Edible artist Michele Simons is the director of the sugar skull workshop at the Galeria de la Raza and has been making them for the past three years. “When I went to Mexico after my parents died,” she said “I was there during the Day of the Dead and saw the skulls.”
Sugar skulls are incorporated into most Dia de los Muertos altars. While many shops and bakeries sell sugar skulls, the edible jewels are often made at home or at workshops.
It’s a relatively simple process; sugar is packed into the skull-shaped mold with water and meringue powder and then left overnight to dry.
Royal icing is used as both decoration and glue for the skulls. Although skulls can be completely edible, they’re pieces of art whose main purpose is for altar decoration.
“Dia de los Muertos is a Mexican ritual in fall celebrating life and death,” said Simons. The tradition originated with the Aztecs, she said. “They used real skulls back then: warriors’ skulls.”
Then Spanish brought sugar artists from Italy in the 17th century to Mexico. Even as the Aztecs disappeared the tradition of displaying skulls continued.
Paul Zinser has an altar for his mother on display at the Mission Cultural Center.
“I’d always call her mi reina,” said Zinser of his mother. The center skull is elegantly decorated with gems encircling the head, forming a crown, turning the sugar skull into his mother, his queen.