This trio of recipes comes from a surprising source: a radio transcript from 1944!
The U.S. Department of Agriculture ran public service announcements or educational segments called “Homemakers’ Chat” using information provided by home economists and nutritionists of the day. I don’t know how often these were run, but I found a few years’ worth of Halloween-themed transcripts from the 1930s and 1940s. These scripts were likely distributed to radio stations throughout the country and some may have even been pre-recorded.
There are a lot of these on Archive.org, if you are interested. Food is just one topic of many, there are segments about everything from feeding puppies and “News from Washington” to farming, deforestation and household pests. The vast majority are from the 30’s-40’s, but there are a few as early as 1926 and as late as 1960.
I found this transcript from 1944 especially entertaining. The simple snacks intrigued me because these recipes were considered to be traditional and old-fashioned even then. The added bonus is it’s an especially frugal menu for the hungry “ghosts who’ve walked” after a night of trick-or-treating.
A typical Hallowe’en snack platter would include popcorn balls, gingerbread, peanut butter sandwiches and spiced cider. There was no recipe for gingerbread so I omitted it here.
Peanut Butter Sandwiches
- Whole wheat bread
- Peanut Butter
- Optional crunchy fillings: chopped carrots, apples, celery, dill pickles
- Optional smooth filling: strained honey
Of course we tried all of the fillings and the general consensus is carrots add a nice texture but little else, celery is not as good as expected, apples and honey are delicious and pickles are not. With the exception of honey, the point of the filling is mostly to add texture and health value, not necessarily flavor.
Be aware that our modern peanut butter will probably not taste exactly the same as it did in 1944 but it isn’t all that different either. Homemade was an option then just as it is now, but the commercial brands would have been cheaper, churned to a very smooth consistency, and would have contained partially hydrogenated oil to prevent separation and to increase shelf life. Skippy brand was first sold in 1932, Peter Pan in 1928 (but under a different name 1920-1927) and Jif didn’t show up until 1958.
Both smooth and chunky peanut butters were available, but I’m assuming that smooth was probably the go-to for recipes like this one, which is why crunchy fillings were often mixed in. Peanut butter at this time was sweetened, and it is worth noting that there was a sugar cane shortage in the mid-40’s which may or may not have affected the flavor of commercial products for a little while. Even with the sugar, peanut butter probably wasn’t terribly sweet in 1944. At the time Jif introduced its late 1950’s product it was by far the sweetest brand available.
- 2 quarts / 8 cups popped popcorn, unsalted
- 1 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 cup water
- 2 T. vinegar
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp. vanilla
- Optional: 1/3 cup cocoa
- Optional: 2 cups peanuts or pecans
To make the syrup: Combine sugar, water, vinegar and salt and boil until it reaches 250 degrees Fahrenheit (120 Celsius) on a candy thermometer. Otherwise, it should harden when you drop a bit into cold water. Add the vanilla. In a separate bowl, pour over the popcorn and nuts and mix well. When it cools, grease hands and form into balls, about the size of a tennis ball. If you want the chocolate variation, blend cocoa in with the sugar before boiling it. Makes 10-12 balls.
- Feel free to use an air popper or any other preferred method of popping plain popcorn kernels. Or you could do it the old-fashioned way by filling the bottom of a pot with some oil then heating the corn as evenly as possible with the lid on.
- Use a candy thermometer! As soon as the syrup reaches 250 degrees, quickly add the vanilla. Slowly pour over the popcorn, blending and folding as you go. Mix as thoroughly as you can and let it cool only until you can safely handle the popcorn.
- When making the balls, form them loosely instead of packing them tight and they’ll stick together better. Work quickly because the candy will harden fast. It took a couple batches before I managed to get this right!
You may already be familiar with the old American tradition of popcorn balls on Halloween. Back when midcentury trick-or-treaters could accept homemade treats, this was an especially popular one. They’re easy to make, the ingredients are not expensive and they can be made in large batches. Note that this version is different from many other “old-fashioned” popcorn balls recipes in that it does not use corn syrup.
I am not entirely sure when popcorn became so closely associated with Halloween or why the tradition seems to have stopped, but popcorn balls have been around since the mid-19th century. Apparently, the oldest known recipe for popcorn balls is from E.S. Haskell’s Housekeeping Encylopedia (1861), which was a lot like this one; just popcorn bound with candied honey or sugar.
Spiced Apple Cider
- 4 cups cider
- 8 short pieces of stick cinnamon
- 12 whole cloves
- 8 whole allspice
- 1/4 C. sugar
- 1/8 tsp. salt
Combine ingredients in a pot and bring to boiling point, but don’t boil. Let it cool and stand or refrigerate for several hours. Before serving, reheat and strain out the whole spices. Serve hot.
“Short” is a very subjective description that leaves a lot of room for error. To me, 3-inch sticks are short. Cinnamon sticks come in a variety of sizes, so to play it safe I used four of the standard 6-inch sticks in place of eight 3-inch sticks. I cracked them before adding to the pot.
This spiced cider is incredibly delicious and is my newest favorite holiday beverage! It reminds me of homemade wassail without citrus. Use a good quality cider if you can; I am fortunate enough to live down the road from a cider mill so I started out with a product that I already really like. I highly recommend you give this one a try!
3 Comments Add yours
Great post. Popcorn balls was very popular still in the 1950’s. I was little when my mother discovered a recipe for them on the bottle of Karo corn syrup. It was easier to make then the recipe she was using and it didn’t fail. I remember getting home made popcorn balls for trick or treat. Peanut butter would stick to the roof or your mouth and also tare the bread when spreading it. So when Jiff came along, the ads showed it being smooth and spreadable. I remember begging for it shopping with my mom when she would pick up a cheaper brand. My best friend loved peanut butter and sweet pickle sandwiches. People mixed many different things with peanut butter to make a sandwich so the peanut butter would not be so dry and sticky in the mouth.
Your comment made my day! Thank you for sharing it. 🙂
My mom also grew up eating sweet pickle, peanut butter and butter sandwiches. She would make them for my siblings and me and pack them in our school lunches, but none of us could stand it and we were too nice to ever say anything!
Wow..matter of taste. I grew up on peanut butter (crunchy, thank you) and dill pickle sandwiches. To me it was ‘umami’. I’ve met people who took the pickled bit further and ate peanut butter/saurkraut sandwiches.
When you are poor you’ll eat what is before you. Peanut Butter is such a great power source and it’s one of the cheaper eats for poor kids. (I always worry about poor kids at schools where peanut butter is banned.)
Peanut Butter and pickle was a nice change from the dessert like peanut butter and jelly. I’m looking at your photo and remembering more from childhood…popcorn balls. EVERYone had them on Halloween back in the 60’s. In our own home my husband and I made them through early 80’s but then candy changed and no one wanted popcorn balls anymore.
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