This is a wonderful article from the New York Times. Click on the following title to go right to the NYT page. Here it is as well:
Aix-en-Provence, France — THERE is a tendency among the French to welcome certain aspects of American life with immediate and uncritical enthusiasm: hamburgers, Jerry Lewis, baseball caps, elderly television series (“Starsky & Hutch” is still running on French TV), Westerns, Marlboro Lights, button-down shirts — these and much more besides have crossed the Atlantic to become firmly embedded in le lifestyle français.
The Celtic-by-way-of-America celebration of Halloween is one more example that has always stuck in my mind because it arrived in France about the same time that I did, 20 years ago.
I remember the moment well. I was passing the window of a shop that specialized in avant-garde underwear when my eye was caught by a small pumpkin, half-concealed behind the lacy thickets of a black brassiere. A hand-lettered sign tucked into the bra read, “N’oubliez pas l’alowine!” — as if one could ever forget Halloween when reminded of it in such an exotic fashion.
But there was a problem. In those unenlightened days, hardly anyone in France had the faintest idea of what alowine was. An informal survey among friends produced nothing at first but shrugs and incomprehension. I gave my respondents a clue in the form of a pumpkin. Ah, they said, soup. I tried again, this time with the date, Oct. 31, the eve of All Saints’ Day. Of course, they said, Toussaint, but this is not a day of pumpkins. Toussaint is marked here in France by the chrysanthemum. But how would you know that, being English? I retired hurt.
The years passed, and alowine scored one or two minor victories. I noticed a modest selection of cards, a sprinkling of pumpkins and the odd witch’s hat. But there was nothing to indicate that Halloween was having much of an impact locally until I happened to bump into M. Farigoule in the village cafe. (Here I should explain that M. Farigoule is my mentor — self-appointed — on all matters that have to do with correct behavior for a foreigner living in France, from table manners to income tax. He is an unrepentant chauvinist, a fund of misinformation and a prodigious consumer of rosé. I’m rather fond of him.)
It was the first morning of November, and M. Farigoule was seething with indignation. The previous evening, just as he was settling down in front of the television to disagree with the evening news, he had been disturbed by a thunderous clattering on his front door. On his doorstep, he found a gang of sooty-faced infants. One of them, holding up a hollowed-out pumpkin with a guttering candle inside, demanded bonbons. Why should I give you bonbons? asked M. Farigoule. Because it is alowine, was the reply.
M. Farigoule looked at me and shrugged, his expression a question mark. It was clear that he was not familiar with Halloween and its customs. At last it was my chance to teach him something. He listened while I described the cast of characters — the witches and hobgoblins, the skeletons and spirits of the dead, the Grim Reaper and his attendant vultures — and he seemed to understand the basic principles of trick-or-treating. It was when I was trying to explain the historical significance and traditional use of the pumpkin that I saw, from his elevated eyebrows and pursed lips, that I had touched a nerve.
“Do you mean to tell me,” he said, “that pumpkins all over America are massacred, with all that good honest flesh tossed away, simply to provide a primitive decoration?” He took a deep swig of rosé and shook his head. “Do our American friends know what treasures they’re missing? Pumpkin fritters! Pumpkin and apple sauce — so delightful with sausages! Then, bien sûr, there is Toulouse-Lautrec’s sublime gratin of pumpkin.
“And it must be said that Mme. Farigoule” — he raised his glass to the ceiling in a silent salute — “makes, during the season, a most exquisite pumpkin risotto.” He shook his head again. “No — to sacrifice a pumpkin for such a frivolous purpose as alowine is a waste, a terrible waste. Whatever next?” He allowed me to refill his glass while he recovered his composure, and our conversation moved on to the less sensitive topic of village politics.
Another, more official blow to Halloween’s standing in France was the reaction of a local authority, the school attended by my friend’s young children. One year, for reasons that continue to elude me, it was decreed that the pupils should celebrate Halloween by coming to school dressed in appropriately spine-chilling outfits: witches, of course, but also bloodstained ghouls, vampires, a variety of evil spirits and even a small, very hot human pumpkin swathed from head to toe in layers of orange toweling.
The following year saw a change in the school’s management. Alas for Halloween, the new principal was someone with more traditional views, and she was not sympathetic to the idea of fancy dress in the classroom, particularly when inspired by some ridiculous foreign novelty. When asked to explain why she had canceled Halloween, her reply was brief and to the point.
“It has nothing to do with us,” she said. “We’re French.”
The Pumpkin Risotto of Mme. Farigoule
The secret is in the preparation of the pumpkin. After removing seeds and fiber, cut the flesh into chunks, leaving the skin still attached. With your hands, mix the chunks in a bowl with 2 or 3 tablespoons of the best olive oil, salt and pepper, a tablespoon of fresh marjoram and a teaspoon of dried oregano. Lay the chunks on a baking tray, skin side down, and put them in the oven, which you have preheated to 425°F. When the chunks of pumpkin are soft and the edges are tinged with brown, remove from the oven and allow to cool, scrape the flesh from the skin and shred with a fork. Prepare your risotto in the usual way and once the rice is ready, stir in the pumpkin, along with freshly grated Parmesan and butter. (Mme. Farigoule’s tip is to be extra-generous with both cheese and butter.) Add a sage leaf for decoration, and a sprinkling of Parmesan, et voilà.Peter Mayle is the author of “A Year in Provence” and the forthcoming novel “The Vintage Caper.”