Itâ€™s the dead of winter, supposedlyâ€”February 2â€”and a quick survey of mid-afternoon temperatures across Texas (70 degrees in Austin, 72 in Houston, 73 in Dallas, a frigid 50 in Amarillo, a balmy 77 in Brownsville) makes me think weâ€™re in for an early spring.
But donâ€™t take my word for it. Instead, listen to Remley the Babirusa at the Houston Zoo, who agreed to stand in for the traditional groundhog this morningâ€”and predicted an early spring. (Groundhogs donâ€™t like the hot and humid weather typically found in Houston, but Babirusas- small hairless pigs native to Indonesiaâ€”find it quite agreeable.)
This morningâ€™s ultra-scientific weather-prognosticating ceremony offered Remley two choices: a two-foot paper â€œsnowmanâ€ filled with watermelon slices and other tasty Babirusa treats, and a pink-and-white picnic scene featuring the same edible enticements. The rest of the ceremony followed tradition: If Remley chose the snowman, weâ€™d have six more weeks of winter; if he chose the picnic scene, spring is on its way. My sources tell me that while Remley flirted with the winter scene, he ultimately dove into the picnic setting and decreed an early spring. So it's official.
Iâ€™m consistently impressed with the creativity and imagination of the folks at the Houston Zoo, an AZA-accredited zoo that dates to 1922.Â I believe that if Remley could talk, heâ€™d say, â€œNow that the weather is warm, come visit me. I am a master of camouflage and move like a deer. And obviously I have great taste and a sense of humor.â€
Itâ€™s sometimes difficult to know when the seasons change in Texas, but one of the most anticipated seasons is that of the wildflower. Like brushstrokes from the hands of God, this showcase of vibrant colors is a tourism attraction in itself. So, the possibility of it not coming to fruition has been a stressor of late.
The good news is that, in the midst of the drought, each drop of fall and winter rain has brought renewed hope that this year might actually yield fields of flowers, including a bumper crop of bluebonnets.
â€œWe are expecting a good wildflower crop in the Hill Country this spring,â€ says Daryl Whitworth, assistant director of the Freericksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau.Â â€œMany seeds that were dormant, especially bluebonnets, appear to have had good germination from the fall rains.â€
He adds that â€œShowers have continued from early October until now and numerous people are reporting seeing many small bluebonnet plants.â€
In fact, Whitworth says the drought has actually given us the benefit of a better view. With grasses in pastures and along roadsides so short, flowers should be much more visible.
â€œAs long as we continue to receive rain, April should bring a great display,â€ Whitworth says.
Weâ€™re keeping our fingers crossed.
To keep track of the wildflower progress, visit these sites:
It may be February 1 where you are, but at the TH editorial office, weâ€™re thinking April. We just put the March issue to bed, so to speak, and now weâ€™re awash in wildflowers as we produce our April wildflower photo feature. Look for 16 pages of gorgeous wildflower images this year, along with a rundown of wildflower festivals and other events.
Working on the April issue always involves a flurry of prognostications: What kind of wildflower season will we have? Did the rains come at the right times? Where will readers find the best displays? Inevitably, we have to fall back on the nature of wildflowers themselvesâ€”theyâ€™re wild, meaning unpredictable and, to my way of thinking, even magical. You never know for sure what they will do, and thatâ€™s one reason we love them so. Their untamed beauty remains a constant in our increasingly homogenous, civilized world.
Daryl Whitworth, assistant director of the Fredericksburg Convention and Visitor Bureau, stopped by the office a couple of days ago and gave us the bureau's wildflower forecast for the Hill Country. â€œWe're predicting a bumper crop,â€ he said. â€œA lot of seeds lay dormant last year because of the drought, and the rains that came in late September and early October, as well as the recent rains, came just at the right times.â€
I conducted my own wildflower survey a couple of weeks ago, on a trip from Austin to my motherâ€™s home near Edna. I always try to make a trek south around Groundhog Day, since it seems like a good time for predicting what the wildflowers season holds. Sometimes I even spot a precocious Indian paintbrush or bluebonnet. No such luck this year, though I did see more green than I expected along the roadsides between Austin and Gonzales. As I drove on Texas 111 from Yoakum to Edna, it became drier and looked less promising. However, since my visit, that area has had a little rain, so again, you never know. Personally, I love it that way.
THâ€™s February issue features the western portion of the Big Bend region, which covers vast and remote areas where youâ€™d do well to plan on spending at least the better part of a week. So does this necessarily mean a shorter excursion is out of the question? Not if you have a general plan which includes more urbane pleasures such as exploring West Texas food and art, as well as with surrounding yourself with spectacular vistas.
My boyfriend David and I spent a little less than three days in Big Bend over the Christmas holiday, and the trip was well-paced and relaxing. Of course, we would have loved to spend more time, but prior commitments in Austin prevented us from doing so.
Alpine and Marfa were on our radar, plus Fort Davis and even a hike in Big Bend National Park if time allowed. We also wanted to begin our trip in Marathon, in time for dinner and stay at the Gage Hotel. The hotel was booked for the holiday, but the Gage recently acquired Captain Shepardâ€™s Inn, right behind the hotel, which had rooms available. We stayed in a warm and spacious room with a balcony.
Marathon is about an hour from just about everywhere on our itinerary, so the location made for easy planning, and an ideal home base. On our first full day, we drove to Alpine, and strolled down Holland Avenue. We stopped in Big Bend Arts Council Gallery and found an eclectic and affordable selection of paintings, pottery, sculpture, and jewelry created by local artists. Avram Dumitrescu, originally from Ireland, whose vibrant paintings of landscapes, food, and animals I admire, had pieces on display, and was also minding the gallery that morning. Later, we popped into Front Street Books, where I found a copy of a book Avram illustrated (and also signed), M.F.K. Fisher Among the Pots and Pans, by Joan Reardon. We also poked in the window of TONK (Things Ordinary Not Known) studio to admire the whimsical assemblages. The gallery sign said â€œClosed,â€ but owner/artist Rachel Anne Manera saw us and invited us in.
After a zesty, hearty tortilla soup lunch at Reata, we headed west to Marfa. Just a few businesses were open (we found many Marfaâ€™s shops, galleries, and restaurants typically open Wed.-Sat., and we were there on Monday). However, we did take a short jaunt along Highland Ave. and perused the one of the Paisano Hotelâ€™s gift shops, which has an impressive art book section.
Sadly, the Chinati Foundation was closed, but in search of more art, we proceeded onward to the Prada Marfa art installation, about 5 miles past Valentine on US 90. Built in 2005 by Berlin artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, the structure still attracts curious tourists like ourselves, and also a man from Germany who was just leaving as we arrived.
There was still enough daylight left that afternoon for a side trip to Fort Davis, which we took via Hwy. 166, a scenic drive with spectacular views of the Davis Mountains. We stopped at Fort Davis National Historic Site and took a short hike up to a vantage point of a sprawling overview of the fort. We then drove to Indian Lodge, and explored the grounds to consider for a future stay. Our last stop was in downtown Fort Davis, where on State St., we found charming shops, inns and cafÃ©s, such as the Fort Davis Drug Store and Old Texas Inn, which even has a soda fountain. On the way out, we were wowed by the classic architecture and distinctive clock tower of the Jeff Davis County Courthouse. Our West Texas wanderlust was sated for the day.
After touring three towns on Day One, a more relaxing agenda was in store for Day Two. After a leisurely breakfast at the Marathon Coffee Shop, we visited photographer, writer, and artist E. Dan Klepper (who is also a frequent TH contributor) at his Klepper Gallery. I have long appreciated E. Danâ€™s artful images and compelling words, but I was awestruck by his graceful, minimalistÂ assemblages of baling wire and various found objects.
It was finally time to explore the outdoors, so around noon we trekked toward Big Bend National Park. With the remaining time on our trip dwindling, we chose to hike the Window Trail. This popular trail is relatively short (5.6 mi.) and easy to navigate. However, we couldnâ€™t help but stop every so often to gaspâ€”not due to exertion but to admire the stunning mountain formations and surface textures. At the end of the trail, the Windowâ€™s ledge opens to a jaw-dropping, magnificent vista. On the way back, we spotted not only hawks, deer, and javelinas, but musician/artist David Byrne and a companion walking toward the Window. â€œOnce in a lifetime?â€ to quote one of his Talking Heads hits.
Due to the short time and full days, we had dinner at the Gage, either in 12 Gage restaurant or White Buffalo Bar. Despite the voracious appetite worked up from the hike, White Buffalo Barâ€˜s Venison Fajita Black Bean Nachos made for a sumptuous meal for both of us.
On our final day, Wednesday, before heading home, we drove back to Marfa in hope of touring the Chinati Foundation as it would be open, but our luck ran out when we found the tour had sold out for the morning. So we had a delightful Swiss-inspired breakfast of knackwurst with eggs at squeezemarfa, and walked across the street to the Presidio County Courthouse to climb the stairs to the courthouse tower. The tower boasts astounding panoramic views. I thought I could almost see clear to Alpine!
Before this trip, it had been many years since either of us had been to Big Bend. This somewhat whirlwind visit will set the stage for more (and longer) trips to come, hopefully sooner than later.
For Chinese New Year, Year of the Dragon 2012, my daughter Lucy, my boyfriend David and I celebrated with dinner at Asia Cafe in Austin. Â Asia Cafe serves Sichuan (or Szechuan) Chinese cuisine, known for its hot and spicy seasonings.Â The Chinese food here is by far the most authentic Iâ€™ve had in Austinâ€”both in taste and presentation.
Asia Cafe is simple and casual: walk up to the counter, grab a menu and place your order. The number of items listed start at 115 and go through the 800s!Â Luckily, I had a few dishes in mind: Whole Fish with Spicy Bean Sauce (which I had on a previous visit: succulent and flavorfully spicy), House Special Green Beans (Chinese long beans), and Sesame Tofu.Â The entrÃ©e portions are generous, in keeping with the Chinese tradition of serving dishes family-style, so for the three of us, this was plenty.Â Drinks (water, tea and soda only) and utensils are self-serve, along with small bowlsâ€”not platesâ€”for sharing (another touch of authenticity: in Chinese households, meals are typically eaten from bowls).
As it turned out, the Whole Fish with Spicy Bean Sauce had already sold out, as this dish is considered â€œluckyâ€ to eat for the New Year. So we went with a similar entrÃ©e on the specials board, House Whole Fish with Garlic and Peppers. When our meal was ready to be picked up at the counter, the fish arrived on an enormous platter, ringed with copious amounts of soft garlic cloves (the mild taste and texture reminded me of miniature new potatoes) and tiny cherry peppers in a piquant peppercorn sauce.Â The tasty long beans had that just-right crunchy-yet-tender texture, and the delicately-seasoned sesame tofu was firm, with a crispy coating.
As expected, Asia Cafe was buzzing on this New Yearâ€™s night. A couple of private rooms off to the side hosted festive gatherings (and brought their own wine), and the line at the counter was continuous but quick. Â As in most â€œauthenticâ€ Asian restaurants, groups of Chinese diners were in attendance, but I also saw many non-Asians, possibly those from other cities whoâ€™ve had a taste of China and craving the real deal.
Asia CafÃ© is a bit of a trek from my home in south Austin, but well worth it.Â Next time I wonâ€™t wait until Lunar New Year (2013 is Year of the Snake) to get my Chinese food fix.
My sister Joan was in Austin last weekend visiting from Dallas, and we decided to forgo the usual big-city haunts and spend an afternoon in Smithville.Â I had written about Smithvilleâ€™s movie-town status in November TH, and Joan wanted to explore downtown Smithville.
We began with lunch at Comfort Cafe, just off Main St., where I dined on one of my research trips but regrettably didnâ€™t have room to include in my story.Â (I was pleased to see in the January issue, Bob McClure had written a Reader Recommendation on the chicken salad at the cafÃ©.)Â I have had the chicken-curry salad and it was sweetly refreshing. Â Since I hadnâ€™t eaten breakfast yet, I chose the Sammy Bennie, one of three Eggs Benedict dishes on the extensive breakfast/lunch menu. Generously topped with hollandaise sauce over two fluffy poached eggs, salmon and English muffins, the dish was satisfying yet didnâ€™t make me feel overstuffed. Joan opted for a freshly-made Potato Florentine Soup with a side of field greens. Open for breakfast and lunch, Comfort Cafe will also begin serving on Friday nights, 6-9 p.m. starting Feb. 3.
We strolled down Main St. and stopped at Tom-Kat Paper Dolls, as Joan has fond memories of playing with and collecting paper dolls growing up in Hong Kong.Â As I mentioned in the November story, I continue to be amazed at the range and scope of sartorial themes played out in illustrator/shop owner Tom Tierneyâ€™s paper-doll books.Â Some of the newest ones depict the royal newlyweds William and Kate and the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen.Â Joan bought a book of designer fashions from the 1950s-90s, and we marveled at and recalled some of the trends of those times.
As with many small-town downtowns, Smithvilleâ€™s Main Street has antiques stores galore. But we discovered a new and somewhat different type of shop, Sacs on Main Resale Boutique, which opened two weeks ago and swarming with customers.Â Sacs is much like Buffalo Exchangeâ€”trendy and youthful resale womens apparel but without the cramped racks.Â There are also new, handcrafted accessories in the mix, such as headbands topped with fabric flowers and jewelry from next door neighbor Scattered Light.Â Be sure to check out the back room of the storeâ€”everything is $1, and I saw some great buys, like a tailored vintage black brocade cape, and a slim brown floral 60s-inspired sheath dress.
It was a relaxing yet not unfamiliar change of pace from our usual Austin jaunts.
Like a lot of women in Central Texas, I imagine, I once dated a soldier stationed at Fort Hood, the lifeblood of the military city of Killeen. On most weekends during our short courtship, heâ€™d visit me in Austin, where weâ€™d frequent the live-music venues on Sixth Street and along Guadalupe, the road that parallels the UT campus.Â On a few occasions, though, I made the one-hour trip to the base. This was a few years before Operation Desert Storm and many years before 9-11, and security concerns werenâ€™t the same as they are now. So on one night when he had guard duty at one of the postâ€™s motor pools, I accompanied him. I assume this was allowed but canâ€™t be certain. Regardless, no one stopped us. And so I have a rather surreal and oddly romantic memory of a warm night curled up on an armored tank, watching the stars.
On visits to Austin, heâ€™d claim there wasnâ€™t much to do in Killeen. And so years later, I was surprised to read a story in the Austin American-Statesman about the wealth of interesting restaurants (Hawaiian! Korean! Puerto Rican! Trinidadian!) found along Rancier Avenue, an artery named â€œTank Destroyer Boulevardâ€ as it enters the Fort. Iâ€™m an adventurous eater, and fortunately my husband, Randy, usually cooperates amiably. And since last Saturday was free, we made the short trek to Killeen to explore.
The Fort is a big place and dominates the city: The official website of Fort Hood breaks down some demographics and illustrates the cultural and economic impact of the Fortâ€™s population. According to the Comptrollerâ€™s office, the Fort has an estimated $10 billion impact on the Texas economy. With some 70,000 men and women living on post (27,000 of whom are in the military) and a total supported population numbering almost 400,000, Fort Hood is the largest active-duty armored post in the US Armed Services.
According to what Iâ€™ve read on the Internet and elsewhere, Killeenâ€™s 8,000-strong Korean population is the result of the militaryâ€™s presence in that country in the 1950s; when US servicemen returned to Killeen after the war, some brought new wives with them, and the community began to grow. So I wasnâ€™t surprised to see numerous Korean noodle houses and barbecue joints along Rancier Avenue. And it turns out that because thereâ€™s a significant population of Pacific Islanders in Killeen (some of whom were in the service and others who wound up here after visiting relatives or friends in the service), restaurants popped up to cater to their tastes, as well.
Rancier itselfâ€”now lined with a dizzying number of barber shops, pawn shops, and military surplus storesâ€”must have been a happening strip in the 1950s and 1960s, when the postâ€™s population exploded. Many of the buildings still have vestiges of mid-Century architecture, but the majority look worse for wear and tear. We drove around a bit, chatting about Elvis Presleyâ€™s stint here in 1958, wondering if soldiers still had to dry-clean and press their uniforms, and debating which restaurant to try first.
I had read that the C & H Hawaiian Grill offered a raw-tuna dish called poke, which was served in a Styrofoam cup but still rivaled sashimi dishes at served high-end sushi places in Austinâ€“so we headed there first. Turns out the owners, Cora and Hensan Timo, opened the grill in 2004 when their sons were stationed at Fort Hood.
Since it was around 3 oâ€™clock, the place wasnâ€™t overly busy; we ordered a few things at the counter and shared the small dining room with a few uniformed soldiers and their families. I loved the poke, which is raw ahi (tuna) marinated in soy sauce, sesame oil, and green onionâ€”but Randy thought the sesame flavor overpowered the fish. We both enjoyed the Kalua Pork with cabbage (a large portion of smoked and roasted pulled pork served with white rice), but in our opinion the most unusual dish we ordered was the Samoan plate, a combination of barbecued ribs, Polish sausage, teriyaki chicken, and a side of chicken-y, slippery noodles. The Timos know their way around a barbecue pit! We were offered a choice of bananas cooked in coconut milk or rice, and we chose the banana, which was definitely differentâ€”starchy yet a bit sweet.
We popped into a pawn shop and a surplus store, dropped by Partinâ€™s Jamaican Bakery and Grill to pick up a menu for next time (paki-crusted plantains! Jamming jerk patties! Yabba-braised tilapia! Sambo oxtail!), then swung by the Caribbean grill for some to-go fare from Trinidad-Tobago. Faced with a selection of such savory items as stewed chicken, oxtail, fried shark, and Indian-inspired roti, we chose an order of curried goat and another order of jerk chicken. When we were asked, â€œHow hot can you eat it?â€ I responded, â€œHot enough to make our scalps sweat.â€ The server behind the counter raised an eyebrow and squirted copious amounts of some secret ingredient into our to-go-boxes.
As we returned to Austin, the aroma in the car made my stomach growl. Later that night as we dug into leftovers, our scalps sweating and our taste-buds firing on all cylinders, we made plans for another culinary adventure in Killeen. After all, weâ€™ve only scratched the surface.
Though I am no poet laureate, I couldnâ€™t resist throwing my Texas spin on â€˜Twas the Night Before Christmas.â€ I know itâ€™s been done before, but I'll share my version, nonetheless â€¦ with a few links to help you see what a great state we live in.
Happy Christmas to Y'all!
â€˜Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the state,
every Texan was stirring, they could hardly wait!
In the desert, coyotes howled a wintry song.
In the Valley, a chorus of birds sang along.
Sunbathers on the coast sported their holiday glow,
The Monahans revelers surfed the sands of Christmas time,
The big cities were a beacon of bright lights Ââ€“ reds and greens,
and Hill Country Main streets aglow with festively-lit scenes.
Across the Lone Star state, it was very easy to see
that hearts were filled with love, and there was much felicity.
Restless, they were, in their holiday cheer,
filled with the knowledge that Christmas is near.
When what should they spy across the Comanche Moon
But a silhouette of Santa. Heâ€™d be here soon!
They raced to their beds as Santa approached,
And tried to find sleep, as they had been coached.
With much state for St. Nick to cover, led by Rudolphâ€™s bright red nose,
The excited Texans feigned sleep until they did doze.
In the still of the silent night, Santa made his way
making every stop, like clockwork, savoring each gifted treat.
Then off in the big sky he rose out of sight,
And with a cheerful belly-chuckle he shouted:
"Happy Texas Christmas, yâ€™all, and to yâ€™all a good-night!"
I recently went to see the new Martin Scorsese film Hugo, the directorâ€™s first film intended for family viewingâ€”and a 3D picture to boot. Based on American writer Brian Selznickâ€™s Caldecott Award-winning book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, about an orphan living in a busy, 1930s train station in Paris, the film captivated me with its characters, inventive plot, and gorgeous use of 3D-technology. The movie (and book) draws heavily on the mythology and history of real-life French filmmaker Georges MÃ¨liÃ©s, a magician by training who directed more than 500 innovative films before declaring bankruptcy in 1913.
Interestingly, the MÃ¨liÃ©s story has a Texas connection. One of the reasons Georges MÃ¨liÃ©s suffered financially toward the end of his film career was that American film companies were screening pirated versions of his films, so in 1902 he sent his brother Gaston MÃ¨liÃ©s to the United States to guard his copyrights.
Gaston, also a filmmaker, spent a few years in New York, but he eventually settled in San Antonio, possibly to treat himself to the healing sulphur waters near the ruins of the San Jose Mission. In San Antonio, Gaston MÃ¨liÃ©s established a studio called the Star Film Ranch, and devoted his talents to turning out some 70 one-reel films, mostly westerns. The San Jose ruins served as the set for at least three Star Film productions, all made in 1910. Like his brother Georges, Gaston was fond of special effects and outlandish action sequences: A May 1976 story in the San Antonio Light notes that MÃ¨liÃ©sâ€™ film An Unwilling Cowboy featured a full-blown square dance on horseback.
In 1911, Gaston and his Star Film Ranch maximized the appeal of the Alamo with a film called The Immortal Alamo, in which MÃ¨liÃ©s cast himself as William Travis (and director John Fordâ€™s older brother Francis played Davy Crockett). Students from the Peacock Academy, a San Antonio military institute, played both Texian and Mexican soldiers.
Itâ€™s a big state, but a small world.
In January issue of Texas Highways, which weâ€™re putting to bed before the Thanksgiving holiday, my colleague Nola McKey suggests an action-packed 2012 itinerary for those of you who adore a good festival.
Iâ€™m particularly interested in the upcoming Whooping Crane Festival in Port Aransas (February 23-26)â€”not only because I love Port A, but also because I admire the birdsâ€™ tenaciousness and survival skills. After all, while whooping cranes are still on the state and federal Endangered Species List, their flock size should reach record levels this year. Once numbering only 21 birds in the entire planet, whoopers in 2012 are expected to number somewhere around 290, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Biologist Tom Stehn.
Texasâ€™ winter flock of whooping cranes spend the summer in northwestern Canada, at Wood Buffalo National Park, and usually travel to Texas through a migration corridor that crosses over the Texas Panhandle and the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. Then the birds head south, where their flight path takes them over Waco, Austin, and Victoria before arriving at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in November.
A quick phone call to the refuge just now confirmed their arrival, and the numbers are looking good, folks. The park official with whom I spoke said they hadnâ€™t conducted a formal survey yet, but theyâ€™re estimating that 75% of the population has already arrived, with more trickling in every day. Theyâ€™ll stay in Texas through March or April, depending on weather conditions.
Iâ€™m fascinated by the fact that itâ€™s possible (not likely, but possible nonetheless) to spy these birds during migrationâ€”perhaps even in the skies above Austin. They tend to migrate in small groups of four or five birds, and they often stop at wetlands environments or agricultural fields en route to the coast. While they resemble sandhill cranes, whooping cranes are largerâ€”more than four feet tall (the tallest birds in North America!)â€” and are solid white, except for black wing tips that are visible only when theyâ€™re flying.
I hope to get to the Port A region sometime this winter to see them. See www.fws.gov/southwest/refuges/texas/aransas/
Last weekend (November 12-13) was the first weekend of the newly expanded, bigger-and-better East Austin Studio Tour, which invites the public to tour more than 145 artistsâ€™ studios throughout East Austin over two weekends. Itâ€™s the Tourâ€™s 10th anniversary, and itâ€™s amazing to me to think about how itâ€™s grown from a grassroots effort with 28 studios on tour to this yearâ€™s veritable art party.
I made it to a few stops last Saturday, including the home painting studio of my friend David Leonard, who paints cityscapes, landscapes, and industrial settings. See his painting at left, titled City Park (Dallas,TX), which he completed in 2008. I admire his work because he somehow marries a photorealistâ€™s attention to detail with the warmth and vibrancy of an Impressionist. His work is frequently featured at Austinâ€™s Davis Gallery, but itâ€™s fun to see his works in a home setting, and to study where and how he works.
Thatâ€™s part of the appeal of the tour for meâ€”to witness the art-making process and setting of each artist. So Iâ€™ll hit the streets again this Sunday, spend a little money to support artists whose works grab me, and no doubt find inspiration in details both large and small. See www.eastaustinstudiotour.com.
Dia de los Muertos is nothing new. The ritual celebrated in Mexico and parts of the United States gets its roots from the Aztecs, and many â€“ possibly yourself, included â€“ have long had this as part of their own life experience. But even as a Rodriguez, it wasnâ€™t something that my family participated in. I only recently started paying closer attention to the celebration, thanks in part to a friend who passionately shared the history of it with me and to the museums who seem to embrace it more and more by opening up space for traditional ofrendas (altar offerings). My recent visit to the Rio Grande Valley and many of its museums, featuring Dia de los Muertos exhibits, magnified that interest in me even more.
The Day of the Dead is based on the belief that the dead come to visit their loved ones from Oct. 31-Nov. 2. In recognition of this homecoming, families and friends set out altars of offerings â€“â€“ at their gravesite or in homes â€“â€“that include a photo(s) of loved ones who have passed, along with items that represented that person and their hobbies, as well as their favorite foods, drinks and more. Toys and candy are typically placed for the children.
Along with the personal items, the altars include many universal Dia de los Muertos symbols including crosses/religious symbols, fruit, pan de muerto (breads often shaped like the skull and crossbones), marigolds (or CempazÃºchitl), sugar skulls and candles to light the way for the dead.
Calacas, or skeleton figurines, are all over these Dia de los Muertos displays. They are often seen doing joyful things, as in life. The calacas represents death as an extension of life and not something to be feared.
Most notable among the calacas is La Catrina, the well-dressed skull figure, usually in her finest gown, hat and gloves. It was explained to me recently that La Catrina mocks a wealthy woman who did nothing to help the poor. The point is being made that no matter how wealthy or privileged we may be in life, at the core â€¦ and in death, we are all bones â€¦ all the same.
Calaveras are the skulls represented in the altars - most especially, the sugar skulls. The abundance of sugar made it the perfect medium for creating the folk art that represented the departed in colorful and positive ways.
I learned a lot about some of the meanings from my dear friend Cole Ynda who, in memory of her late brother David, wrote a beautiful poem incorporating the elements of Dia de los Muertos. She explained the symbolism in her poem, Querido.
I didnâ€™t know, before that, that there was a reason the marigolds were always the flower of choice. Aside from it being noted as sacred to Mictlantecuhtli, the Aztec god of the dead, Cole put it in words that brought it more to life for me, so to speak. She said the marigolds serve as a guide, much like the candles do, because â€œthe dead can see the color and vibration of the flower.â€ In her poem she calls them â€œlos colores de la tierra, de la vidaâ€ â€“â€“ colors of the earth and of life. That just sounds so lovely to me.
A few years ago, I visited the Mexican American Culture Center in Austin during their Dia de los Muertos festivities. I joined a craft table with a bunch of children, but embraced the kid inside me and was determined to make my own sugar skull. The first sugar skull I ever decorated, I dedicated it to two â€œDâ€s â€“ my dad, Benito Cruz Rodriguez and to David, Coleâ€™s brother. I think I did an okay job. Well, the 5-year-old next to me started copying mine and you know what they say about imitation. :)
The Spanish tried to squash the ritual, calling it sacrilege, but Iâ€™m beginning to see it for the beautiful, poetic gesture that it is. Itâ€™s not a mockery of death. Itâ€™s more about coming to terms with it and its marriage to the thing we call life. Itâ€™s about remembering and continuing to embrace our loved ones, even in death.
PAN DE MUERTO
- 5 cups of flour
- 1/2 cup of sugar
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- 1 tablespoon of anise seed
- 2 packets of dry yeast
- 1/2 cup of milk
- 1/2 cup of water
- 1/2 cup of butter
- 4 eggs
Mix together the sugar, salt, anise, dry yeast and only 1Â½ cups of the flour.
In a small saucepan, heat the milk, water butter.
Add the liquid mixture to the dry mixture and beat well.
Blend in the eggs and another 1 Â½ cups of flour and, once again, beat well.
Gradually mix in the remainder of the flour until you get a firm, non-sticky dough, and knead for about 10 minutes.
Let the dough rise to double itâ€™s size (about an hour) in a greased bowl.
Reshape the dough, incorporating some bone shapes on top, then let it rise for another hour. You may also make smaller individual breads and/or try different shapes with the dough.
Bake at 350 degrees for about 40 minutes.
After baking, you may sprinkle it with confectioner's sugar and colored sugar.