Happy 2017! My intention was to share the world of my parties with you. In between managing my Ooh La La Business and being a mom, they don’t seem to be coming out as quickly as I had hoped. But it’s January and I am back to writing and I am so excited to share my next party. A few months back it was Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead in Mexico- it’s one of my favourite festivals. Saffron and Scarlett’s Mexico birthday party in 2013 was inspired by this fascinating festival.
Before I jump in, I want to share a little more about my creative process. Whenever I choose a country for our next party, there’s a particular visual image that captures my imagination. This symbol/image fuels my creativity, serves as an inspiration, feeds my aesthetic sensibilities and keeps me up at night. Once I have the right ideas, my vision drives me for months (it doesn’t drive my husband in quite the same way!). I picture the little guests arriving, I imagine them wide-eyed as they take in the installation in our home. And I watch as they step out of ordinary reality and willingly step into a world that I have created. I want every single artistic detail to deliver an authentic experience that lifts us all out of the mundaneness of ordinary life and transports us into something that is theatrical, playful and transcendent. This was the type of image that occupied my mind for Dia de los Muertos.
There is something so amazing about the ways in which Mexicans remember those who have departed. Dia de los Muertos is an ancient Mexican holiday where Mexican people celebrate their ancestors. Unlike Halloween which plays into the macabre and the scary, the Mexican Day of the Dead is colourful and celebratory, while not shying away from skulls and skeletons. Children are able to participate by going to the cemetery and having a big party, without the shackles of nightmares. You know me by now, I like the culture, but I really love the aesthetics. The Mexican Day of the Dead has inspired multiple images of skulls and skeletons which populate their national imagination. But I was particularly taken by the opportunities to take these symbols and create them in my own edible art forms. For months I played with these skulls in my head, creating designs and colours to adorn each one. I wanted the effect of juxtaposition; bright white skulls contrasting with my favourite colours, turquoise, fuschia, pinks, purples, yellows and blues. A kaleidoscope of hundreds of dancing skulls peppered my thoughts. Long before Ed Hardy was a thing, my brother and I used to wear skulls on our t-shirts as kids. There’s something about the proportion and shape of a skull – let’s face it, they’re beautiful – and they’re cool. These skulls were going to be the most beautiful, well-crafted celebration of the dead, ever! Skulls are rock chic and if we don’t take them too seriously, skulls are fun! And boy, I wanted a lot of fun.
And so the art process began. My dining room table turned into a graveyard as I molded life sized skulls using a sugar water, egg- white mix which we shaped and hardened into over one hundred skulls. I wanted Saffron and Scarlett and each of their friends to take one home. This embodies my philosophy of working very hard, capturing my work in photographs and then giving my art away, as an act of generosity. Rachelle, one of my teachers and a fellow comrade in the sugar paste arts, helped me to adorn every single skull with my individual designs and specific colour palate with royal icing.
Altars are important on The Day of the Dead. I created an altar too, with marigolds framing a cascade of skulls. I wanted a sea of orange, a solid mass of golden yellow which would contrast with the play of colour and individual design of every skull. The marigolds themselves were playful; upon closer inspection, they were buttercream cupcakes. The altar as the central exhibit had a magnetic force, a sea of burnt orange that offset the main showpiece, a festivity of magnificent skulls. It didn’t stop there. Skull sugar-cubes, skull marshmallows, skull biscuits, skull chocolate….
It might be hard for Americans to imagine but authentic Mexican food was hard to come by in South Africa. In 2013, there was not one Mexican restaurant in Johannesburg. Having sampled really excellent Mexican food around the world, I wanted to delve deep into this food culture. But I found there were only four Mexicans in South Africa. Even those working at the Mexican embassy were Spanish! During my search for Mexican food in South Africa, a side story was taking place. A young South African woman was au-pairing in Mexico. While working as a nanny there, she met a Mexican chef called Lucio and they fell in love. Do you see where this is heading? Lucio followed the nanny back to South Africa. At that time, the Mexican population in South Africa increased from four to five and along came the chef who was going to usher me into the world of good Mexican cuisine.
Through a series of fortuitous events, I met Lucio and very soon after, the food preparation began for our party as Lucio cooked in my kitchen a couple of nights each week. My vocabulary expanded from tortilla and nacho to mole, serrano, ancho, chipotle, pico de gallo and even mezcal. My family and a special group of taster friends (who ‘begrudgingly’ perform this role before every party and come ‘unwillingly’ for leftovers and party debriefings the day after) gathered round our farm style kitchen table as we imbibed the smells and tastes of Mexico. For a few weeks before the party, Mexico came to us and we took it in.
There’s a fine art to the Mexican tortilla and I was lucky to find a family who made homemade, authentic tortillas. When I went to their little factory I learned how to make tortillas and discovered the different varieties. They ended up making hundreds of tortillas for the party and what’s more, I incorporated their daughter, Anna, into my cast of Mexican actors, who merely had to be themselves to deepen the authentic feel.
My last avenue of food reconnaissance was through one of my favourite restaurants in New York called Rosa Mexicana. The chef there taught me how to make the best guacamole and master a perfect pomegranate margarita. For the kids I made apple juice shots with an orange slice chaser, their chillies were made out of sugar.
A Hue of Blue
I wanted my home to feel like a Mexican village square inspired by the hilltop village of San Miguel de Allende. To create a Mexican village in my garden, I needed to reach deep down into the whimsical mix of colour, shape and iconic image to discover what captures the soul of a Mexican village, in the most playful and enchanting way. There is a tree-lined avenue that carves its way through my garden. I envisioned all the tree trunks covered in colourful Mexican serapes, on top of which perched archetypal Mexican doll faces with three metre long, thick black braided hair. These dolls were replicated in an edible form with royal icing and liquorice braids.
Colour is a vital part of the creative process for me – and the colour palette of Mexican culture is specific and unique. I wanted the standout colour of the party to be defined by an utterly distinct indigo blue pigment from Mexico. Not any blue would do, it had to be majorelle blue. I befriended a woman Des, who owned a Mexican design shop in Johannesburg. She explained to me that I would not be able to replicate this exact blue in South Africa and she helped me bring in the paint straight from Mexico. As I write this, I realize that this search for essence is part of my approach to design. It has to feel real, down to the hue of blue. Soon the walls of each of the stalls and all the lanterns were coated in this iconic colour. We also took rain gutters, painted them a beautiful terracotta which became the typical rooftops of the houses and food stalls which would soon fill the garden. With majorelle and terracotta, serapes and black braids my home morphed into a magical Mexican village.
As Des and I became friends and she met my daughters, she wanted to give me a beautiful antique Mexican dress and her blessing to transform the dress into two beautiful village girl dresses for Saffron and Scarlett. My party yearning is for live theatre and experiential installation and Mexico couldn’t happen in Johannesburg without costumes! All the girls received embroidered Mexican puebla dresses and the boys received ponchos, as they walked into the village. It made a lovely take-home gift, sure. But the deeper gift for me is the experience of transformation, education in action which happens the minute anyone steps into a costume and walks onto a party-as-theatre set. As the village took shape, each food stall was embellished with a sign that was oil painted on a pattern of white, glazed tiles.
I fancy myself as an underground educator. Aimed at children but for adults too, there are many opportunities at Saffron and Scarlett’s parties for us all to learn different facets of a given culture. A Mexico themed party was not complete without the legendary Frida Kahlo. Even if the kids don’t retain all the information about her tempestuous relationship with Diego de Riviera and the details of the surrealist blue period, they will definitely not forget ‘Frida Kahlo has a unibrow’. During the party, I became an actor in the play and took on the role of Mexican tour guide. The children followed me around like the Pied Piper as I took them into this Mexican world. At the end of the tour, the children received an iconic self portrait of Frida Kahlo in black and white. With a swish and a smile, they inserted her unibrow and they coloured in her portrait with oil paints. This is kiddification in action: Without them even realizing it, we had taken these typically Disneyfied kids into a cultural world where they do not venture much. Frida Kahlo had never been this much fun!
The girls’ birthday cake was a miniature rendition of a Mexican village, inspired by the famous, picturesque hilltop village of San Miguel d’Allende. As you can see, I created a village scene, where Saffron and Scarlett, to the right and left are celebrating their party in a communal market place. In the background, a beautiful terracotta cathedral overlooks the square. So there’s a party within a party. In the sugar paste party, two traditional mariachi bands get everyone dancing while some village girls surround a pinyata which has just burst open to reveal its goods, while a young man sells his vegetables… his garlic braid being my favourite. My cake scenes tell stories within stories and so here, one man has fallen off his donkey with his basket of apples strewn around him, while another man feeds a carrot to his donkey. If you look closely you can see the town square is decorated for the party with ornate papal picaddos, a traditional Mexican craft where fine tissue paper is chiseled with ornate designs. As with the party colours, I drew on terracotta as a base, a colour of quietude, against which the resplendent colours of the Mexican clothes and celebrations stand out in relief definition. There is so much detail on the cake that my friends who ‘reluctantly’ come for the cake and after-party the next day, also come for a guided tour and debrief so that they don’t miss out on the countless details. If you look closely here, you can see Mexican serapes, etched, designed and folded, using a particular texturiser. You might just need to be invited to the after-party to get all the details.
God is in the Details
I get such goose-bumps watching the children at our parties entering the world we have created. I put together a Mariachi band and watched all the ninos transformed in sombreros, beauty spots on their cheeks, dancing around our garden, village style. As the evening continued, so did the magic. I wanted to teach the children that chocolate comes from Mexico and was drunk by the Aztecs. We served hot chocolate for the children using proper Mexican chocolate tablets which were melted using warm milk and a traditional copper pot and a wooden molinillo (whisk). The hot chocolate was spiced using a hint of unnoticeable chilli, laced with cinnamon. Each cup of hot chocolate was adorned with a marshmallow skull…because ….marshmallows and because… skulls.
During the festivities, we taught the children the cucaracca. Anna the daughter of the tortilla family came to help and Jesus came as well….
Jesus arrived just in time to become the sixth Mexican in town. Jesus Saiz had travelled across the globe as a missionary and landed on the southern tip of Africa. He was hired instantly – I just asked him to lay low on the gospel and share more on the guacamole.
Ballet and dance is the love of my girls’ lives. Every year, we come up with a dance theme together based on the country we have chosen for the party. For Mexico, two handmade, paper mache sombreros became the props for their ballet show which we called Mexican Hat dance. The girls shed their village dresses and became mariachi band players with a twist, the signature gold-braided stripes down the mariachi trousers extended across the seams of their tutus.
I remember this scene: The children had just danced the cucaracca and were watching the Mexican Hat Dance while sipping on hot chocolates and eating mangoes on a stick. I suddenly felt prickles on my arms as I realised that my dream had come alive. I had been consumed with this vision for nearly a year. Watching all these children, happy, immersed in this world, transformed through costume and visceral experience, I felt that every single detail, every late night, every inch of blood, toil and sweat was worth it… down to the hue of blue.