Some day, some night, I swear I am going to offer the hordes of Halloween trick-or-treaters that darken my door traditional soul–cakes rather than Kit Kats or Butterfingers: now that would be asking for a trick! I think about doing this every year but never follow through: I’m too scared of the consequences, I think, or lacking in confidence in my ability to produce some decent looking cakes. I have already purchased my requisite 1400 pieces of candy so I’ll probably chicken out this year too. Soul cakes are often described as a cross between a biscuit (in the English sense, or an American cookie) and a scone, and sometimes as shortbread: there are lots of recipes available on the web, many adopted from early modern cookbooks. If I were going to go for it, I would probably go with one of the two recipes available here, my go-to source for food history. I suppose that the cakes are more appropriately distributed on All Saints or Souls Day (November 1 and 2), but no one will be coming to my door then: Salem will be returned to its residents! In any case, my Halloween cakes would be perfectly respectable with recognition of the pre-modern Hallow-Tide, which covers all three Hallowed days: from All-Hallows Eve or Halloween on 31 October through All Saints and All Souls Days. These Christian days were superimposed upon earlier Pagan holidays and traditions, creating a period in which the dead and the living were particularly close, and could affect one another’s fate. The medieval Christian view was that this was a time that the living should be working to get the dead out of purgatory, so bells were run, prayers were said, and gifts were given–in the form of cakes disbursed to bands of “soulers” who went from house to house singing ancient souling songs and offering prayers for the dearly departed. After the Reformation and the disappearance of a soul-packed Purgatory in most of Protestant Britain, souling evolved into outright begging, and eventually (jumping the Atlantic) into trick-or-treating. If there was no English Reformation, I wonder if we would all still be giving out soul cakes? Probably not.
Seventeenth-century Souls, simply existing and ascending directly to Heaven without stopping at Purgatory–they don’t need any prayers or cakes! (Karel van Mallery after Jan van der Straet, Antwerp, 1609 and Johannes Amos Comenius, Orbis sesualium pictus, Nuremburg, 1658 , both Wellcome Library Images); Shropshire Soul Cakes, from a recipe available here, and a more modern Halloween cake on an early 20th century postcard.
Another cake long associated with Halloween in parts of the British Isles, most particularly western Scotland and the Isle of Man, is dumb- cake, very simple, salty grain and water cakes baked in the fire by unmarried women at midnight, with the aim of revealing their future spouses. While holding the pan, they were said to recite an ancient rhyme—Two must make it, two must bake it, and two must break it— and afterwards their future mates would be revealed in their dreams. Presumably the word “dumb” is a variant of “doom”, the Old English word for fate or destiny, although I’ve also read that the girls were supposed to remain mute while they baked the cake (then how would they recite the rhyme?). This kind of “divining for husbands” takes many different forms (cabbage-pulling, mirror-gazing) on both sides of the Atlantic, and survives in the form of various cultural expressions into the twentieth century.
Title and first page of the play entitled The Dumb-Cake by Arthur Morrison and Richard Pryce, London, 1907, and an early twentieth-century variant of a dumb cake on a postcard from the same era.