Something wicked this way comes...in the form of this blog post. It's the spookiest time of year, which means this blog post is filled with everything Nashville-Halloween-related from food to ghost stories. Read on, if you dare.
"This is Halloween, this is Halloween. Pumpkins scream in the dead of night!"
That's right, we've finally reached the holiday that is shared as a favorite by many thanks to its wicked and sweet delights—HALLOWEEN! I'd like to say that it's my favorite but sadly, that's not true. It's actually tied with Thanksgiving at second place, since it's hard to argue against a holiday that gives you a day off work just to eat. But Christmas is actually my number one, since it's a day off work (make that 2 days) to eat and open gifts...and spend time with family and friends too—yeah, yeah. But we'll save that for a later blog post.
This blog post's mission is to take a brief look back at Halloweens of the past, specifically looking at food (woo hoo!), the strangest of traditions, and best of all—a ghost story. Because I'm hungry as I write this (and getting hungrier by the second), we'll start with the various foods associated with the holiday and finish with one of my favorite ghost stories from when I was kid.
Tennessean Magazine Halloween-Themed Recipes
Looking through many old Tennessean Magazine issues for Halloween holiday-related recipes, I found that Halloween-type food has stayed just about the same, at least for the last 70 years or so if not longer. Essentially, it's fall-time food with plenty of pumpkin or ginger (like Gingerbread), cider, ham, beans, something corn related, doughnuts (for some reason), apples, and even waffles (who knew?).
Except for the recipe below that I found in the October 30th, 1960 magazine, most of the recipes include making food that looks like certain Halloween characters, if that makes sense. For example, the "Spooky Cupcakes" recipe calls essentially for making regular chocolate cupcakes with buttercream, and using candy corn or any other food to create faces on top. Or even "Jack-O-Lantern Cheeseburgers" with essentially the same concept...you get the idea.
However, I found one recipe unique in that it appears to have roots in old Scottish traditions - the "Vanilla Fortune Cake". When I googled this recipe, nothing but fortune cookie recipes came up, so I don't know where the Tennessean got this from, but it sounds pretty cool to me, and seems like something you could do on other occasions as well. Essentially like a fortune cookie, the cake will hide items inside for its eaters. Instead of fortunes though, the cake can hold small charms like small wedding rings, pennies, tiny horseshoes, etc. Each charm is wrapped in either wax or foil paper, and spaced throughout the batter.
If I get a chance to test this recipe out, I'll be sure and update this post with a photo and my results.
Without further ado, here's the recipe...
Vanilla Fortune Cake
(This can probably be modified for modern times with healthier ingredients as well).
Use a 9x3.5-inch tube pan (I'm guessing this is essentially an Angel Food cake pan)
1 cup (2 sticks) butter or margarine
1.5 tsps pure vanilla extract
1 tbsp grated orange rind
1/2 tsp grated lemon rind
1/4 tsp salt
1 3/4 cups sugar
5 large eggs
2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
Soften butter or margarine. Blend in pure vanilla extract, orange and lemon rinds and salt. Gradually add sugar. Beat in 4 eggs, one at a time. Add flour and mix well. Beat in remaining egg. Turn into a well-greased lightly floured tube pan. Wrap fortune symbols separately in foil and push into the batter, spacing them uniformly. Place cake in a cold oven. Set oven control to 300 degrees (slow) and bake for 1.5 hours or until cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool 20 minutes in pan. Turn out onto wire rack to finish cooling. Frost top and sides with orange frosting.
Fortune symbols: The boy or girl whose piece of cake has one of the following symbols will have his or her fortune told:
- Wedding rings (one for boy and one for girl) - the first boy and girl to be married.
- Button - old bachelor.
- Thimble - old maid.
- Dime - rich.
- Penny - poor.
Recipes for the add-ons to the cake:
Do you have any unique Halloween-related recipes you'd like to share?
Weird Halloween Traditions
I also looked through old newspapers for Halloween traditions and customs, preferably in Nashville but not necessarily. What I mostly found were the typical traditions such as throwing costume parties and decorating with ghosts, black cats, and pumpkins. So while some traditions have transcended time, others thankfully haven't. Part of the reasoning for that, as one news clipping from 1881 put it (for the All-Hallows Eve Festival) - "Its history is that of a custom which has passed from the worship of heathen gods into the festivities of the Christian church, and has sunk at last into a mere sport."
If you have time, I'd recommend doing a little more research into how Halloween has morphed and changed over the last several centuries - it's pretty cool. For now though, here are a few of the weirdest traditions from Halloween...
Candle, Apple, Mirror, Husband
One superstitious act that was once commonly practiced was when a "maiden" went into a room alone at midnight, just as Halloween faded into All-Saints' day, and would stand before a mirror with two candles, and she would also "pare and eat an apple." Before the apple would be eaten "...she would see, reflected in the glass as if peeping over her shoulder, the face of her future husband."
According to a Nashville Union and American newspaper article from November, 1872, this was of Scottish origin—"...the majority of the superstitious rites which mark the celebration of Halloween originated among the 'canny people north of 'Tweed."
Despite the article's funny way of explaining it, it's true though. Halloween as a celebration actually originated with the Celtic festival of "Samhain", which was when people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off ghosts. The religious holiday of "All Saints' Day" that's honored on November 1st, came later in the 8th Century by Pope Gregory III as a day to honor all saints.
Most already know this, but just a little bit more history about Halloween: it was "All Hallow's Eve" before becoming the candy-filled, jack-o-lantern carving, and trick-or-treating holiday that it is now.
After discussing a few other obscure ancient traditions, the article goes on to talk about how some things have spanned time...
"But there is, for all that, some of the old honor and some of the old credit remaining with the day. Not abroad, but at home; not in the open air, but within quiet walls; not shrinking from uncannie creatures out upon the winds, but telling pleasant stories and joining in pleasant games in the very heart of the family circle, is 'Hallow-eve' still celebrated."
Chestnuts Roasting...for Halloween?
Following the tradition above of fortune-telling, there was another custom that involved roasting chestnuts on a fire (which we now mostly associate with the Christmas holiday). Except with this tradition, you gave each nut a name for a friend or lover. If the nut proceeded to make a lot of noise on the fire or jumped, then that person should be avoided. Or in the case of a lover, that was an indication that the lover was unfaithful. But if the nut burned slowly and tenderly, well then that's a good thing. There was a third prediction to it too...
"...if the nuts named for the girl and her lover burned at the same time they would marry."
That's gotta be more accurate than a dating site, right?
What about jack-o'-lanterns? Ever wonder where that custom comes from?
Well, according to this 1929 newspaper clipping from the Tennessean, jack-o-lanterns are "feeble substitutes for great bonfires" from times when fires were lit by pagans with magic properties, in hopes for a blessed new year. Another news story I read talked about how in the times before Christianity in Great Britain, the beginning of a new year dated from the autumn festival. But since October is so close to our current new year, the same concept easily still applies.
And now, when you're carving your pumpkin into a jack-o-lantern this Halloween, and preparing to place a lit candle inside, you'll know that this long-passed-on custom is truly a symbol of goodwill (even for the scariest of pumpkins).
My Tennessee Childhood Halloween
Growing up in Ashland City (a little town just northwest of Nashville), we didn't do anything out of the norm for Halloween. I just remember trick-or-treating every year with my family up until 7th or 8th grade, and sometimes coming back to watch the Disney cartoon "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow", narrated by Bing Crosby (that's still my favorite version to this day).
My favorite costume? I was the Queen of Hearts one year, courtesy of my dad's artistic talents with posterboard. My most embarrassing memory from Halloween? The time I ate almost all of the candy I got from trick-or-treating on the same night, and promptly got sick at school the next day. It wasn't pretty.
But my favorite scary story I remember from my childhood? It's the notorious Tennessee tale of the Bell Witch.
I don't know if the first time I ever heard that story was around Halloween...I'm going to say probably. And I remember that I was in the 3rd grade at the time.
If you're from Tennessee and have never heard this story or even heard of the Bell Witch, well you might be living under a rock then. But for anyone who hasn't heard the story (or just wants a refresher) and enjoys a good ghost story, then read on...
The Bell Witch: The Most Incredible Haunting in American History
In a small rural town, about an hour's drive northwest of Nashville, lies a site that attracts several visitors yearly. The town is called Adams, and people come from all over just to visit the former land and home of John Bell's family, and also the local historic cave on the property.
What draws people there is the story of the haunting of the Bell family by a supernatural being, or so the story goes...
The year is 1817 and the much-quieter-than-now Middle Tennessee area's rich soil and trade center was attracting more people regularly, including the Bell family. By this year though, the family had already been living in Adams for about 13 years, having moved from North Carolina in 1804. John Bell was a prosperous farmer, and up until that year, everything was normal for the family.
Come summertime in 1817 though, the supernatural activity began with members of the family seeing strange animals lurking around the property. Then came the knocking sounds on outside doors and walls at nighttime, followed by noises inside the house that didn't seem to have any source or origin; noises like chains being drug through the house, stones being dropped on the floors, or whispering voices.
Escalation by the Revenant
For a time, the family kept these disturbances to themselves. But when things escalated to harm coming to the family—specifically when the family's youngest daughter Betsy was attacked in her bed—the Bells decided to tell their friends. Neighbors and other visitors witnessed this strange activity as well, but sadly their knowledge did nothing to alleviate the disturbances.
Although every member of the Bell family endured the witch's wrath in some way, its worst torture was saved for John and his daughter, Betsy. It pulled her hair and scratched and pinched her daily, for the next several years. And with John Bell, she evidently caused his health to deteriorate over these same years. His throat would swell at times, and he also often felt like a stick was stuck sideways in this throat. And of course, she continued to swear at him during these times.
The hauntings then turned into talking (which included every emotion from laughing and crying to cursing and raving), moving objects, and generally disturbing many aspects of the family's personal lives.
After more time passed, these strange occurrences began to draw more famous visitors to the farm as well, such as Andrew Jackson before he became President. He actually brought with him a professional "witch layer" too. The voice spoke to them as well—according to many reports, it said "all right, General, I am ready for business." To the Witch Layer (who had brought along a flintlock pistol, with a silver bullet), the voice said "Now Mr. Smarty, here I am, shoot." This apparently entertained Jackson quite a bit causing him to laugh hysterically, and after two nights at the home, Jackson returned to Nashville having apparently never spoken of the incident again.
Gone...Or is She?
But the supposed two main reasons that the witch had given in coming to the Bell farm were eventually completed by 1821. The first occurred in December, 1820, when John Bell died from an apparent poisoning, claimed by Kate. The other occurred in March, 1821: Betsy broke off her engagement to Joshua Gardner.
While the name the "Bell Witch" is obvious in its origin, there was another name given to the voice and it came about when it was asked who it was. The voice often gave different names, but one identity included the ghost of the neighbor woman named Kate Batts. That's why sometimes it was referred to as "Kate."
I'd like to go on and on about this story, but I'll leave the other details for you the reader to go on and research yourself. I will say the disturbances did eventually stop, but definitively? That I'm not sure of. Maybe, maybe not. Some say weird occurrences still happen today, even from just driving by the former property. But like any good ghost story, the legendary story of the Bell Witch has many other versions and sub stories (like the 2005 movie "An American Haunting" that gave it a different twist) that help continue to make it "the most incredible haunting in American history." Or so they say.
If you have time and are interested, I recommend checking out the cave and former property. I went several years ago with some friends, and while I can say nothing that I can remember happened supernaturally, I will say that it's a beautiful little town to visit if you're wanting to see some of Middle Tennessee's beautiful countryside, and delve into a little history while you're at it. They offer tours of the historic cave there and the replica cabin on the property as well, especially during this time of year. That's the best time to go!
If you have any other spooky, funny, or just interesting Halloween stories you'd like to share - please feel free to comment below.
'Til next time - Happy Halloween!