"The first thing I tell people is they are edible, but not>"/>
"The first thing I tell people is they are edible, but not very appealing," says Judith Wood, who oversees Phinney Neighborhood Association's annual Dia de los Muertos celebration, now in its 12th year.
Wood admits she's sampled the traditional skulls, which are painted to honor deceased friends and relatives. "They're not very appetizing," she says. "Some kids can't be convinced of that, though."
Sugar skull-making dates back to the 17th-century, when Italian missionaries introduced sugar art to the New World. The practice was popular with Catholics who couldn't afford imported statuary.
For its event, the Phinney Neighborhood Association prepares a few hundred skulls from sugar and meringue powder. "We go through all of them," Wood says. The skulls are made at least a week in advance so they have time to set before the holiday.
The association provides skull decorators with a dozen different colors of icing, and supplies an altar upon which completed skulls can be placed.
"Some people come and they really want to do the traditional Mexican thing, where they want to do something to remember a particular person," Wood says. "And then there are kids who think it's fun to play with colored frosting."
Wood is a proponent of the traditional approach. She suggests first-time skull decorators heed the motto "less is more," and choose colors and patterns in accordance with a specific soul's terrestrial likes and dislikes.
"I think it's more meaningful if you're thinking about a particular person," Wood says. "Did they have a favorite color? Did they have a favorite hat?"
In addition to sugar skulls, next Friday's party will feature Mexican hot chocolate -- "it's yummy and not what kids are used to," Wood says -- and, quite possibly, pan de muerto, or bread of the dead. Like the candies, the sweet, eggy bread is supposed to resemble a skull, and references the belief that the dying's last request is for "sugar and bread" to facilitate their journeys.
The association has never before served pan de muerto, and Wood was still sorting out baking logistics this week.
"It's really fun," Wood says of the party. "There are people of all ages. Some people are coming because it sounds like fun, and some people are coming because they want to remember."
The free event at the Phinney Neighborhood Center will be held next Friday, Nov. 4, from 6:30-9 p.m.