“Did you ever eat Colcannon, made from lovely pickled cream?
With the greens and scallions mingled like a picture in a dream.
Did you ever make a hole on top to hold the melting flake
Of the creamy, flavored butter that your mother used to make?”
(traditional Irish folksong)
There is going to be an awful lot written about Halloween in the next couple of weeks – but I want to tell you folks about a night that rural Nova Scotia folk sometimes refer to as – Cabbage Night.
In years ago Cabbage Night was a time for running with the shadows and whooping and yelling and building great bonfires and whispering in the darkness.
Cabbage Night was a night for giggling.
Every year, on the night before Halloween, children on the French Shore of Nova Scotia would stage great raids upon local cabbage fields. Here they would uproot the nastiest and foulest cabbage they could find. They would search through the bracken and ruttle of turned over dirt – hunting for the most frost-bitten and rotten cabbage they could uncover.
I’m not saying it smelled sweet, you understand.
These cabbages would be flung at the doors and walls of local cottages and houses. They would land with heavy satisfying slaps and splatters against the brick and siding of local residents.
And woe to those who were careless enough to open their door to a knick-knacking pack of children – for they would find themselves the unhappy recipient of a deftly rolled rotting cabbage head that would bowl forward just long enough to reach the clean spot in the center of the kitchen floor where it would break down into a nasty fragrant decaying mulch.
Also useful were the long, gnarled stumps left over from where the farmers had cut away the good cabbages. These too could be used as wonderfully groaty projectiles but it was far better to use them as cudgels. Great cabbage stump battles would be waged on the shoreline as two or three or thirty hardy – or perhaps foolhardy – young warriors would wage battle with the cruciferae cudgels.
This is what I love to do with my writing.
I root through old fields and midden heaps and graveyards and landfills of history. I rummage about and find something good and groaty and then I pull it out. An old ghost story, a legend, or just the bare hint of a tale.
Sometimes I unearth entire carcasses, other times it is nothing more than the shadow of a bone.
Whatever it is, I work with it and try to give it life. I add meat and build it up – one piece at a time. We writers must often play Frankenstein and stitch up our cadavers from the bits and pieces we discover along the way. We stitch each chunk of rotting cabbage together with love and care and precision – until we have modeled ourselves a fine fat Cabbage King.
And then we give it life. We let fly our thunderbolts of creativity and give those old bones and rotten meat life – of a sort.
Each of my numerous ghost story collections (Haunted Harbours, Wicked Woods, Halifax Haunts, Maritime Monsters and The Lunenburg Werewolf) are nothing more than a mass of stories based upon the bits of fact, fiction and folklore that I have stitched together. I am a great recycler, taking old yarns and giving them brand new life. I soup them up and update them. I pimp them out.
In the end that is what we writers do. We take our dreams and our memories and we stitch them together with our imagination and a well-placed lightning bolt of creativity and we give our stories life!
Let me leave you with a wee bit of a recipe.
It is considered customary to make yourself a pot of Colcannon on cabbage night. It is a simple and hearty dish made by mashing boiled cabbage with turnips and potatoes. Butter and salt as liberally as you like.
On Halloween a ring and a thimble were often added to the mixture. If your bowlful contained the ring it would signify and upcoming marriage in your future – if you were unlucky enough to find the thimble in your bowl of Colcannon it meant you’d be doomed to a single life.
Here’s the recipe.
I used 4-6 potatoes and one good-sized turnip. About 2-3 pounds. Peel them and chunk them and put them in a pot with enough cold water to cover them by at least an inch or so. Scatter a bit of salt over the spuds and neep. Boil until you can smoosh the potatoes with a blunt fork – maybe 15 or 20 minutes. Drain in a colander.
Chop a fair-sized cabbage while you’re waiting for the spuds to boil. Whistle if you must, but do not attempt to dance. It is bad luck to try and jig while you’re chopping cabbage – especially if you’re using a knife.
Put the pot back on the stove and set over medium-high heat. Melt a good wad of butter, about 5-6 tablespoons, into the pot and add the chopped cabbage. Stir it up some until it begins to wilt. While you’re waiting chop some onions. Try and look like you know what you’re doing – even if someone isn’t watching. Practice pays off. Stir in the chopped onions. This whole part of the process shouldn’t take too long. About two minutes for the cabbage and one minute for the onions.
Keep stirring and whistling. It is a fine aerobic workout.
Pour in a cup of milk. Traditionalists will use cream, but cream gives me heartburn. Reduce the heat to medium. Don’t burn the milk. Dump the spuds and turnip into the mot and mash them up, getting the cabbage and onion all smooshed together. It ought to look like somebody had dropped a Martian into a bowl of curdled puss and hit frappe.
Salt and butter and pepper to your liking. Serve it with meat – bacon or sausages or pork goes great. Fish is fine too, but it’s awfully healthy for wasting on such a wonderful cholesterol-riddle mess as good Colcannon.
Some people will tell you that you can use kale or chard or even mustard or dandelion greens in place of the cabbage. Others will talk of using parsnips instead of turnip.
People say a lot of things, don’t they.
Whatever you make it out off, have something cold to drink it with. I favor a thick knife-and-fork ale – say a Guinness or something local from a micro-brewery. Stock up on your incense while you’re at it. Colcannon can be mighty fumish, afterwards.
Just remember that there is no real recipe for anything – beyond boil it, fry it, bake it or barbecue. Cooking, like any form of creativity has no real rules to it. The main thing is to have fun.
I like to make my own version of Colcannon with purple potatoes and red cabbage and fat turnips and a gi-normous red onion. The resulting purple mulch is both tasty and filling – and I call it Nightcrawler Stew – after the teleporting blue-furred X-Man. A bowl or two of this will keep you warm and giggling the whole winter long.
“Yes you did, so you did, so did he and so did I.
And the more I think about it sure the nearer I’m to cry.
Oh, wasn’t it the happy days when troubles we had not,
And our mothers made Colcannon in the little skillet pot.”
Yours in storytelling,
If you enjoyed this article you might want to pick up one of my e-books. I’ve got a lot to choose from but REALLY for this time of year there would only be one single e-book that I would TRULY recommend.