A feast fit for the dead

Sunday, October 28, 2012
As shown here by Chloe Gaither of St. Louis, a skeleton crew of one, you don't have to live south of the border to have fun making and decorating sugar skulls. (TOM HARTE)

"To the inhabitant of New York, Paris, or London, death is a word that is never uttered because it burns the lips. The Mexican on the other hand, frequents it, mocks it, caresses it, sleeps with it, entertains it; it is one of his favorite playthings and his most enduring love."

This observation by the Nobel Prize-winning Mexican writer and poet Octavio Paz underscores why Halloween south of the border is celebrated so differently than here.

Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is sometimes casually referred to as the "Mexican Halloween" because it is celebrated each year around the same time as our own Halloween and shares common roots. But the two celebrations couldn't be more different.

Sugar skulls are unmolded and allowed to dry before being decorated. (TOM HARTE)

Whereas the focus of our Halloween is on tricks and treats and things scary, as Kitty Williams (who hails originally from Cape Girardeau) and Stevie Mack point out in their lavishly illustrated book on the subject, the Mexican holiday is more akin to Memorial Day because it emphasizes remembering and honoring the dead.

It all goes back to the most important precept of ancient Aztec theology: Life arises out of death and not the other way around. The Aztecs did not fear death nearly so much as they feared the uncertainty of life. Death, in fact, offered liberation from worldly burdens.

Given this view, it isn't surprising that the Aztecs created a festival dedicated to the dead, which today in Mexico is still celebrated as Dia de los Muertos and which has become the most important holiday of the year there. What might be surprising to North Americans is that the holiday is a thoroughly joyous occasion, but that's exactly what it is.

To make Mexican sugar skulls, sugar is combined with meringue powder and water and firmly packed into special skull-shaped molds. (TOM HARTE)

It is a happy time because it is believed that on this day the spirits of the dead return for 24 hours to be reunited with the living who, rather than fear them, welcome them warmly. And what better way to welcome someone, even a ghost, than with a fiesta which, like any good party, involves some feasting?

On the Day of the Dead, Mexican cooks go all out to prepare special occasion dishes no matter how intricate and time consuming they may be. They aim to put on a feast fit for the dead. This is a time for turkey mole, a preparation that might call for as many as 30 ingredients, among them several different kinds of chilies. It's the time for dulces de calabaza, a traditional Mexican sweet of candied pumpkin. And it's the one time during the year when bakeries produce pan de muerto, or bread of the dead, a yeast bread flavored with orange or anise and baked in fanciful shapes.

But the most popular culinary icon of the Day of the Dead are skulls made of boiled then hardened sugar that are decorated with vibrantly colored icing, meant as treats for visiting spirits. They are edible, though typically are used mainly for decoration. In keeping with the Mexican attitude toward death, such images are cheerful, not threatening. Skulls sport grins and skeletons dance.

In Mexico the sugar skulls available in the markets for Day of the Dead are made by liquefying sugar and pouring it into clay molds, a somewhat painstaking process, but using a shortcut you can create perfectly acceptable ones at home. With some sugar, a little meringue powder, a bit of water and skull-shaped plastic molds you can be your own skeleton crew.

Day of the Dead, a book co-authored by Cape Girardeau native Kitty Williams, is a lavishly illustrated introduction to the Mexican Halloween complete with traditional recipes for dishes commonly served on the holiday. (TOM HARTE)

Tom Harte's book, "Stirring Words," is available at local bookstores. A Harte Appetite airs Fridays 8:49 a.m. on KRCU, 90.9 FM. Contact Tom at semissourian.com or at the Southeast Missourian, P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, Mo., 63702-0699.

Sugar Skulls

This recipe, adapted from Kitty Williams and Stevie Mack's book, "Day of the Dead," can easily be adjusted to the size of your skull molds.

3 cups sugar

1 tablespoon meringue powder

1 tablespoon water

Combine sugar and meringue powder and mix thoroughly. Add water and mix by hand until mixture clumps like damp beach sand. Add more water if mixture is too dry. Tightly pack mixture into sugar molds, scraping excess from back of the mold. Unmold skulls and allow to dry overnight. Decorate with royal icing.

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