle a thin layer of clover or orange blossom honey over the pie after baking.
Here are a few of Abernathy's less traditional ways with the orange squash:
CURRIED PUMPKIN CHIPS (Makes 4 cups)
1 pound fresh pumpkin
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons curry powder
1/4 teaspoon fresh minced garlic
Peel pumpkin and slice 1/16 inch thick (as for potato chips). Soak in ice water for 1 hour. Drain and dry well with paper towels. Fry in hot cooking oil (360 degrees) until brown, about 2 minutes. Drain well on paper towels. Mix salt, curry and garlic together and sprinkle over chips till well coated.
PUMPKIN NUT WAFFLES (Makes 8 9-inch waffles)
2 1/2 cups flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon cloves
3 eggs, separated
1 3/4 cups milk
1/2 cup melted butter
1/2 cup cooked pumpkin
3/4 cup chopped pecans
Sift together dry ingredients. Beat egg yolks and combine with milk, melted butter and pumpkin. Add to dry ingredients. Beat egg whites til stiff. Fold into batter. Pour mixture onto hot waffle iron. Sprinkle each waffle with 3 tablespoons pecans and serve warm with syrup.
PUMPKIN CORN BREAD (Makes one 9-inch loaf)
1 1/4 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon coriander
3/4 cup cornmeal
2/3 cup light brown sugar
2 tablespoons honey
1/4 cup melted butter
2 beaten eggs
1 cup cooked pumpkin
2/3 cup buttermilk
Stir the dry ingredients together in a large bowl. In another bowl, blend honey and butter together; add eggs, pumpkin and buttermilk. Stir liquid mixture into dry mixture until just blended, being careful not to overmix. Pour into a greased 9-inch loaf pan and bake at 350 degrees for 40 to 50 minutes or until firm and lightly browned. Serve warm.
COUNTRY-STYLE PUMPKIN BISQUE (8 to 10 servings)
2 pounds peeled pumpkin
1 pound ripe tomatoes
2 quarts beef stock
1/4 cup barley
2 tablespoons chopped scallions
1 clove garlic, minced
2 bay leaves
1/4 teaspoon marjoram
1 tablespoon hot pepper sauce
1/8 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon sugar
1/8 teaspoon thyme
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons sherry
2 slices cooked bacon
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Cut pumpkin into pieces. Peel tomatoes and add them along with the pumpkin to the beef stock. Mix in barley, scallions, garlic, bay leaves, marjoram, hot pepper sauce, allspice, sugar, and thyme. Cover and simmer over medium heat, stirring often for 1 hour or until smooth. Correct seasonings, adding salt and pepper; add sherry, stir through, and sprinkle with crumbled bacon and parsley. Serve hot, with fried croutons or hot popovers, if desired.
It's too late to enter the International Pumpkin Assn.'s world-wide pumpkin weigh-off -- this year's winner was a 408-pound Canadian giant grown by Arthur Bessey of Prince Edward Island. But it's not too late to get involved in the San Francisco-based organization, established in 1981 "to encourage people to grow pumpkins and bring pumpkin growers together," says Terry Pimsleur, the association's president.
This Saturday and Sunday (10 a.m. to 5 p.m.), the IPA is sponsoring a Great Halloween and Pumpkin Festival on Clement Street in the Bay City. There, the world champion pumpkin, as well as the winners from the United States and Great Britain, will be displayed. Parades, merchant-sponsored trick-or-treating, and pumpkin pie eating contests are also on the menu.
In addition, the IPA is currently searching for international recipes featuring pumpkin, for publication in a future cookbook. If you have a recipe you'd like to share, or want more information on the organization, write to Terry Pimsleur, 2155 Union St., San Francisco, Calif. 94123.