Halloween, “The War of the Worlds” and Why We Love Flying Machines

"War-of-the-worlds-tripod" by Henrique Alvim Correa,1906

“War-of-the-worlds-tripod” by Henrique Alvim Correa,1906

Happy Halloween! AntiquityNOW has been celebrating Halloween this year with blog posts about doppelgangers, the origins of tricks and treats, modern and 2,000 year old ghost stories, and now, an original short story by author Victoria Weisfeld.

For inspiration Weisfeld draws from the legend of the events of October 31, 1938 when American producer, playwright and actor Orson Welles presented the CBS radio play, The War of the Worlds, adapted from the 1898 novel of the same name penned by British author H.G. Wells.  The play centers around what happens when a Martian craft lands in the small, rural community of Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, which is the setting of Weisfeld’s short story.

As with the premise of this short story, the stuff of history and legends can be hard to live down. “Eyewitness accounts” in The War of the Worlds radio drama drove people to mass hysteria according to many contemporary reports. You can listen to the broadcast and decide for yourself what you would have done upon listening to the tales of Martians incinerating terrified hordes along choked roadways and in panic-stricken cities. But leave it to the academics. In an excision of fiction from actual fact, Jefferson Pooley of Muhlenberg College and Michael Socolow from the University of Maine posit in an article for Slate that the hysteria was minimal and was misreported by the newspapers of the day because they were threatened by the growing presence of radio. What better way to discredit the upstart medium than by accusing it of maliciously scaring the life out of poor naïve Americans?

H.G. Wells

H.G. Wells

Even Orson Welles and H.G. Wells addressed the dichotomy of popular perception of The War of the Wars radio broadcast in a radio interview two years later in 1940, agreeing there was no ill intent and all was in good fun. Both gentlemen seemed delighted to be in the other’s presence, which makes for a great exchange, although the conversation grows decidedly darker. H.G. Wells says that the delight in frightful stories is lessened when “war is right under your chin,” and Orson Welles sympathizes, noting that is when fright “ceases to be a game.” With war looming for the Americans, Welles observes that they were “living now in an H.G. Wells future.” All much more portentous than anyone knew.

Battle Scene Between Kripa and Shikhandi from a Mahabharata. South India, circa 1670.

Battle Scene Between Kripa and Shikhandi from a Mahabharata. South India, circa 1670.

By the way, lest you think that the 1898 The War of the Worlds was the first to imagine an invasion with flying machines, take a gander at reports of what happened in Nuremberg, Germany in 1561 when unexplained oblong and saucer-shaped flying objects screamed through the air in a pitched battle over the city.  Some interpreted the events as a sign from God that the populace had fallen astray and abandoned their religious faith. In the Vedic literature of India dating back thousands of years, flying craft called vimanas abound. The epic Mahabharata, the Ramayana and various Sanskrit texts depict numerous examples of chariots “powered by winged lighting…it was a ship that soared into the air, flying to both the solar and stellar regions.”[1] Ancient symbols and descriptions of flying have been found in Egypt, Central and South America and even in some translations of the Bible. Through the ages flight has been a recurring theme across cultures.

Maybe it’s in our DNA that despite our five senses and a frontal lobe, humans continue to see the unexplainable as a possibility, and take the unproven as an article of faith. Maybe we subscribe to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s suspension of disbelief where logic is abandoned for the pleasure of the unknown. Whatever our inclination, today is Halloween and for these few hours of magic and fright, anything is possible.


War of the Worlds

war of the worlds pumpkinsMorning light poured onto the front porch like syrup. It glowed through the leaves of the sugar maples, setting them afire, though their blaze gave no warmth, and the chilly fingers of night clung in the air. Ghosts of leaves burning a long way off floated and hovered.

Lois Wehre stood in her front doorway, her tuxedo-fronted cat Frankie leaning against her leg, his nose high in the air, sniffing. It was Halloween morning, and, early risers, they read the day’s tarot. Lois sensed a confrontation coming, as surely as her mother’s hipbone would signal bad weather. Frankie felt her unease and nudged her with his silky head.

Down at the end of the weedy gravel drive a car slowed. Its occupants bobbed inside, leering and pointing, before the car squealed away. The maples were hundred-foot signal flares for the gawkers who came each Halloween to see where the spaceship touched down. Twenty-five years ago, the first year she lived in the white clapboard two-story, local kids attached a lighted “flying saucer” to her garage roof. Though her neighbor Alvie Connors helped her take it down the next day, the newspapers resurrected “the Martian house” legend year after year, reprinting pictures and stories in which Lois never appeared.

“Damn that Orson Welles,” she said to Frankie. “Don’t people have sense enough to know there’s nothing here? And never was!” She didn’t know about the fictional past of tiny Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, when she moved there. She chose it because she liked the name.

If interest in the house remained high, what changed over the years was the increasing boldness of the teenagers. They congregated on her front walk. They took photographs with her house in the background. They bothered her rhododendrons and sat on her porch steps—getting splinters in their butts would serve them right—and leaned on her doorbell. “Trick or Treat!” Her heart dropped a few beats if she just pictured a mob of them crowded in her doorway, looking past her into her living room, threatening their own alien invasion. The previous year an especially rude group of hulking older teens cleaned her out of candy and threatened to shoulder their way inside to see whether she had more. She slammed the door on them, but they lingered on her porch shouting insults until the cops showed up. “Never again,” she told herself.

“All in good spirits,” Alvie said yesterday, when she complained. But Alvie didn’t live alone in a house boxed in by high hedges. The rest of the year, absolute privacy suited her, but every October, as the end of the month approached, Lois paced the downstairs, window to window to window, and this year, she and Frankie also patrolled the yard’s green walls. At Halloween, night came early. Sleep did not.
While Lois observed the quiet morning from the vantage of her front porch, the sun disappeared and the wind blew in heavy, fast-moving thunderclouds like the bellies of stampeding elephants. She shivered and stepped back into the house. “Frankie, come inside now.”

war of the worlds leaves“Why’re you moving so far away, Lois Ann?” her Missouri friends and neighbors of twenty-five years before had asked. “Your people are here.” They meant themselves, because her family died in the fire.

“Too many memories” was the easiest answer.

“Uh-huh,” they said, their tone revealing they knew she’d made out fine in the insurance settlement. And again, “Uh-huh,” and their narrowed, appraising eyes confirmed no man in Mountain Grove, Missouri, would marry a woman with a past bitter as ashes. “That’s right.”

The neighbor women had opinions about Lois and her lost family. Mr. Wehre had been the town’s lawyer, a notoriously mean drunk who picked on his only daughter. “More there than meets the eye,” the women nodded. They called his weak-willed and lazy wife “the Queen of Sheba” behind her back. If skinny Lois needed help in that house, she didn’t get it. “Thirty and looks fifty,” they said, watching Lois struggle another basket of wet laundry out to the clothesline.

They knew the details of the fire, too.

“Electrical,” the chief told Lois, after the volunteer firemen finally extinguished the flames, and they could get inside. She nodded at the technical accuracy of his conclusion. The frayed old space heater cord possibly ran too close to the hall rug, he suggested. Lois held a balled-up Kleenex to her eyes. Right again.

Her parents were asleep upstairs when the fire started. Alone in the kitchen, a pan of milk heating on the stove, Lois hummed along to the radio, Johnny Ray singing “Who’s Sorry Now?” It smelled as if the milk were scorching, but it wasn’t, and she took the pan off the burner, poured the milk into a mug, and reached high in the cabinet to grab her father’s bottle of Jack Daniel’s. She’d never dare do this if he had been going to catch her. She poured a slug into the warm milk and plunked down at the kitchen table.

The scorching smell grew stronger. A wisp of smoke floated into the kitchen and withdrew bashfully to the ceiling. After fifteen or twenty minutes, the pall of smoke thickened, and something heavy crashed overhead. Lois finished the milk and set her cup in the kitchen sink without rinsing it.

She strolled to the bottom of the stairs. The hallway above glowed and flickered with extraordinary brightness. She mounted a few steps until she could see the floating ashes that had once been voile curtains, burn marks that skidded across the ceiling, and the floor’s blackened cotton rugs. Now the old wood of the interior burned like kindling, and a window from the nearer bedroom, her parents’ room, burst. The fire roared inside like a devil let loose.

What a person would do in this situation was scream, and Lois screamed, backing down as the flames reached the stairs and began to descend in dainty progression. A neighbor man and his son broke down the front door, carried her into the yard, and raced back inside. Already the second floor was fully ablaze. They couldn’t go up there. By the time the fire department arrived, it was too late.

“I put my head down on the kitchen table, and I must have . . .”Her voice wandered into uncertainty. “I screamed for them to wake up! Why didn’t they wake up?”

“They couldn’t have got through that wall of fire, ma’am,” said the fire chief. “Smoke inhalation, the coroner will say. They never knew what happened.” These words were meant to comfort her.

She nodded. Everything had happened exactly as she expected, until the firemen carried out the third body.

war of the worlds fireThe wind-whipped whiff of smoke in the air, the flame-colored leaves, the shrieks of the children. Lois forgot to smile at the diminutive superheroes and frothy pink princesses who greedily plunged their hands deep into the candy bowl. “One piece,” she said, unheeded.

The night thickened, and the older kids would start arriving soon. They’d gather outside, trapping her in the house. Not this year. She turned off the lights and, clad head-to-toe in black, a dark scarf hooding her face, slipped out the back door. When she stood motionless at the inky corner of the hedge, she could watch over her house, invisible.

Soon a clutch of twelve-year-old boys walked up to the front porch and pounded on the door.

“Nobody home.”

“That old bitch,” one said in a voice that hadn’t changed yet.


They slipped around the side of the house. Giggling and mock-shoving, they gathered in a tight circle, blocking the wind. A match flared, and the tip of a cigarette glowed as a boy sucked on it, then passed it to his friend. The match, dropped absent-mindedly, fell in an arcing pinpoint of yellow light.

“You sure she’s not home?”

“Danny, she’s not. Dare you to go inside.”

“No way.”

“Chicken.” The boy giggled and took a drag on the joint.

“I will if you will,” another said.

“Let’s go.”

As the jostling boys sneaked into the back yard, a cache of dry leaves hidden under the rhododendrons began to flame.
“Wait,” Lois called, her warning carried away by a gust. She shot out of her hiding place as flames touched the base of the wooden porch. “Frankie!” she shrieked and ran toward the house.

Two older teenagers, football players by the intimidating heft of them, stepped in front of her. They were dressed all in black, too. She hadn’t seen them. The taller one wore sunglasses that made his eyes as fathomless as those of the pseudo-aliens decorating her neighbors’ lawns.

“Where you going?” he asked.

“The house is on fire! My cat!”

“What’s your hurry? It’s just a few dead leaves.”

She tried to dodge around them, but with one side-step they easily blocked someone her size. She shoved. They stood immobile, menacing.

“Please let me by. I have to—hurry!—” Her heart pounded. They didn’t understand how fast fire could move. One end of the porch was burning, and before long, the flames would reach the front door.

“Cats have nine lives.” The shorter teen snickered.

Lois tried again to shove her way between them, but they stood solidly shoulder-to-shoulder, teasing her. “Let me by!” She panted her words. “My neighbors will have seen the fire by now. You’d better get out of here.”

“Plenty of time. Hear anything?” the tall one asked. The other shook his head and grinned.

And, indeed, it was eerily quiet, except for the crackling flames. The rose trellis at the end of the porch sparkled with raining cinders. Shrieks of hilarity came from inside the darkened house.

“Those boys, they have to get out!” She gestured violently.

“They’ll die in there.”

The teenagers glanced over their shoulders. “Hey, assholes!” the tall one yelled. “Get out of there. What’re you doing?”

The only answer was more high-pitched laughter.

“I think your little brother’s with them,” the other said. They turned and in long strides reached the porch, the flames licking toward them. They shoved open the front door. “You kids get the hell out. The house is on fire, you morons. Danny, if you’re in there, I’m going to—”

Lois ducked past them, but the tall one grabbed her arm. A column holding up one end of the porch roof collapsed, and the corner of the roof followed in sagging slow motion. Inside, the kids screamed and raced past her, nearly knocking her down. The teenager let go of her arm.

“Danny? Danny! Where is he?” he yelled at the boys.

The children glanced at each other. “He was with us a minute ago.”

“In the kitchen,” said another.

“No, he wasn’t.”

Lois ran to the back of the house and almost tripped on a still form. She turned on the overhead light. The boy was unconscious beneath an open cabinet door. “Must of cracked his head,” she muttered. She picked him up—heavy for her—and called, “Frankie! Frankie!”

war of the worlds catA child where he wasn’t supposed to be, just like her daughter, where she wasn’t supposed to be, the night of that other fire. Kaye had a sleepover, but the girls quarreled after dinner, and Kaye came home while Lois was in the back yard, putting out water for the chickens.

Danny’s weight caused her to stagger a little. Frankie dashed between her legs, nearly tripping her as she reached the open back door. Being allowed outside after dark was a rare treat, and Frankie wouldn’t miss this chance. He flew off the steps.

The teenagers arrived at the bottom of the stoop just as she did, and she handed them Danny like a gift. Distant sirens pierced the night.

Photo credits: pumpkins and fall leaves, the author; house fire, pixabay; “Frankie,” Flickr photosharing.

Author: Victoria Weisfeld lives in Princeton, NJ and fills her days “creating characters for readers to care about, mysteries to solve, and intriguing thrillers to keep the pages turning.” When not otherwise occupied, she also pursues genealogical research, flamenco lessons and not mowing her lawn. You can read more at http://vweisfeld.com/.


[1] Hindu Wisdom – Vimanas. (n.d.). Retrieved October 31, 2014.


Hindu Wisdom – Vimanas. (n.d.). Retrieved October 31, 2014.

The Colorful Past of Halloween Treats


Lads, look at yourselves. Why are you, boy, wearing that Skull face? And you, boy, carrying a scythe, and you, lad, made up like a Witch? And you, you, you!” He thrust his bony finger at each mask. “You don’t know, do you? You just put on those faces and old mothball clothes and jump out, but you don’t really know, do you? – Ray Bradbury (The Halloween Tree)

Remember the sweet satisfaction of a pillowcase, paper bag or plastic pumpkin-head swelling with the weight of Halloween candy? Think of the candy bars, lollipops and bubble gum mingling together in the monstrous payload you’ve been waiting all year to collect and consume in one riotous night of excitement. It’s so exciting in fact, that you may never pause to ponder why on earth you do it. What happy trick of fate empowered you to don a disguise and march up to strange doorways demanding treats?

Well, the history of trick-or-treating is as colorful and mixed as the candy in your sack.

Across time and distance people have been practicing remarkably similar customs as summer sun fades to autumn embers. The customs vary, but they have one thing solidly in common: treats.


Today we enjoy a myriad of dreamy confections wrapped in brightly colored paper. In ancient times, people appreciated the simplicity of nuts and fruits. Ancient people found these all-natural treats as thrilling as our sacks of sugar and they used them to make their own candies and desserts, such as Cleopatra’s reported favorite Tiger Nut Sweets (find the recipe in AntiquityNOW’s 2013 Recipes with a Past e-cookbook). They probably appreciated the fruit and nuts more than we appreciate our modern candy because they couldn’t get them whenever they wanted. Nature bestowed these treats as a last gift before descending to a temporary grave for the winter.


Today we shout, “trick or treat!” and expect to be showered with goodies. The early predecessors of trick-or-treating tell a different story – one where treats were earned and given with deeper meaning.

  • Souling on All Hallows Eve. St. Nicholas: An Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks", Scribner & Company, December 1882, p. 93

    Souling on All Hallows Eve. St. Nicholas: An Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks”, Scribner & Company, December 1882, p. 93

    Samhain: The ancient Celts who celebrated this festival gave treats instead of getting them. Treats were piled onto banquet tables for the enjoyment of hungry spirits crossing over from the otherworld.[1]

  • Mumming: In the Middle Ages, people enacted costumed spectacles to earn their treats.[2]
  • Souling: In this medieval practice, the poor would barter prayers for the dead in exchange for treats, often a soul cake. Souling originated in the British Isles but variations traveled south, enjoying a mention in Shakespeare’s the Two Gentlemen of Verona.[3]
  • Guising: Very much like souling, residents of Ireland and Scotland would dress up and sing songs and recite poems for treats of fruits, nuts or coins.[4]
  • Guy Fawkes Day: In the 19th century, people roamed the streets for treats, specifically pennies. The pennies weren’t for themselves, but for “the Guy.”[5]
  • Fighting off fairies: People in some provinces of Ireland didn’t eat their own treats. They were for the fairies, who had a taste for champ.[6]


In addition to the customs listed above, many traditional practices of leaving treats for the dead helped make trick-or-treating what it is today:

  • Ancient Egyptians buried people with honey cakes to enjoy in the great beyond.[7]
  • Mourners at funerals consumed “Doed Koeks” in the Netherlands.[8]
  • Sicilians heralded the dead with cartocci.[9]
  • During Tepeilhuitl, a central Mexican festival, food was proffered to icons of deceased family members.[10]
  • Romans left treats on the graves of their dearly departed on Feralia, the last day of the larger festival Parentalia.[11]
  • Celebrants of the Mexican Day of the Dead (Dios De Los Muertos) honored the visiting spirits of loved ones by consuming sugar skulls.
  • The Aztecs covered models of the god Huitzilopochtli with amaranth seed dough to eat in honor of the dead.[12]
  • Food stands in Barcelona sold panellets del morts (loosely translates to “bread of the dead”) for All Saints Day.[13]


Halloween costumes, 1918, Camp Dix, New Jersey

Halloween costumes, 1918, Camp Dix, New Jersey

America was the perfect Halloween crucible, melding a smattering of customs to create a lasting legacy for the holiday. Trick-or-treating as we know it was invented in America. It didn’t happen overnight, however. Our version of trick-or-treating is a relatively new contribution to the Halloween tradition.

At first, children dressed up as fantastical beasts and goblins to beg for treats on Thanksgiving. Poor children took to the streets of wealthier neighborhoods demanding treats and sometimes offering something in return, like a song or a dance.[14]

There were only so many treats to offer begging children, and another holiday was creating a more serious need for appeasement. It’s estimated that Halloween pranks cost some cities up to $100,000 in damages a year, even in the 1920s. Desperate city officials took action. For example, the city of Ocean Park, California sponsored one of the first Halloween carnivals on record in 1914.[15]   Offering public parties, parades and festivals to keep hooligans out of mischief soon became a common practice. Individual neighborhoods that wanted to put their own stamp on Halloween popularized the neighborhood parade. Local children marched down the street in costume, knocking from door to door to collect treats from generous neighbors. Sounds familiar, right?

Meanwhile, homemakers were taking a keener interest in Halloween. Articles on preventing Halloween tricks with treats started popping up in magazines and newspapers in the 1920s. Moms everywhere began studying up on recipes and instructions for the perfect Halloween open house – no tricks allowed.

World War II sugar rationing hindered treats in America, but they returned afterwards with a vengeance. Postwar trick-or-treating boomed with the rest of the economy. The emergence of suburbs and civic centers helped solidify trick-or-treating as a Halloween staple.[16] But it was ultimately the candy industry that sealed the deal on trick-or-treating. It seems obvious now, but you may be surprised how long it took to uncover the candy cash cow waiting in the Halloween wings.


368px-Candy_Day_Scores_Big_HitLike many things, trick-or-treating hindsight is 20/20. Especially if you’re a candy executive lamenting missed opportunities.

Candy companies knew how lucrative holidays could be, but they focused on Christmas and Easter. Maybe their analysts hadn’t caught on to the trend yet. Maybe they didn’t want to associate their brands with a night of mischief. Whatever the reason, candy companies neglected Halloween and attempted to create their own October holiday, Candy Day.[17] Candy Day crawled until one company was featured in the press for organizing a massive giveaway of candy to orphans and old ladies. The message? Candy Day was about the generous spirit of giving, not about simple gluttony. Many companies focused on Candy Day as their major October initiatives well into the 1950s.

Meanwhile, trick-or-treating was sneaking into popularity, becoming relatively widespread by the 1940s. The treats handed out were less predictable than they are today, without candy as the obvious choice. Coins, cakes and even toys were all possibilities.[18] The nationally televised, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, did an excellent job of illustrating the varied nature of trick-or-treating in 1966. Despite his best efforts, a dismayed Charlie Brown keeps getting rocks.

Eventually Candy Day was eclipsed by Halloween as the October holiday of choice. Far from being dismayed, candy companies finally saw the opportunity in Halloween. Their efforts would change Halloween treats ever after.


halloween-candy-600x400We all know that isn’t true, but candy companies did have a heavy hand in the staying power of trick-or-treating. Their efforts have been quite successful. Americans spend about 2 billion dollars a year on candy during the Halloween season.[19]

Candy sellers started more aggressive Halloween candy pushes in the 1950s, reminding moms that candy was the perfect way to avoid Halloween tricks.[20] Brach’s was among the earliest to incorporate Halloween themes into their packaging and advertising. But we can’t credit candy’s success to marketing prowess alone. Shoppers loved how inexpensive, neat and easy to toss individually wrapped candies were. No more slaving in the kitchen making soul cakes and popcorn balls.

Despite the ease, convenience and popularity, candy and trick-or-treating weren’t inextricably linked until it became a matter of safety. In the 1970s, hysteria and rumors of contaminated goodies poisoned the role of homemade treats in trick-or-treating forever. The factory wrapped packaging offered by candy companies created a safe haven for anxious parents. Another upside of factory wrapping? It enabled the invention of colorful Halloween themes that transformed popular treats into holiday icons. Suddenly impersonal big brands and foolproof seals were much more in demand than homemade treats.

Halloween treats of all shapes and sizes proliferated, and as long as they were hermetically sealed by a coating of plastic, they were fair game. Rodda’s Witchmallows, Reese’s Peanut Butter Pumpkins, Fleer’s Mr. Bones, Cadbury Screme Eggs, and of course, candy corn, are some popular examples. Eventually, companies noticed their customers’ affinity for inexpensive candy and had a light bulb moment: why not make candy even smaller and even cheaper? Thus, fun-sized bags and bars were born. Check mate. As you may be able to tell from your own pantry, fun-sized treats are enduringly popular.


baked-21777_1280They embody everything rapturously pleasurable about life. It’s no wonder we look to them in the face of death. Whether it’s the death of the year or just plain death in general, a little sweetness is the perfect reminder that you’re alive. Trick-or-treating practices will continue to evolve, but the treats are surely here to stay. After all, what is life without a few treats?

AshleyBellAuthor: Ashley Bell is a full time nonprofit outreach and program manager and part time history detective. She likes to look to the past to explain where we are today.

[1] Katz, Solomon H. “Encyclopedia of Food and Culture” Volume 2. New York: Thompson Gale, 2003.

[2] Olver, L. (n.d.). Halloween food history: Traditions, party menus & trick-or-treat. Retrieved October 28, 2014.

[3] Freeology.com, “The Origins of Halloween

[4] History of Trick-or-Treating. (2011, January 1). Retrieved October 28, 2014.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Mahon, Brid. “Land of Milk and Honey: The Story of Traditional Irish Food and Drink” Boulder, CO: Merdoer Press, 1998.

[7] Olver, L.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Rogers, Nicholas. “Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night”, New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

[11] Pratt Bannantyne, Lesley “Halloween: An American Holiday, an American History”, Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing, 1998

[12] Rogers, Nicholas.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Pratt Bannantyne, Lesley

[15] Kawash, Samira. “Gangsters, Pranksters, and the Invention of Trick-or-Treating, 1930–1960”, 2011

[16] History of Trick-or-Treating. (2011, January 1). Retrieved October 28, 2014.

[17] Kawash, Samira. “October’s Original Candy Holiday? ['Candy Day’]”, 10.26.2010

[18] Kawash, Samire. “How Candy and Halloween Became Best Friends”, 10.21.2010

[19] Ibid.

[20] Brownlee, John “The Billion Dollar History of Trick or Treating”, 10.31.2013


Bon Appetit Wednesday! A 200-Year-Old Recipe for Pumpkin Pie

1024px-Pumpkins_Hancock_Shaker_village_2418Pumpkin spice lattes, pumpkin cheesecake, even pumpkin spice Oreos! When the leaves start to change and weather starts to cool, pumpkin season is in full swing. Whether it’s carving one or cooking one, pumpkins just put you into the holiday mood. And we aren’t the only ones to appreciate this icon of autumn. The pumpkin has been serving up nutritious deliciousness for centuries. Today we’re bringing you a recipe for 200-year-old pumpkin pie. You can’t go wrong with this time-honored recipe full of ancient pumpkin goodness.

Cucurbita pepo or the pumpkin squash was a major part of the ancient Mesoamerican diet. Remains of the food at the Guilá Naquitz Cave in Oaxaca, Mexico have been dated to between 8,000 and 7,000 BCE.[1] It did not look like the round, plump squash we know and love today. Rather, it was narrower with a crooked top. People relied on its seeds for food instead of its bitter flesh, of which there was very little.[2] Eventually, domestication of the plant allowed for the cultivation of bigger plants with more abundant and palatable flesh, whereby it became even more valuable as a food source.[3] Check out our blog post on Ancient Maya and the Enduring Taste of Pumpkin Soup for a clue as to how these ancient people were enjoying the pumpkin.

The pumpkin emerged in North America around the same time as it did in South and Central America, but separately from those areas. Over thousands of years the northern Native Americans developed an ingenious agricultural technique to grow pumpkins and other squashes. Named the Three Sisters technique by the Iroquois, this early form of companion gardening allowed the natives to cultivate their three most valuable crops—squash, corn and beans—extremely efficiently. The beans grew on the corn, which serves as a “natural trellis,” while the roots of the beans sent much needed nitrogen into the soil to nourish the corn.[4] The squash plants protected the corn’s shallow roots from the weather.[5] It is a sophisticated symbiotic method that evolved over thousands of years and eventually resulted in a form of ancient sustainable agriculture. These three crops were so important that the Iroquois believed the plants were inseparable (as with sisters) and were bequeathed to them by the gods. Indeed, many tribes even ascribed religious significant to the different plant parts.

Once the pumpkins were ready to be harvested, they were used in every conceivable way. The flesh could be cooked by boiling, roasting, baking or drying. The seeds were dried or roasted as well. The meat of the squash was dried and ground into a flour. The skins were dried and used as containers to store other valuable seeds and grains. Nothing was wasted. The whole pumpkin was put to good use in order to sustain the people.

When settlers arrived in the New World, the pumpkin—already grown for more than 300 years by the Native Americans—became a staple in their diet and helped them to survive. In fact, pumpkins were so ubiquitous, nearly every one of the European explorers arriving on North American shores mentioned the pumpkin in his writings. Indeed, the Pilgrims may not have survived at all had it not been for the pumpkin. A Pilgrim poem dated to the 1630’s tells of its importance:

Stead of pottage and puddings and custards and pies
Our pumpkins and parsnips are common supplies,
We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon,
If it were not for pumpkins we should be undoon.[6]

So it isn’t surprising that the pumpkin only became more and more popular throughout the centuries, eventually becoming a holiday decoration (see how pumpkins replaced turnips—yes, that’s right, turnips—as a Halloween decoration in America) and even a social media meme (thank you, Starbucks)! Pumpkin is now the favorite autumnal flavor thanks to its delightful taste and some savvy marketing.

Here’s a thought. After reading this ancient pumpkin history, you may be yearning for a little pumpkin in your life this season. Why not skip the Starbucks and instead make the traditional, old-fashioned pumpkin pie below? It’s been a palate-pleaser for 200 years. Even your seductively spiced pumpkin latte can’t beat that!

Pumpkin Pie

Pumpkin-Pie-Whole-Slice*Adapted from Lydia Child’s recipe in The American Frugal Housewife. Adaptations courtesy of The Washington Times.

Makes two 10-inch pies.


  • 1 medium pumpkin (about 3 pounds, the type used for pumpkin pies)
  • 4 cups of milk
  • ¾ cup of dark brown sugar, more to taste
  • 2 teaspoons of salt
  • 2 tablespoons of ground cinnamon, more to taste
  • 1 tablespoon of ground ginger, more to taste
  • Grated zest of 1 lemon, optional
  • 3 eggs, whisked together
  • 2 10-inch pie shells
  • 2 10-inch pie pans


Cooking the pumpkins:

  1. Slice the skin from the top and bottom of the pumpkin. In a curving motion, cut remaining skin in segments from the sides, working from top to bottom.
  2. Cut flesh in half, scoop out and discard seeds and cut the flesh in chunks; they should weigh about 2 pounds.
  3. Put pumpkin in a saucepan with water to cover base of the pan. Add the lid and cook over medium heat, stirring often, so pumpkin steams until it can be crushed easily with a fork, 30-45 minutes.
  4. Crush it with a potato masher or puree in a food processor until smooth.

Prepare the pie shells:

  1. Chill the pie shells.
  2. Heat oven to 400 degrees and put a baking sheet low down on a shelf to heat.

Prepare the filling:

  1. Heat milk in a large saucepan.
  2. Stir in pumpkin puree and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, so the mixture thickens slightly, about 20 minutes.
  3. Let cool to tepid, then stir in sugar, salt, cinnamon, ginger and lemon if using. Taste and adjust sweetness and spice.
  4. Stir in eggs.

Assemble pies:

  1. Transfer filling to pie shells.
  2. Set pies on the heated baking sheet and bake in the oven 15 minutes.
  3. Lower heat to 350 degrees and continue baking until pies are firm but slightly wobbly in the center, 40 to 50 minutes more.
  4. Serve at room temperature.

[1] Betz, V. (n.d.). Athena Review 2,1: Early plant domestication in Mesoamerica. Retrieved October 24, 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] All About Pumpkins – Pumpkin History. (2008, January 1). Retrieved October 24, 2014.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Theobald, M. (n.d.). Some Pumpkins! Halloween and Pumpkins in Colonial America. Retrieved October 24, 2014.

Double Trouble: Doppelgangers and the Mythology of Spirit Doubles

doppelganger500It’s almost Halloween! In our recent posts we’ve been delving into why some of us are so drawn to the supernatural, the paranormal and the scaring the pants off terrifying. In today’s post we hurl ourselves once more into the realm of the supernatural. A twice look at terror, as it were. Continue reading

A Frightful History: Author P J Hodge Presents “The Ghost Hunter”

The Ghost HunterLast Tuesday’s blog explored the neurology of fear and introduced a 2000 year old horror story from Pliny the Younger. Despite its antiquity, this story (actually contained in a missive to an acquaintance by the prolific letter writer) exhibited remarkable 21st century elements. Today’s post is a short story titled “The Ghost Hunter.” Written by Paul Hodge, it is a modern take on storytelling in the gothic style. Notice the common elements with Pliny’s tale: the abandoned residence, unexplained occurrences and a man of doughty character determined to get to the bottom of whatever is going on. Continue reading

Bon Appetit Wednesday! An Ancient Roman Salad

salad-164685_640This week we’re bringing you a recipe straight out of ancient Rome. The Columella Salad, named for its author, Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, is the perfect side dish and would fit easily on any modern menu. Yet it was created in the first century CE! Full of scrumptious, fresh ingredients, this salad is light, tasty and ancient. Continue reading

Why We Love to Be Scared: Dopamine, Genes and a 2,000 Year Old Horror Story

Image credit: Barbara on Flickr.

Image credit: Barbara on Flickr.

It’s that time of year again.  Halloween.  What is it about houses moaning with restless spirits and apparitions rising from graveyard mists that so intrigue us? Today we have movies, TV shows, video games and books regaling us with the most horror-filled scenarios. Dystopias with—name your monster—demons and vampires and zombies threatening to eradicate our species (as if we don’t do a good enough job on our own).  There are possessions, evil twins, vivified dolls and deranged clowns. We even have self-proclaimed ghost hunters with their own “reality” shows and the ad revenues, market penetration and viewer numbers demonstrating that scary stuff really can rake in the dough. Why is it we are so enthralled and terrified by the supernatural? Continue reading

Girl Be Heard and AntiquityNOW present Generations: Voices of Women From Antiquity to Modern Day

AN News GreyIn association with AntiquityNOW, Girl Be Heard will be presenting Generations on Wednesday, October 22 at 6:30 pm at the East 4th Street Theatre, 83 East 4th Street, New York, NY as part of their workshop series for the 2014-15 theater season. Generations is being performed during the Estrogenius Festival 2014.

Generations is an ensemble performance devised by Girl Be Heard Company Members in collaboration with women and girls, ages 17 to 61.  This is the first show in Girl Be Heard’s history that has brought together women of all ages to research, discuss and write about women across history.  This inter-generational laboratory reveals stories of resiliency, both personal and historic. Continue reading

Don’t Miss Out! Second Call for Entries for 2015 LegacyQuest International Film and Video Festival for Tweens

Letter of Intent Deadline- December 12, 2014

Final Entry Submission Deadline- February 27, 2015

View our invitational video below and scroll down for details about the festival and how your students can get involved!

LegacyQuest large logo blue border

AntiquityNOW (AN) and Archaeological Legacy Institute (ALI) announce a call for entries for the 2015 LegacyQuest International Children’s Film and Video Festival. Held in conjunction with The Archaeology Channel’s (TAC) International Film and Video Festival, May 15-19, 2015 in Eugene, Oregon, the LegacyQuest festival invites young learners to explore how the ancient past influences their lives today through visual storytelling. The competition is open to students between the ages of 12 and 15 (6th – 8th grades) in the United States and abroad. To be eligible for consideration, films must be five minutes in length, produced in 2014 or 2015 and focus on subject matter related to antiquity’s legacy. Continue reading

Bon Appetit Wednesday! Tempura Fried Maple Leaves

maple-leaves-61798_640They’re everywhere! Autumn leaves are falling, falling, falling and collecting in great, heaping, colorful piles all over lawns, roofs, streets and sidewalks. Beautiful and vibrant for sure, but what to do with so many little pieces of autumn? Most of the time we just bag them up and throw them away, but today we’re giving you another option. Courtesy of Japan, we bring you Fried Maple Leaves! There are accounts that these leaves have been eaten for thousands of years in Japan, but since tempura only arrived in the 16th century, the truth is they’ve probably been around for a little over 500 years. We’re bringing you an updated modern version created by James Wong, a chef who wanted to try the treat, but was nowhere near Japan. His version is made with maple leaves, pumpkin and fig. Continue reading