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Calaveras and Jack O' Lanterns : Dishes for the Dead

October 27, 1994|GUADALUPE RIVERA and MARIE-PIERRE COLLE | Rivera and Colle are the authors of "Frida's Fiestas," (Clarkson/Potter), from which this article is excerpted. and

Frida Kahlo was a noted artist who was married to Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. They lived together in the Blue House in Coyoacan, outside of Mexico City. This is a remembrance by his daughter of one particular celebration of the Day of the Dead.

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On the last day of October, the Blue House moved into high gear. The night before, Ines the carpenter had put the finishing touches on the table that would hold our offerings to the family dead, among them Frida's mother, dona Matilde. This was in keeping with one of the Mexican people's most ancient and deeply rooted customs.

Since dona Matilde had been born in Oaxaca, Frida asked the carpenter to build the table according to the customs of that beautiful southern state, and Ines followed the instructions to the last detail. The holiday would take place on two consecutive days: Nov. 1, which honors the dead children of the family, and Nov. 2, the Day of the Dead, also known as the Day of the Faithful Departed.

Ines had begun cutting zempazuchitl flowers from the family garden on the night of Oct. 31. Some of these he scattered over the table, so that "when the little angels returned they will be greeted by the brilliance and shining colors of these flowers, the color of the sun." He strung other flowers together into garlands, which he then placed on three wooden chests already decorated with golden flowers. The chests stood at the head of the table.

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My stepmother, "Fridu," as I liked to call her, had already been to the Coyoacan market for the necessities: fruit for the punch, chiles and other ingredients for the moles. She also bought tamales and other dishes dear to her mother, since popular belief had it that the family dead, dona Matilde among them, would come on Nov. 2 to enjoy their favorite foods, which should be properly prepared and attractively served.

On the afternoon of the 31st, Frida and I went to the old Merced neighborhood in the center of town to collect her friend Carmen Sevilla, a great artist with papier-mache. Sevilla's calaveras (sugar skulls and dancing skeletons) were valued by connoisseurs of this popular genre as authentic works of art.

Frida decorated the offering table with the smallest of the dancing skeletons and sugar figurines of lambs, chickens, bulls and ducks, along with other calaveras. The ones that Carmen Sevilla had made decorated the dining room walls and Frida's studio. The house was transformed into a place where death was an object of wonder and respect.

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On Nov. 1, the first day of the festival, the children's food was placed on the table: mugs of atole (a sweet cornmeal beverage), plates of beans and mildly seasoned food, fruit and sweets. Frida provided dessert: sugar paste candies, pumpkin smothered in traditional brown-sugar syrup, and sugar skulls with the names of the family dead written on their heads in sugar letters.

Every year, local confectioners make sugar skulls in all sizes, from truly astonishing life-size ones to bite-size miniatures for the children. Frida bought four of the largest and had the names of Matilde, Guillermo, Diego and Frida written on them as a tribute to her parents, her husband and herself. The names of other adult members of Frida's family were written on medium-size skulls, while the smallest bore the names of the four youngest people in the house.

Huge pumpkins were decorated with little silver and gold flags, and the center of the table was occupied by a Oaxacan platter piled with Frida's mother's favorite fruits and nuts in season: sugar cane, limes, mandarin oranges, peanuts and jicamas, which were also decorated with little colored flags. Finally, Frida placed sugar paste figurines here and there on the table and, for the final touch, set candles at the four corners of a mock grave fashioned of paper flowers.

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The following day, Nov. 2, the altar was dedicated to the Faithful Departed, with special attention to dona Matilde. Early in the morning, Frida placed a picture of her mother on the mock grave. The offerings to the children were replaced with adult food and sweets.

Traditional foods were served throughout the day. Breakfast consisted of atole and chocolate, dead man's bread, cookies in the shape of little bones, beans, tortillas and pasilla chile sauce, along with the brown corn tlacoyos that Matilde Kahlo had so enjoyed. The midday meal consisted of yellow and red moles , Oaxacan beef jerky, red rice with dried shrimp, chicken sauteed in chile pipian , pumpkin in syrup, sweet potatoes in sancocho, tamales in plantain leaves, white atole and fresh fruit.

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