A Taste of an Italian American Halloween

When I think back to my first Halloween, like the rest of us, I can’t remember it. Sure there are the bits and pieces my mom tells me about, but those are her memories. I , personally, can’t recall what my first piece of Halloween candy tasted like. I don’t know if it was chocolate or fruity, if it melted in my hands or if I rubbed it all over my face, my mom and then through my hair. I probably did. I’m not sure if I went trick or treating or how my mom dressed me up, though there is an old picture floating around that will probably haunt me for the rest of my life. It’s me, as a baby, in a clown outfit. Red shoes. Red nose. Red mouth. Sticky fingers. I may not remember, but I know I did not like it.

The first Halloween that does jolt my memory happened somewhere around the age of 7 and brings back the vivid recollection of two life changing experiences that have grown to define me as an Italian American, so of course, they have to deal with food. The first is responsible for the addiction I harbor and feed today, everyday, 3 times a day. Chocolate. A sweet, heavenly, gooey milk chocolate that my nonna gave me first thing Halloween morning. It was wrapped in an orange and black aluminum foil with little, black bats all over it. I remember her giving it to me, ever so proud that she could enjoy the American holiday with her granddaughter and lord knows you can’t have Halloween without candy.

Under her watchful eye, I unwrapped the present carefully, maneuvering my tiny fingers around the exotic treat, trying not to tear the spooky picture so I could enjoy the art later. Delicately uncrinkling the last of the folds, it hit me. The smell. It was chocolate. It could have been poison, but I was under its spell and didn’t wait to find out, gobbling it up, allowing the thick, creaminess to coat every inch of my taste buds, and savoring every last bit of it until it was gone. I was hooked. My first taste of Halloween that I can remember.

Born and raised in Naples until the age of 9, Nonna did not celebrate Halloween traditionally as a child. Imagine no spooky costumes, no pumpkin carving, no sugar overload. Scary, I know. Though, these days a lot of Italians have taken to celebrating the American holiday on October 31, traditionally dressing up and face paint was saved for the ever popular Carnevale in the Spring and a version of trick or treating modernly known as “urban trekking” was reserved for Nov. 1st aka All Saints Day or All Souls Day, a day reserved for honoring the dead and from which Halloweenderives its name- All Hallows Eve. Historically, it is on this day that Italians spend walking their neighborhoods, visiting relatives’ graves, leaving flowers and lighting candles, as opposed to going door to door collecting free candy.

For Roman Catholics, the day was invented by Pope Boniface IV to replace the Roman pagan holiday, Feast of the Lemurs, on May 13th with a Catholic one designed to help any wandering souls travelling the earth make it to heaven. It was this fascination with the dead that some of the iconic symbols of Halloween have been derived such as the bat, cat and owl. These nocturnal animals were said to be capable of communicating with the dead. Modern fiction and Hollywood added monsters like werewolves, mummies and vampires to shape the Americanized holiday we know today.

Over the years, as the American influence has slowly taken over, it is now said that Halloween has become a dominant holiday, leaving many traditionalists in fear it is replacing the famous Carnevale.

Tricks and scares aside, it should come as no surprise that instead of celebrating one day dedicated to prancing around in a witch costume and drowning herself in sweets, nonna got to celebrate the Italian version of it all month long with a festival dedicated to, you guessed it, FOOD. The Fall Harvest. A month long party Italians devote to feasting on their yearlong labors. Instead of gathering buckets and bagfuls of fruit roll ups and candy apples on Halloween, they spend the month or so gathering the real deal from the fields and indulging in as many harvest inspired dishes and Fall festivals as they can stand.

Italians squander the weeks roasting chestnuts, guzzling new, unfermented, typically sweeter wine known as Ribolla or Novello and with pumpkin and other squashes still being the centerpiece of the season, questioning how they can dress the pumpkin to toss in a salad, rather than how can they dress up as a pumpkin.

It was on this same memorable Halloween  that I can remember being introduced to candy, I was also met with my first taste of the Italian Harvest that I can remember. Fried Pumpkin Flowers.

For those Italians and Italian Americans out there, you should know exactly what I’m talking about. When most kids went pumpkin picking to pick the biggest, fattest, most orange-y pumpkin, my family went pumpkin picking to pick the biggest, fattest most orange-y pumpkin flowers. Standing in the check out line at the pumpkin patch Americans were pulling the flowers and vines off before their pumpkin hit the weigh station, we were packing them into plastic grocery bags.

And for those of you unfamiliar, the fried pumpkin flower goes something like this. You recognize it as the orange-y blossom that grows off the pumpkin vine. When growing, the pumpkin seed produces two kinds of blossoms, male and female. The male pollinates the female which turns into a pumpkin leaving the male blossom for the picking. When on the lookout for your great pumpkin, you collect as many as you possibly can, take ‘em, home, clean ‘em up, dry ‘em, de-stem and stuff with a variation of mozzarella, ricotta and parmesan, and fresh parsley dip in an equal parts flour and egg batter and fry. Serve hot with a sprinkle of salt. What results is magical.

After masquerading for hours as a fairy princess  on 13th Avenue in Brooklyn wearing my white, frilly communion dress, sparkles and wings and eating more chocolate than should be legal for a child,  it was time to call it a day and head home to enjoy the culmination of the Italian American version of Halloween, a marriage of candy and costumes, which I already indulged in, and the traditional Italian harvest themed feast.

Like usual, the kitchen was a warm hearth, aglow with the smell of garlic-y goodness and the yelling, laughter and cackles of my mom, grandmother, aunts and cousins who all lived blocks from each other at the time. On the menu, everything pumpkin which included roasted pumpkin and fennel served over pasta and coated with tart, nutty parmesan; dense, spiced pumpkin bread with homemade cinnamon butter;  a mixed green salad garnished with you guessed it- pumpkin seeds; a pumpkin cheesecake, and of course, my grandma’s specialty, “fried flowers.”

In tune with the mindset of nothing goes to waste and making do with whatever the harvest brings, back in the old country, pumpkin flowers were a normal, everyday part of the Fall menu. And during the remainder of my nonna’s upbringing in America during the Great Depression, these typically undesired parts of the pumpkin remained a staple on her family’s table. Fast forward a few decades and food revolutions and these days, seasonal menus are all the rave with a price tag to match, and pumpkin flowers are considered a delicacy so craved foodies will go as far as planting their own seeds and growing their own pumpkins in backyards and even apartment building patios.

Forking a big one, my grandmother plopped it onto my plate and said, “Eat, you’re too skinny.” What was it? I was unable to make any connection with the flowers we were ordered to pick in the field and the fried, gooey fritter on my plate. “It’s a flower. Eat it, “ she said.

“A flower?” I objected, shaking my head in disapproval. With no further response but an encouraging smack on the back of my head, I remained skeptical. Ready to give it a heave ho onto the napkin strategically placed on my lap, I gave a look around and was instantly caught by my nonna’s same watchful eye that said, “don’t do it,  trust me, eat it.” For a 7 year old me, the reasoning went something like this. The chocolate was divine, how bad can a flower be. I dug in.

I cut it open with my child proof butter knife and out poofed a cloud of steam followed by an oozing, gooey river of mozzarella. Letting it spill onto my plate for a moment, I finally forked up the piece, wrapped the stringy cheese around my fork and took a bite. Heaven. Salty, fried, cheese heaven. Somewhere in between a fried zucchini and mozzarella stick. Italian fried food manna. Not one for wasting time, I cut up the rest of it, and ate it all, enjoying every bite before going in for seconds and having my hand smacked away at thirds.

As it turns out, I’ve enjoyed chocolate and fried flowers every year on Halloween for years after that fateful one. A little bit of Americana, a touch of Italiano and so goes my life, all thanks to my nonna. With her watchful eye and mighty backhand she made sure she cultivated my Italian American Heritage one bite at a time and Halloween or the Harvest, whatever you want to call it, was no exception. Now that I can remember.