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TALKING TO MYSELF: 31 OCTOBER 2012 “Double, double toil and trouble/Fire burn and cauldron bubble,” chant the witches in Macbeth. For the life of me, the only image I can ever conjure up when I read this passage is the huge black kettle used to make our Halloween vegetable soup. Let me hasten to say that there was nothing haunted about our soup. It’s just that the PTA ladies only made it at Halloween
Which is NOT to say that the PTA moms resembled witches, but they did have to make the soup in a giant kettle over an open fire out in the schoolyard. This was because we didn’t have a lunchroom at our little country schoolhouse. Heck, we didn’t have running water or bathrooms either
But come Halloween, our moms would rally and cook up the biggest kettle of soup you’ve ever seen. No wimpy homeroom parties with cupcakes and plastic spider rings for them! I don’t know where they found a soup recipe that would provide unlimited servings to several hundred people. It probably had been passed down to them by Daniel Boone or somebody. I mean – how could you know how much salt to put in a kettle that large?
Whatever the origin of the recipe, the result was incredible. The vegetables had been grown on our families’ farms, canned and preserved with care for an October day such as this. Some were fresh, like the potatoes and onions, and chopped only minutes before being tossed into the gigantic stew. And the added liquid – oh, that would have been rainwater hand-carried from the cistern.
The pot, itself, was ancient, and had formerly been used to heat vats of water on washdays (probably by Daniel Boone’s wife, Rebecca.) It had four solid feet – maybe these were called short legs – that allowed it to sit in the hot embers of the bonfire. It’s possible that the pot sat on a raised grate above the flames, but it looked to me like it was sitting in the fire itself. This was a remarkable image to a child raised on TV programs like “Ramar of the Jungle,” and I half expected cannibals to snatch me for the soup.
An arcing, metal cylinder called a bale spanned the open circumference of the kettle, and was used for lifting it. I can’t imagine how those women managed to move such a heavy, boiling pot, but they did. I’m pretty sure they did. Of course, the cast iron cauldron was black. Whether it started out that way, I don’t know, but lifetimes of simmering had smudged it forever ebony.
I think the original purpose of the soup supper may have been to raise funds for classroom chalk and toilet paper for the wooden, four-holed outhouse since the county school board never seemed to provide any. But over time, the soup had become essential to the masquerade party held in the evening for the entire community, children and adults alike
This is the way my memories of Halloween differ from those of my children and grandchildren. It was not really a holiday for kids. In earlier generations, it had been an excuse for roughnecks to terrorize the neighborhood by cutting trees to block a road or pushing an outhouse over a hill. Mischievous youths had smeared the windows of unsuspecting folk with bars of soap. I think some of that orneriness still went on when I was growing up, but mostly folks just enjoyed gathering at the schoolhouse, our unofficial community center, and eating soup together.
Most everyone, from old to young, dressed up in some sort of costume. The old people were always the funniest and most interesting because they were the hardest to identify. Who would think the tiny woman who had a forty year perfect attendance record in Sunday School would come dressed as a man? Or that the most argumentative village benchwarmer would disguise himself as a clown?
Some years, a fortune teller would set up shop. She was a big hit even with the Baptists. Once, the adults rigged up a homemade funhouse in the third-fourth-fifth grade classroom, replete with wet ghostly hands and fake cobwebs. It was hard to tell who enjoyed it more, the grown-ups or the children.
This is the way it was, the generations moving together easily within the life of the community. Just as we went with our fathers to work on the farm. Just as we followed our mothers as they went about the business of home and church.
I’ve considered offering Halloween soup to the hundred or more trick-or-treaters who come to my door each October asking for candy. Some years, when the weather is cool, I think they might appreciate it, or at least their nameless parents shivering on the sidewalk would. But I don’t have Daniel Boone’s cauldron, or his recipe, and bonfires are prohibited in my city sub-division. And I’m guessing it wouldn’t taste the same anyway. You just had to be there, I guess, to appreciate Halloween soup circa 1953.
©Copyright Georgia Green Stamper
"HALLOWEEN SOUP" is an excerpt from YOU CAN GO ANYWHERE (Wind, 2008)
Georgia's new collection of essays BUTTER IN THE MORNING (Wind) will be released December 1.