Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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The Food it Wouldn't be Samhain Without

It's the quintessential Irish Samhain food: colcannon.

The name means “white-head cabbage”: col (as in “cole slaw”) + ceann (as in Kennedy, “black head”) + finn (“white”), but cabbage is only one of the autumnal triumverate that make up this classic of the peasant kitchen, onions and (of course) potatoes being the others. Before the coming of the spud, likely turnips—that other classic Samhain root vegetable—would have been the third.

How many foods do you know that have (and deserve) their own song? You can hear Mary Black singing its praises here. We sing this song every Samhain. Then we dig in.

Colcannon is good, hearty winter food, but the Samhain batch is special because then you put in the divinatory tokens before you serve it: the coin (for money), the ring (for love), the thimble (some say, spinsterhood; others, creativity).

One Samhain my covensib Kay got the coin. “I could certainly use the money,” she said, “but it doesn't seem very likely; I'm already at the top of my pay grade.”

The year went by. Whenever she remembered the coin, Kay would think: Oh well. What does a plate of mashed potatoes know about the future?


Finally, in October, she gets called in to the boss's office. “Technically you're at the top of your pay grade,” says her boss, “but we're so pleased with your work that we're giving you a raise anyway, retroactive to the beginning of last November.”


Hey, I just tell the story. You can draw your own conclusions.



There are many recipes for colcannon. Here's mine, given (in classic peasant style) without proportions.

Potatoes, boiled and skinned

Cabbage, chopped and cooked (boil or steam it; go easy on the water)

Onions, chopped

Cooking oil

Salt and pepper

In a well-seasoned iron skillet, brown the onions in the oil over medium heat, stirring frequently to prevent burning.


Mash the potatoes coarsely. Don't add any liquid. Stir in the cooked cabbage; be sure it's well-drained.

When the onions are nicely browned, turn up the heat to high. Pat the potato and cabbage mixture in the pan on top of the onions. Salt and pepper generously. Let it form a nice crust; then chop it up and flip the pieces. Let another crust form; chop and flip. Keep doing this until the colcannon forms a lovely, fragrant mass with brown veins of crust running through it. 

Add tokens and serve immediately. It's traditional to serve it directly from the pan.


For more on colcannon and other food traditions of the Midwest Tribe of Witches, 

check out The Prodea Cookbook.










Last modified on
Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


  • Carrie-Anne
    Carrie-Anne Friday, 16 October 2015

    A bit confused, Samhain was replaced by All Hallows around 800ad, and potatoes weren't introduced to Ireland until the mid 16th century, so which peasant tradition does this relate to? A similar ritual however which is related to the cabbage and root vegetables , was to wish for health by sowing plants with coins and jewellery as offerings, of course this often worked due to the jewellery releasing trace minerals into the soil the plants grow in, and they would have been harvested, and ready to eat around Samhain. Occasionally, and very occasionally, the jewellery would find its way into root vegetables themselves. Do you think the recipe could have originated?

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Monday, 19 October 2015

    I can think of numerous examples of divination (or selection) by means of tokens served in food. Plum puddings usually have a sixpence or two in them. (What they use since decimal currency I don't know.) The Monarch of Misrule is chosen by the bean in the cake. The baby in the king Cake. The almond in the Yule rice pudding in Scandinavia. Even the blackened part of the Beltane Bannock. Since we interact with food in the most intimate of ways--it doesn't get much more intimate than eating--it seems a fitting way to engage with the future.

    How old such traditions are, who can say? Personally, I don't think we need to prove that they go back to Ye Most Antient Pagan Tymes to use them to enrich our lives and lived tradition. If something like colcannon existed in pre-Potato days, my guess would be that it would have been made from onion, cabbage, and turnip. Those three vegetables have been feeding people through our long Northern winters for a long, long time, and they're all classic winter vegetables because they keep. But we'll probably never know.

  • Mabnahash
    Mabnahash Monday, 19 October 2015

    I didn't realize my poor Irish ancestors of a few generations ago didn't count as peasants. Why are more modern foods not legitimate aspects of peasant tradition? Aren't they a living branch of peasant tradition?

  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham Friday, 16 October 2015

    I don't think I've ever tried Colcannon before, but it sounds interesting. For myself I take the last Saturday in October to make rum-balls so they'll be properly aged by Thanksgiving.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Monday, 19 October 2015

    I love the way that holiday foods carry memory. An anthropologist friend of mine once quipped, "Tell me what your family eats at Christmas [Passover, Eid], and I'll you where they came from."

    Every few years the whole coven gets together during the steamy days after Midsummer's to stir up our Yule plum puddings, which are then "irrigated" periodically with brandy. After about four years they get pretty mellow.

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