As I write, we are enjoying the first fire of the year in the kitchen stove, we just had a gust of 48 mph, and the lights just blinked. The weather report is “You can’t get there from here.” Weatherman says the rain will be done in time for a nice Halloween. I know; we needed the rain anyway.

The trick-or-treaters are due in a couple of days. Each year it makes me proud as peaches to brag to the rest of the world about how here, on this rebellious isle, those who wish to cook can offer homemade treats to the little spooks and the parents will actually allow their kids to eat the stuff. I love this life of anarchy.

When my kids were little, 20 years back, more families spent the winter. There was a certain tradition of homeowners overcompensating for the supposed privations of island life. The 1990s kids got enormous amounts of candy on Halloween. The little kittycats and Disney princesses and, yes, pirates — there were always pirates, including mine — really did need a pillowcase for a treat bag. Making the entire circuit could be exhausting for the littler ones. Giving up early and heading home to a warm bath was looked on as poor form. Some people counted heads in advance and prepared for that number, and woe to the parent who didn’t show up with ghosties and ghoulies in tow. This was serious business. “Where were you last night?” the mom would hear the next day, stern words from a disgruntled candy-hander-outer who felt just a tiny bit jilted. A job needed to be done and it had been left incomplete. Some givers figured the kid was owed the candy in any case, Halloween or not, and two or three days later the transaction was completed by way of go-betweens, hand-offs between pickup trucks, or the United States Postal Service. It was all about the candy.

At our house, though, it was about Paul’s chocolate cookies. In addition to liking to mess around at the stove he is the electrician here, and a bit of a mad scientist when it comes to little kids, so every year he’d power up the “Jacob’s Ladder” for their amusement on Halloween. Our place was the mad scientist’s lair.

A Jacob’s Ladder is a spark gap device to make a traveling electrical arc, which is really cool to look at and makes a pretty good sound effect, too. We’re talking 10,000 volts. Bzorch.



Paul has made the same chocolate-peanut butter-oatmeal stovetop cookies every Halloween for easily 30 years. In polite circles they are called “no-bake cookies.” On the old, worn-out recipe card he’s used since his mom copied it out for him many decades ago it says “Missouri cookies.” I have no idea why. In South Thomaston and at the University of Maine in the early ’80s they were “Bear Sh*t Cookies.”

The good thing is you don’t need an oven, just a burner. The bad thing is, weather matters. They aren’t really cookies, but more like an elaboration on a theme of fudge, so they are hard to get right on rainy days. I was going to include the recipe here but instructions are easy to find, on the Internet or around the neighborhood. Just pick a nice day.

As regards the Jacob’s Ladder: I suppose it might be safe to describe construction here, but only because by the time this column gets to print Halloween will be over and you’ll use this newspaper to start the woodstove well before you’ll require another spark-gap holiday decoration. This thing is patently dangerous and definitely not child-safe. If you need to celebrate your inner mad scientist and actually think you might make one, stage it somewhere far (very far) from children, anything flammable, drunken revelers, Fluffy’s tail, etc. All you need is a furnace transformer and a couple of pieces of brazing rod, each roughly a foot long. There are lots of kinds of furnace transformers (neon sign transformers work too). Find one that has two bolts (a so-called “universal” type, though I hear that it isn’t really), and wind a piece of brazing rod around each (bolts facing upward) and tighten the nuts down, with the rest of the rod sticking straight up. With the menacing contraption UNPLUGGED (got that? Unplugged!) bend the parallel rods toward each other to form a sort of “throat,” with the rods maybe 1⁄2" apart but not touching, and then spread them gradually until toward the tops they are, say, 2" apart. The bright electrical arc will start down low and travel up until it snaps. Bzorch! It keeps repeating, too. Wicked sharp. Also dangerous. 

In some households it may be preferable to make Bear Sh*t Cookies.