Food & Drink

My Grandfather’s Halloween Treat Changed Our Block Forever

pumpkins
Danna Windsor/Thrillist

When I think of Halloween, I don’t think of candy, costumes, or even the Halloween movie franchise, though I do love Jamie Lee Curtis. Instead, I think of one thing: three slightly overripe pumpkins carefully buckled into the back of my grandfather’s 1993 Buick LeSabre.

Let me explain. 

On Halloween night (almost) every year, my grandfather would set up a station of Chinese dishes in our front yard, open to any and every neighbor who found themselves in the general vicinity of our house between 6-9 PM. 

While other neighbors passed out handfuls of Snickers and Starbursts, my grandfather choose to celebrate Halloween in the best (and honestly, most Asian grandfatherly) way he knew how: He’d invite neighbors over to snack on dishes made from recipes he knew by heart, typically ones he’d only make for those he considered family. 

It was a tradition born out of my grandfather’s love of cooking, and merged with an appreciation for his adopted country’s traditions. Through this custom of sharing kindness in the form of food year after year, I witnessed how our neighbors went from knowing nothing about Asian dishes to becoming some of my grandfather’s biggest fans. And I saw how this could strengthen bonds in a once-anonymous suburban neighborhood.

Planning for my grandfather’s Halloween meal usually started the same way. 

On Halloween morning, I’d hear the rattle of the engine from my grandfather’s 1993 Buick LeSabre, pulling into our driveway at about 6:30 AM. The trunk of the car would be solidly packed with crumpled paper bags of fresh Asian ingredients like Shanghai bok choy (上海白菜), stir-fried nian gao (炒年糕 or rice cakes) and wonton (馄饨) wrappers -- all carefully sourced from our local 99 Ranch Market the night before.

And in the back seat would be a sight which never failed to make me laugh: those three pumpkins (destined for an immediate future as savory pancakes) packed with the same care as a trio of Faberge eggs. It was always only three; I once asked him why he didn’t buy more pumpkins, just in case. He studied me with a look of bemused Asian frugality. “We don’t want to waste food, OK?” And that was that.

“I make them family dishes because that’s how they become family.”

All of this was a part of the new identity my grandfather had forged for himself since immigrating to the US.

As a child in China, and later as a young army officer caught up in the middle of the Chinese Civil War, my grandfather belonged to a generation forced to grow up quickly. There was little time for celebrating holidays with family or getting to know neighbors – especially when it’s 1949, and you’re a newly-married twenty-one-year-old now retreating to Taiwan with the rest of the Nationalist Party after a decisive defeat at the end of the war. While my grandfather later established a solid life in Taiwan with my grandmother, money was always tight, and holidays were rarely celebrated. 

So, it’s no surprise that in his older age, my grandfather took to American holidays with an affection that often seemed to surpass my own American-born nonchalance.

He was awed by the community and fireworks of Fourth of July -- beef hot dogs were a particular favorite -- and loved the coziness of family togetherness at Thanksgiving. 

But it was Halloween, that holiday of spooky decorations, scary movies, and costumes, which seemed to capture his imagination. Though my grandfather rarely verbalized it, it wasn’t too difficult to figure out why: he saw Halloween as a reminder of the generosity and joy of his adopted country. 

Halloween was a holiday when children could be children, whether it was by dressing up, playing tricks, or asking generous neighbors for treats. And despite never fully mastering English, my grandfather never seemed to get tired of chatting with children and meeting every neighbor he could, on this one day of the year.

He handed out candy and gestured enthusiastically at everyone’s costumes during his first few years in the US, language barrier be damned, before gradually switching over to hosting his meal for the community, something he decided to do once he realized none of the Halloween events in our neighborhood seemed to have a space for the entire family. 

In the hours leading up to the neighborhood meal, my grandfather always transformed his trunk of ingredients into delicious-smelling dishes like crispy fried wontons stuffed with beef, scallion pancakes with ginger dipping sauce, and savory pumpkin-egg pancakes with chives. He typically cooked from memory; these were long-time family recipes, passed down and adapted for available ingredients. 

The savory pumpkin-egg pancakes that almost instantly disappeared at every Halloween potluck started as a recipe my grandfather improvised not long after immigrating. In the leaner years before he could afford whole pumpkins he’d repurpose our carved jack-o’-lanterns, so no food in the house would ever go to waste.

dumplings
Danna Windsor/Thrillist

As he cooked, I’d sometimes teasingly ask why he made food that laowai (老外 or non-Chinese) in our predominantly non-Asian neighborhood likely wouldn’t recognize. “Isn’t it better to make them easy food they’d know -- like egg fried rice? Why take the time to make our family dishes?” 

My grandfather would pause, with a palmful of ingredients hovering over a sizzling wok. “I make them family dishes,” he’d reply cheerfully, “because that’s how they become family.” 

And it was true. 

As night rolled in, and my grandfather put the finishing touches on his dishes, and neighbors started wandering into the front yard, I’d see how he’d greet everyone -- like they were family coming home. Communication would be limited to hand gestures, smiles and nods (with occasional guest translations from me), but it was pretty obvious my grandfather had formed a community this way, a found family made through food. 

He’d exclaim over the young kids who’d grown another few inches since he’d seen them last, and vigorously shake hands with the neighbors he liked best. And for almost every guest, he’d remember their favorite dishes out of everything he served -- and he’d lead them straight to that dish, gesturing for them to take more.

Long after I left for college and moved away, my grandfather continued his Halloween potlucks until -- in a moment that seems oddly predestined -- he passed away on Halloween in 2014, after a short, aggressive fight with lung cancer. He took his final breaths that October 31st, just as evening was settling in around his Southern California home. 

I couldn’t be there with him at the time. But I like to imagine he heard the familiar sounds of families celebrating his favorite holiday one final time, and understood it was okay to go. He’d lived a full, happy life of turning neighbors into friends, and friends into family -- all with the help of his pumpkin-egg pancakes with chives. 

Now, I know what you’re wondering. Did I continue my grandfather’s legacy after he died? After all, there’s a reason I’m sharing this memory, right?

Not yet. 

But after six years away, I’m finally moving home to Southern California. And on Halloween, I’ll do just as my grandfather once did: I’ll buy ingredients at 99 Ranch Market, pick three perfect pumpkins, and cook his favorite dishes. And when evening rolls around, my partner and I will set up a potluck outside and invite our new neighbors over and (hopefully) get to know each other a little better. 

If you’re up in Orange County on Halloween and happen to come across my neighborhood, I hope you’ll stop by and grab yourself some pumpkin pancake. We’ll toast my grandfather together.

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Jess Huang is a contributor to Thrillist.