The time is here – the veil between the living and the dead lifts on October 31!

As a lifelong fan of horror films and all things macabre, I have a natural affinity for Halloween. In fact, it’s my favorite holiday. I love the food at Thanksgiving, and the family time at Christmas, but Halloween is really where I can let loose and partake in all the spooky festivities.

To celebrate the big day, I thought I’d get you in the spirit by sharing some Halloween history with you. I’ll even throw in some of my own memories of Halloweens gone by!

The origins of Halloween can be traced back to pre-Christian Celtic civilization. The Celtic calendar was divided into two parts – the light half and dark half. “Samhain” was a festival marking the start of the dark half: the completion of harvest and the beginning of winter. Along with harvesting crops, people would typically slaughter livestock in preparation for the winter season. In an agricultural society, this was a very important time; if the growing season did not go as planned, it could be a matter of life and death.

In addition, people believed that the spirit world was more closely connected to our own during this time of the year. The souls of the dead were thought to return for the festival’s feasts as were other sorts of supernatural beings.

As Christianity overtook the Celtic society, the Church sought to displace pagan rituals. The Roman celebration of All Hallows Day was moved from May 13 to November 1 in an attempt to provide a suitable replacement to the established Samhain. October 31 was knows as “All Hallows Evening,” shortened to “All Hallows Eve,” then “Hallowe’en” and finally to “Halloween.” The Church also added “All Soul’s Day” on Nov 2, which gave Halloween further association with death and dead souls.

During the European Middle Ages, All Souls Day was the time when people would pray for those trapped in purgatory (the “waiting room” where souls resided before ascending to heaven or descending to hell). Children went “souling,” begging for soul cakes in remembrance of the dead and to pray for their release from purgatory.

In America, Halloween didn’t catch on until large waves of Scot and Irish immigrants arrived with their old-world Halloween customs. By the early 1900s, it was widely celebrated across the country, leading to its current popularity.

A Halloween tradition, Jack O’Lanterns can be found on doorsteps all across the country. The story behind this festive decoration can be traced to an Irish folktale about a man named Stingy Jack.

Legend has it Stingy Jack was a mischievous drunkard. Every time the devil would try to claim his soul, Jack would find a way to outwit him. Once he even entrapped the devil, only releasing him when the devil swore he would never claim Jack’s soul.

When Jack finally died, he wasn’t good enough for heaven. Keeping his promise, the devil wouldn’t claim him either and simply sent Jack on his way with a carved out turnip holding a glowing coal to light his way. People would carve scary faces in hollowed out pumpkins to ward off stingy Jack or other evil spirits.

Trick-or-treating (and the role of candy in this endeavor) is a recent American spin on “souling.” The activity began to catch on in the 1950s, and is rumored to have been designed to detour children from vandalism, pranks and otherwise mischievous behavior.

Stealing gates and fence posts was a popular prank for early 20th century children; so popular in fact that Halloween was even referred to as “Gate Night.” A gateless fence would allow for livestock to escape, wreaking (relative) havoc on pastoral small towns. Municipal folks sought to replace this activity with something more wholesome and concoted “trick or treat” to buy off the potential hoodlums with candy apples and popcorn balls. Eventually, this transitioned to store bought candies, bringing us to present day “trick or treat” (which is easier to say than “steal-your-gate-or-treat!”).

Des Moines has its own unique spin on “beggar’s night,” which historically takes place the day before Halloween. An interesting summary can be found on the Des Moines Public Library website.

I always make sure to participate in select Halloween activities that really make the season. At the top of that list is watching horror movies throughout the month of October and attending my fair share of parties, complete with girls in slutty outfits (not sure how that relates to Halloween, but no complaints here). However, since Halloween is and always has been about candy to most folks, we’ll stick to that.

I still have vivid memories of trick-or-treating when I was a kid, mostly the aftermath of the event. Who didn’t dump out a pillow case of candy, separating the favorites from the rest (and starting a separate discard pile for the worthless cadies nobody likes). Although you might be surprised by the occasional king size candy bar, you could always count on traditional “fun size” candy bars (I was always left thinking “what’s so fun about getting less?”).

I don’t eat a lot of candy, but I love the culture – I have several vintage candy manufacturing books that are from the early- to mid-twentieth century. Since candy is a relatively recent component to Halloween, most of the books don’t even mention it.

Recently, my tastes have changed and I find myself craving things I didn’t care for when I was younger – for example, the black and orange peanut butter taffy and ubiquitous candy corn. As a kid, I thought those were about the worst Halloween treats ever – just above getting a piece of fruit in your bag! These days, however, those are the first things I buy to get in the Halloween mood.

Sadly, candy on Beggar’s Night is victim to the class system. For some people (myself included), there were many classes, akin to the Indian caste system. At the very least, there were two groupings – the bourgeois and the proletariat. The selections were different for each person: take a look at this MASSIVE list of all things candy and segregate them yourself. Perhaps I forgot your favorite?

100 Grand
3 Musketeers
Almond Joy
Baby Ruth
Bit O Honey
Blow Pops
Boston Baked Beans
Bottle Caps
Brach’s Jube Jels
Candy Buttons
Candy Corn
Charleston Chews
Clark Bar
Fun Dip
Good and Plenty
Gummy snacks
Heath Bar
Hershey’s Bar (plain or with almonds)
Hershey’s Kisses
Hot Tamales
Jelly Belly
Jolly Ranchers
Junior Mints
Kit Kat
Laffy Taffy
Life Savers
Mars Bar
Mike and Ike
Milk Duds
Milky Way
Mr. Goodbar
Necco Wafers
Nestle Crunch bars
Nik’L-Nip Wax Bottles
Now and Later
Oh Henry
Orange and black peanut butter taffy
Pixy Stix
Pop Rocks
Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups (and Pumpkins)
Reese’s Pieces
Root Beer Barrels
Shock Tarts
Slo Poke
Sour Patch Kids
Sugar Babies
Sugar Daddy
Swedish Fish
Take 5
Tootsie Pops
Tootsie Rolls
Wonka Runts
York Peppermint Patty


Is there any breakfast food more classic or more beloved than the donut? Bagels may have the urban vote, croissants get the support of globetrotters and Francophiles, but a donut represents Americans of all regions, religions and classes. And while you can find donuts in gas stations and supermarkets, I think the best place to experience a top-notch donut is at an old fashioned, no-frills neighborhood donut shop.

I wonder how long this guy has watched Des Moines diners enjoy their donuts….

I get a special feeling when I walk into a donut shop – more often than not, the place looks like it’s frozen in time. There are pictures and newspaper clippings on the wall showing much younger (and usually much thinner) versions of the same people working behind the counter. The characters sitting at the counter are on a first name basis with the shop owner, and their orders are set out seconds after they enter the place.

Now, the donut shop is not a place for any paleo-Atkins-South-Beach-gluten-free-Doctor-Oz-weekend-cleanse converts. Each recipe has been perfected over the years, and any attempt to “healthify” it is sacrilege.

A mix of donut styles: cake, raised, fritter and old-fashioned.

Cake, Chocolate, Spice and Sugared Donuts
Leavened with baking powder or soda and hand-rolled or dropped from a metal dispenser, these donuts are what come to mind when you think of classic American donuts. I prefer hand-rolled or scooped cake donuts because they have a more old fashioned texture than machine-made. They are fried, cooled and glazed or frosted and topped with things like toasted or raw coconut, sprinkles or chopped peanuts. But these donuts can stand on their own merits – often times a simple dusting of cinnamon sugar right out of the fryer is all these babies need!

Raised, Glazed, Long John, Jelly or Filled Donuts
These donuts are made with yeast, which give them a lighter, airier quality than cake donuts. They’re rolled out, cut, proofed and fried. Although they can be topped with many of same ingredients as the cake donut, simple glazed and frosted donuts are by far the most popular of this style.

Old Fashioned
These donuts have a crispier crust and feature characteristic jagged edges. They often include sour cream or buttermilk in the dough. Some examples are crullers and French crullers.

Apple Fritters
One of my favorite donuts is the apple fritter. Any of you donut enthusiasts might already know that most homemade apple fritter recipes are a version of what is referred to as the cake donut. These are not the same as the wonderfully fried, crusted and perfectly glazed beauties found in the donut shop.

Aside from these traditional styles, donut-like items can be found on menus across the globe. Some of those exapmles include churros, buñuelos, zeppole, bombolone, And the Sicilian sfinge. Of course, you can’t forget the newly developed cronut!

Coffee + Donuts, a Perfect Marriage
You can’t mention donuts without talking coffee – the two were made for each other. It wasn’t until recently that I began to appreciate old-school donut house coffee. This is NOT coffee that should ever be poured out from a beaker and nothing any Seattle or Portland native would ever let cross their lips. On it’s own, it’s a pretty vile thing. But paired with a donut, it’s transformed – the acid and tannins counter the ultra rich donuts still glistening with their fresh sheen of glaze.

The Des Moines Donut Circuit
My very fist donut memories were at Dunkin’ Donuts. Back when I was growing up, the brand still had a presence in Des Moines, and I’m glad to see it making its way back to town. However, it’s pretty plain to see that I’m a bit of a history buff and a hopeless romantic – that’s why I gravitate to the older established donut shop, it’s seasoned veteran donut makers and their time-tested recipes.

Hiland’s an old-fashioned bakery on the north side with great donuts.

Hiland Park Bakery may be one of the best places to buy donuts in Des Moines. Although they offer more than donuts, they’ve perfected the art. There aren’t tables and booths – just cases full of baked goods and a crew of staff more than happy to help you get your fix! The décor and atmosphere puts this place squarely in the “no-frills, just quality” camp. All of the donuts were top notch; their cake donuts have a nice crust and a moist interior and downplay the traditional spices (nutmeg and mace) that less skilled bakers focus on. All of this attention results in a very flavorful donut that gives you just a hint of those strong, sweet spices.

A selection of some of Hiland’s finest, including an apple fritter.

However, the apple fritters were the star on top of the Christmas tree for me. These were everything a classic deep fried apple fritter should be: the characteristic craggy edges, the expertly prepared glaze covering every nook and cranny, the slight crunch upon the first bite. The fritter was not overly sweet, with subtle apple and cinnamon flavors that kept my taste buds engaged from first bite to the last.

A 5:30am trip to Donut King guaranteed the freshest donuts available.

Donut King is a prime example of a classic, old school donut shop with hand-crafted wares. They offer an assortment of cake and glazed donuts, some of which you just can’t find anywhere else in Des Moines. A highlight for me was the chocolate covered, chocolate cake donut. Although I’m not the stereotypical chocoholic, it has everything I look for in a donut: a thin sheen of glaze, a pleasant donut crunch and a moist interior. You really only get that quality from donut shops – their products are meant for immediate consumption, not sitting all day and night in a display case.

Our early-morning Donut King haul, including classic donut shop coffee.

Donut King’s toasted coconut glazed donut was honestly a donut that I have not been able to forget since I visited. The glazed donut itself was extremely fresh (visiting at 5:30 a.m. certainly didn’t hurt!) and had the satisfying “chew” I enjoy. There was just enough glaze to make the toasted coconut adhere to the donut through every joyful bite.

A beautiful thing: Donut Hut’s donut case.

Donut Hut is yet another classic shop with a variety of the standard favorites, but the highlight here for me was their old fashioned donut. The crunchy, jagged edges hearkened back to homemade donuts, and the thin glaze was just sweet enough to get you through the morning.

Some of the “new-school” options available from Topped Doughnuts in Ankeny.

Although I naturally gravitate to the old-school joints, there are plenty of folks across the country injecting new life into donuts. Des Moines is no exception – Topped Doughnuts takes that new-school approach. Their products resemble a cross between a donut and a cupcake – two very fine items cleverly combined with an artisan bakery feel. They take classic dessert ideas spin them into donut form. A perfect example of this is their red velvet donut; it’s all you expect from a red velvet cake, but in an intense, concentrated donut.

Whether old-school or new-school, donut shops are a treasure for their neighborhood or community – they’re one of the few places where interns rub elbows with CEOs. My challenge to you: some morning, try being a regular at your local donut shop. Grab a couple donuts, a cup of coffee and the daily newspaper and relax with an American classic!