The informant is my aunt from rural Kerry, who related to me this recipe for Irish Barmbrack, a kind of sweet loaf prepared around Halloween-time, and the objects put into the “brack” and what they symbolize. Recently, I asked other people if they had heard of barmbrack and none of the Americans knew, but one of my English friends did, and all of my Irish friends. This leads me to believe that it is a Western European tradition only, if not Ireland-specific, with some spill over into neighboring countries. For her, this is a family tradition which she learned from her parents and has passed onto her children. It is synonymous with the Halloween season for her. She is signified in this conversation by the initials J.O.
J.O.: Brack is a sweet, heavy loaf with fruit in it, so it’s usually a combination of flour, spices like allspice and cinnamon, butter, eggs, milk, dried fruit, and then some candied peel. It’s a very heavy batter, and so it takes a while to cook, and it’s not a rising bread, it won’t double like a yeasted loaf.
A: Is there a specific festival or time of year you’d eat this at?
J.O.: I’ve not heard of anyone making it any time other than around Halloween, perhaps a little bit into November but not any later than that. With the spices and dried fruits it’s a warm loaf that you’d have with tea and butter and so it’s a bit heavy for summer, especially as you’d have fresh fruit from the start of May onwards. It’s a leftovers loaf in that sense, with the dried fruits, you know?
A: In the shops you always buy brack with a ring in it, do you know what that means?
J.O.: Yes, actually. We didn’t just put a ring in, we’d take tiny pieces of a rag, a stick, a pea, and a coin as well and wrap them all up in greaseproof paper, and bake them into the cake. So when you took a bite, often there was something in it, and each thing meant something different. The ring was a symbol of marriage, obviously, so if you got the piece with the ring you’d be married soon. The piece of cloth or rag meant that you’d be poor and wear rags, the stick meant that you were in for a beating, which usually suggested that you were going to do something wrong. The pea was a marriage thing again, I think, and the coin suggested that you’d be rich. I don’t think there was any truth behind it, as we’d always put them in the brack when we were kids, and then Mam wouldn’t put them in the bigger brack that she and Dad would have. So as, say, eight-year-olds, we weren’t expecting to get married anytime soon, and the annual nature of the thing would suggest that every year your fortune could change and you might get something contradictory, so it’s all just a bit of fun.
I agree that this is just a bit of fun leading up to the Halloween season, and not a serious tradition of prediction. It does, however, play on the idea of prediction and turns it into a game mostly for children. It also suggests something about the cultural values, that there is a high appreciation for marriage and wealth in whichever era this tradition came from, and when these are combined the idea of marrying up, or marrying into money, becomes obvious. This is suggestive of strong social stratification, regardless of the actual prediction value of the brack. The fact that this tradition is centered around Halloween time furthers the idea of this tradition as just a game, as Halloween is traditionally a time of reversal of roles in dressing up as someone else, a liminal space, and so kids can play adults for a while without consequence. By using seasonal ingredients the dish is therefore confined to this time of year, and projects the human experience of the year onto the progression of the seasons.