So, I’m walking through a area of wild untamed greenbelt just a 5 minutes from our new house. It’s unfamiliar to me. The paths are steep, rocky and, in unexpected places, crisscrossed with trees. They meander up and down the side of the canyon.
Despite the helpful blue arrows showing the way, I feel like I am lost. Surely I have walked this path before? My dog is in constant excited pulling mode unless I explicitly tell him, ‘slow’ ‘here’ ‘careful’ commands I taught him on Welsh Mountain Hillside scrambles.
One part of my brain is appreciating the wildness, the solitude the sounds of birds and rustling of mysterious creatures in the undergrowth. But the other part is trying to remember my brother’s favourite foods. I remember the things we differed on. I liked Rice Crispies, he liked Cornflakes. I was for HP sauce, he was for Tomato Ketchup. I also remember the sweet wrappers that used to fall out of his pockets. But I am struggling to remember his favourite meal.
These are not random thoughts. Today is Día de Muertos – Day of the Dead. Its a Mexican celebration, ( but massively celebrated here due to Texas’s historical, geographical and cultural links to Mexico). Every November 2 people transform grave sites, offices, and corners of their homes into vibrant memorials for their deceased loved ones by assembling multitiered ofrendas, or altars.
It is a day when people not only remember those they love who have died, but also celebrate and welcome them back into their lives and homes. The celebration part makes it a surprisingly jolly festival with pinics and dancing in the cemeteries.
For me the timing is perfect. Death is so often in my own thoughts since my mum died. Now, on the day of dead, its great to see that reflected outside me in the Mexican inspired skull decorations that are everywhere. Although a festival devoted to death might seem somewhat morbid, what’s good is that the Day of the Dead combines mourning with happiness and joy.
It seems that Mexicans have learned to accept the fact of death within their daily lives. Skulls and other symbols of death are used to decorate everyday items like clothes, plates, cups, children’s toys and even valentine cards! Death is not feared as it is in other cultures. Mexican children play “funeral” with toys that are made to represent coffins and undertakers.
There is a surprising amount of humour- Death is literally laughed at. In Mexico many dismissive euphemisms are used for death, La calaca (the skeleton), la pelona (“baldy”), la flaca (“skinny”), and la huesada (“bony”). For example “La muerte es flaca y no puede conmigo” means “Death is skinny/weak and she can’t carry me.”
But the part of the festival I am dwelling on is preparing the dead’s favourite foods in their honour. This seems a lovely way for me to celebrate today, as I am too far from any graveside to dance or picnic there. Also I’m not in the mood for the parade in Austin. The problem is remembering what they actually liked.
My gran, who lived with us, was a great cook whose food reflected her North American heritage ( her family were early American immigrants who moved to Canada) and West Indian upbringing (She was actually born and brought up on St Kitts and Nevis in the Carribean). I can remember her delicious cornbread and sweetcorn chowder. I can still taste her hot and spicy fish with plantain ( green banana). She taught me to cook the special stew with sweet potatoes and macaroni cheese with onion which she always made for special occasions. But which was her favourite? I seem to remember she liked brandy snaps. But I don’t feel my baking skills are up to making them.
My brother died young and over 30 years ago now. So perhaps its not surprising that I struggle to recall what he liked. My favourite food memory for him was his ‘fruit surprise’ desert one night when he cooked supper. He proudly declared that not only had he made supper – fish fingers and peas- but also dessert. There in the kitchen were set out 4 bowls carefully covered with a tea towel. ‘What is it.?’ I asked ‘Angel delight? Jelly? ‘ ‘Fruit surprise’ he replied. With great excitement I ate through supper. Thoughts of special treats – meringues, Apple crumble. Eventually we all finished. The big reveal. Back came the tea towel. Finally, we could see what was in the bowls – two bowls had an apple in them and two bowls had an orange in them. ‘It’s just fruit’ I exclaimed. ‘That’s the surprise’ he replied smiling- ‘fruit surprise!’ The thought of fruit finally triggers a memory. His birthday treat: strawberries with strawberry jelly and strawberry ice cream!
My mum was eclectic in her taste for food enjoying fresh Italian Pastas, French Cheeses, spicy Indian Curries, Crunchy Chinese stir Fries, Tangy Thai rice, Japanese Tuna Sushi with Wasabi and pickled ginger and slim slices of Swedish cured salmon. She loved traditional British food too. She always ate my husband’s traditional Sunday roast dinners with gusto, especially going back for seconds to the bowlfuls of different vegetables and his towering Yorkshire Puddings. Her favourite though was probably Sea Food (though she was rightly picky). The last meal out I had with her was on the pier at Southwold where she ate a whole Lobster including, at special request, its claw.
On my walk I’m thinking of all these things. Trying to work out a menu in my head. Looking down I notice a mushroom growing out of a fallen log.
Mushrooms – my mum also adored mushrooms. And salads I forgot salads. No day was complete without a salad!
I have gone from being unable to think of any food to having banquet planned in my head over the course of two miles of rough paths through Texas live Oaks and over dry stream gullies.
I drive home full of good resolutions to make my own Day of the Dead Banquet. But then the locksmith comes, the washing machine needs unloading, my son wants to go in the swimming pool, my daughter wants to talk, my husband comes home starving. So the feast becomes a a simple spicy vegatable curry. But its spicy for my mum, with sweet potatoes for my gran and for desert we have fruit surprise for my brother!
Next year I’m going to go one further and make my own Day of the Dead Altar!
How to make your own Day of the Dead Altar
- Put large photographs of your loved ones in the middle. Smaller, informal snapshots can adorn the lower levels.
- Include a drink, used to be water now often beer or coke! : this is supposed to refresh the spirit after their journey. Mum would probably like ginger ale or summer fruits squash.
- If you can buy or make a Pan de muerto, or “bread of the dead,” it is a sweet round loaf is topped with a skull and crossbones.
- Put out Salt, a symbol of purification, – also for the dead to season the food you’ve offered him (assuming you haven’t done seasoned it properly yourself!)
- Then the key part – The deceased’s favorite food – apparently the smell and sight should bring the returning spirits pleasure.
- You can also add some of their favourite items, like jewellery, books or tools (in my mum’s case, for example, her watercolour paints, or for my gran her manual typewriter- if only I still had it) create a familiar setting for their return. This is a cool Bowie version- complete with guitar!
- Decorate the table with flowers ideally – Cempasuchitl, the Aztec term for “marigolds,” grow and wilt quickly, reflecting the fleeting nature of life. Their aroma helps lure a spirit back.
- Create a multicoloured paper trim – Papel picado– black represents death, purple means grief or mourning, pink is for celebration, white symbolizes hope, and yellow stands in for the sun.
- The table should also have Four candles (though they often have more) to represent north, south, east and west. They are supposed to provide a lighted path to this world so loved ones don’t get lost. Having moved accross the Atlantic mine might need GPS!
- You can also burn Incense- this is a holdover tradition from the Aztecs, who used the incense as an offering to the gods.
- Finally Sugar skulls, or calaveras. These are probably very hard to get in the UK but they are sold everywhere in Austin along with tablefuls of Day of the Dead merchandise in HEB supermarket. You could substitute with homemade skull cookies but they should be pretty not scary as they are supposed to be fun and positive.