We are three sisters united in our search for the divine - in food, libation, literature, art, and nature. This blog will capture the true, sometimes decadent, at times humorous, and every so often transcendent adventures of the Salvation Sisters.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Sugar Skull Decorating Party

by Michelle

"When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico they encountered two-month celebrations honoring death, the fall harvest and the new year. For more than 500 years, the goddess Mictecacihuatl (Lady of the Dead) presided over Aztec harvest rituals using fires and incense, costumes of animal skins, images of their dead and offerings of ceramics, personal goods, flowers and foods, drink and flowers. While the church attempted to transform the joyous celebration to a suitably tragic image of death and a serious day of prayer focusing attention and reflection on the saints and martyrs. The people of Mexico did not fully adopt the early priests' ideas, and by keeping their familiar ceremonies, All Saint's Day and All Soul's Day evolved into the celebrations that today honor the dead with color, candles, joy."
                                           ~Judy King via MexConnect
   Since moving to the Southwest ten years ago, I have become increasingly devoted to celebrating All Soul's Day that falls annually on the first day of November. In particular, I am drawn to the Mexican traditions of joyously celebrating death, brushing aside the uncertainties of the ever after that can induce feelings of fear and dread, and instead replacing those emotions with gratitude and remembrance of loved ones and ancestors that have gone before us into the great unknown. 


   My interest in El Dia de Los Muertos (The Day of the Dead), was sparked by my sister, Juliette, who made an artfully decorated shrine in honor of our sister, Maria, not long after she had passed away suddenly from a brain aneurysm in 1992. The holiday becomes much more meaningful when you have someone to commemorate, and his or her loss tugs at your soul. The process of putting the shrine together was very cathartic for Juliette, and she kept it on display in her house for many years. Beginning in the late summer, Juliette makes intricately decorated sugar skulls, and bottled spirits and sells them in shops and galleries in Tucson and Bisbee. Juliette's pieces this year are on display and available for purchase through the main gallery at Tohono Chul Park.


   If you happen to be in Tucson on the first Sunday in November, be sure take part in The All Souls Procession, a unique parade inspired by the traditions of El Dia de Los Muertos, and "...ends in the finalizing action of burning a large urn filled with the hopes, offerings and wishes of the public for those who have passed." The procession is immediately followed by a grand finale pyrotechnic performance by Flam Chen. The frivolities continue well in to the evening and the wee morning hours with the official after party, Dance of the Dead, at the Rialto Theatre featuring Tucson-based bandCalexico (love me some Joey and John and the boys, as Juliette would say).


   One of the aspects that I appreciate most about El Dia de Los Muertos is that it is child-friendly. Death is discussed and represented in a way that is accessible for children. I find that more times than not, when working on a Day of the Dead project, I share stories with Maddie about her great-grandparents, or grandmother Joan, or about her cousin, Joshua, or her aunt Maria, and the reminiscing makes them spring to life once more, traveling over time and distance to sit at our table again, and to gently nudge their stories from my memory banks. I know our annual tradition is one that Maddie will reflect upon fondly later in her life, and perhaps she will feel compelled to carry the celebration forward with her children and friends. It makes me happy to think about.


    A few years ago, my friend Michelle and I hosted an El Dia De Los Muertos themed Halloween Party. I dressed as a dead Flamingo dancer, Michelle as a skull faced Frida Kahlo, and Maddie as a cute as a button dead cheerleader. Several revelers dressed as calacas (skeletons). My favorite was a petite guest who wore a skeleton shirt (white bones painted on a black background), a beautiful Mexican skirt covered with lively sequins that caught the dim light and twinkled as she moved. She had transformed her face into a skull and a wreath of dried flowers adorned her head. Graceful in her movements, my eyes were drawn to her as she examined the offerings laid on the community altar, the candle light making her shimmer under the harvest moon. Sugar skulls decorated the tables and altar, and a friend made pan muerto, which is a fougasse type bread shaped as skulls.


   In preparation for the Halloween party, Maddie and I had a marathon skull decorating session, and since that day, I have always wondered what it would be like to decorate skulls with friends. As a New Year resolution, my friend Stephanie and I both resolved to meet for artists' dates throughout the year. We finally made good on our promise last month. Our mutual friend Sara invited us to her house to make glass art, including pendants, earrings and ornaments. The skull decorating followed, and now Stephanie is waiting for the weather to cool off a bit more so we can go crazy outdoors with a spray paint project.

   The challenge to having a bunch of friends over to decorate sugar skulls is making sure you have enough materials to divide among your guests. At the bottom of the post, I have suggestions for making your party a success. We used 17 decorating tips, which require 17 rings to attach the tips to the ready-to-use Wilton tubes. If you are tinting your own icing and using pastry bags, I recommend that you have an equal amount of couplers, which makes it incredibly easy to swap decorating tips among the bags filled with colored frosting.

Rhonda and Sasha

   Last week, we had ten ladies decorating skulls, but my Mom stopped decorating after awhile and my friend Rhonda, and her daughter had to leave early. Of the ladies gathered in my living room, only two, my daughter and my niece, had decorated skulls previously. I passed on decorating this time in favor of helping as needed, fetching forgotten items (such as Q-Tips, toothpicks, and tweezers, etc.), and taking nearly 600 photos (love, love, love digital cameras). If we had all been present, and decorating throughout the entire afternoon, I would have surely needed a second set of decorating tips, and probably another half dozen or so of the ready-to-use icings.


  I especially liked that Rhonda and Sara each chose to decorate skulls in honor of a friend. The simple act really represents what the decorating is tradionally about - remembering loved ones that are no longer physically with us, being able to explain who they are, what they meant to you, and why you are featuring them in a particular way. The sugar skulls are a lovely gesture to give as gifts. I displayed three sugar skulls as inspiration pieces that Juliette had gifted to me over the years.


   Everyone continued to decorate skulls with focused concentration until just before dark. When the light began to fail in the living room, it was time to cease the activity. Everyone joined in the clean-up; many hands make light work. Afterwards, two out of three husbands joined us for cocktails and dinner. Sara and Stephanie helped me assemble enchiladas. And, Stephanie's husband, Michael, provided an assist with the coleslaw. We all sat down to dinner right about seven-thirty (by the hair on my chinny-chin-chin). Everyone left around ten, bringing to a close, a productive and very fun day.

Sugar Skull Decorating Party

   For my party, I wanted to make sure that there was at least one large skull for each guest, plus a variety of smaller blanks to choose from as well. Interestingly, all but one chose large skulls first, and then as the afternoon dwindled, began working on the smaller blanks.

Advance preparation:
sugar skull blanks, made up to a year in advance (and stored properly)
oilcloth is highly recommended to protect your table
ready-to-use Wilton colored icings, remember to buy multiple tubes of black

Suggestions for embellishing your sugar skulls:
candy decorations, such as sprinkles, dragée, etc.
ready-to-use Wilton icing writers
colored sanding sugars
luster dust
glitter glue sticks
glass jewels
decorative foil
dime-sized mini paper roses
sea shells
bottle caps
found objects and recyled items, whatever strikes your fancy

cake wheel, or a piece of cardboard, to turn the skull without having to touch it
paper towels
cotton swabs

1. Know this... there is no wrong way to decorate a sugar skull, except to choose super glue as an adhesive (you know who you are). Royal icing acts as the glue, and once dry, it is quite strong. So, before you began embellishing with glitter, or sequins, you need to lay down some icing. While most of the time you will use colored icing to decorate, there were many times throughout the decorating session that I was asked if I had any plain white icing available. Thankfully, because I am the hostess with the mostess (hee, hee), I had some leftover from assembling the large skulls.

2. If you are a novice with decorating tips, or just need a refresher course, Wilton's website is chock-full of decorating techniques and instructions for flowers, leaves, bows, zigzags and much more. Before applying icing directly to the skull, you may want to give a test squeeze onto a paper towel or scratch piece of paper. The first time Sara used the black icing, it was a little watery and she unexpectedly produced a pool of icing into the eye socket of her large skull. She used Q-Tips to sop up the icing and to spread into the eye brow area. Avalon made a few test leaves on her paper, and it took a few tries before she pulled the icing properly to make the leaves pointy at the ends. She could then move confidentally to making leaves directly on her sugar skull. As my art teacher would say, there are no mistakes, just keep working with the piece until you are happy with it.

3. Graphic designs and intricate patterns work well on the skulls. Gabrielle adorned her skull with a henna inspired tattoo and Stephanie dressed hers in paisley. You may want to peruse tatoo sites to gain inspiration.
4. If you are honoring a loved one, it may help to think in symbolic terms of the deceased, and apply those motifs to the skull. Colored foil can be used to create a name plate. Cut foil to size to fit on the forehead of your chosen skull. Affix the foil into place with icing, then write the person's name, or initials, directly on the foil with additional icing. 
5. Play good music; something peppy to keep the inspiration flowing. A fun mix of English and Latin pop and rock keeps everyone in the creative groove.

6. Plan to invite everyone over for dinner after the decorating, and they will all happily pitch in to help clean up the mess, and perhaps even assist you with whipping up (assembly line style) a couple trays of chicken enchiladas (thank you Stephanie and Sara), coleslaw, beans, rice and guacamole. Or, effectively plan ahead (note to self), and leverage Linda's Fiesta Menu. Sara brought over tender pork in a Hatch green chile sauce, which was fantastic served over the rice. Stephanie and Michael contributed homemade crème brûlée for dessert and Michael steadfastly caramelized the tops of individual ramekins with a hand torch. Shredded beef tostados are a great alternative to chicken enchiladas because the beef is cooked in a crock pot (if one remembers to plug-in the slow cooker. Yep, I did that and caught my mistake two hours later). The tostados were surely even better the n-e-x-t day. It was just as well. We had plenty of food, and I enjoyed having dinner prepped ahead for the following evening, which gave me time to have cocktails on the patio with my husband. Nice!

"The Mexican flatters and woos death, he sings to her, dances with her, lifts his glass to her, he laughs at her. Finally, he challenges her, and in the challenging, death loses her power to intimidate him. Once he knows death intimately, death is no longer wrapped in a cloak of mystery or causes him to fear the darkness. Once the fear of death has been defeated, the clutch she has on the hearts and minds of the living is lessened once and for all. Death's morbid side is buried under music and remembrances, while skeletons laugh and dance and sing as Mexico celebrates life in its embrace."
                                 ~Judy King via MexConnect

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