October 25, 2009
Op-Ed Contributor

Pumpkin Eaters


"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

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

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

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

"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."