Halloween, The Day of the Dead & The Secret Recipe Book of Frida Kahlo

Ironically, today marks the first day of the Mexican celebration The Day of the Dead, three days in which family and friends gather in many parts of the world, but especially traditional in Mexico, to acknowledge those that have died. Traditions include building an altar or shrine using sugar skulls, marigolds and the favourite foods and beverages of those who have passed, but are still remembered.

Frida KahloThe Day of the Dead has a special significance in the Mexican writer Francisco Haghenbeck’s novel The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo. Upon learning that several notebooks were found among Kahlo’s belongings, he imagines that one of them was given to Frida by her friend Tina Modotti and in it will capture recipes, memories and ideas that are inspired and connected to some of the noted people she spends time with.

“Among Frida Kahlo’s personal effects, there was a black book called “The Hierba Santa Book”. It contained a recipe collection for offerings on the Day of the Dead. According to tradition, on November 2 the departed have divine permission to return to earth, and they must be received with altars filled with Aztec marigolds, sweet pastries, photographs from long ago, religious postcards, mystically scented incense, playful sugar skulls and votive candles to illuminate their path to the next life.”

Frida Kahlo’s life story, her tomboyish, rebellious youth, her not so blind and yet all-embracing obsession with Diego Rivera, her accident, her art, her circle of friends both at home in Coyoacán, Mexico and those she fraternised with in the US and Europe are fascinating from almost any point of view, whether it’s the film Frida with Salma Hayek’s convincing role or Barbara Kingsolver’s fictional account of her in The Lacuna or this latest account with its superstitious bent.

The book started slowly, covering familiar ground and read a little like a summary of her early life, each chapter culminating in a recipe, like a tribute to the character who inhabited that episode. What makes it engaging and unique are Frida’s encounters with Death, who manifests as a man riding a horse and who visits her in the first few pages, before we even know who he is.

Kahlo Rivera Day of the Dead sculpture by Miguel Linares Source: Wikipedia

Kahlo Rivera Day of the Dead sculpture by Miguel Linares
Source: Wikipedia

As well as this apparition of the carrier of death, it’s warning manifests through the presence of a woman she refers to as the Godmother, Empress of the Dead, one with whom Kahlo makes a pact, after the trolley-bus accident that almost kills her. She will live, but with a constant reminder of that which she has circumvented – death. She will extend her life and avoid death but must embrace pain. And thus she becomes even more superstitious than she might have been, carefully marking the annual Day of the Dead with her shrine and offerings, keeping that man on the horse from her door until she is ready for his presence.

“The pact she had with her Godmother had given her the courage to tell stories. She liked to joke about Death. She dared it, taunted it, knowing that somewhere, Death was listening.”

She possessed a fearless personality, though susceptible to pain and expressed it in her artwork with an intensity that some would find disturbing.

Pain is the recurring metaphor in Kahlo’s life, sometimes it was so physically present it disabled her for periods of time when painting was her only release. When it wasn’t physical pain she experienced, it was emotional, for even her husband Diego, the love of her life was a manifestation of pain, one she tried to eliminate, briefly divorcing him for a year, despairing of his continuous infidelities and then just as she accepted physical pain, she accepted her flawed husband and remarried him, deciding it was better to live with than without him.

Suicide of Dorothy Hale by Frida Kahlo  Source : Wikipedia

Suicide of Dorothy Hale by Frida Kahlo
Source : Wikipedia

Channelling her experiences onto canvas, she developed a unique style and following. She became as well-known and sought after as Diego, from New York to the surrealists in Paris, meeting people such as Georgie O’Keefe, Salvador Dali and back home in Mexico, she and Diego would become hosts to the exiled Leon Trotsky and his wife.

Each encounter in the book leads to a favourite dish she might have made for or shared with her friends and it is as if each dish is also a sacrifice to the Godmother, constantly fulfilling her pact to keep Death from her door.

An excellent addition to the collection of work that exists, with its unique focus on local tradition, superstition and Frida Kahlo’s pact with Death, remembered every year when she and Diego come visiting, as they will perhaps this November 2nd.

Note: This book was an Advance Read Copy (ARC) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

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37 thoughts on “Halloween, The Day of the Dead & The Secret Recipe Book of Frida Kahlo

    • Likewise, had been sitting on this one for a while and seem to have finished it in good time on Hallow’s Eve 🙂 Also there is a collection work and photos, and memorabilia in Paris of Diego and Frida, I hope to see when I visit in December. Must watch the film this weekend to get reacquainted as well. Thanks for popping by, have missed your posts recently.

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  1. Sounds very interesting. We gad a wonderful exhibit in Toronto last year which I went to — her work shown together with Diego Riveras. Fabulous!

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    • Oh, I do hope they can get it in for you, maybe because it is a subscription based press. Although I have seen copies of their books on display in Foyles in London. Being novella’s I would think they might be popular, in this day and age. Fingers crossed. XX

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  2. Beautiful review, Claire! I didn’t know about the Mexican Day of the Dead. It looks like a beautiful tradition. From your review it looks like this book brings back the time and place when Frida Kahlo lived, quite beautifully. Liked very much that painting of Frida that you have posted.

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    • I don’t mention the painting in my review but there is an excellent story that goes with it.

      “As soon as the wrapping paper hit the floor, a scream rang out, echoing through every corner of the building on Fifth Avenue.”

      The painting was a commission, something Frida did for the editor of Vanity Fair Clare Booth Luce, on behalf of the mother of the suicide victim Dorothy Hale, who was Clare’s best friend. She wanted to gift the mother a painting made by Frida Kahlo. Clearly, she did not realise how Frida would interpret and reimagine pain and loss on the canvas, the editor screamed on opening her gift and when her staff were brave enough to enter her office, discovered she had taken refuge in a corner, the package only part opened. She ordered Security and her Secretary to destroy the painting, which they didn’t, but a couple of things were subsequently removed from it, ironically a hovering angel.

      A wonderfully vivid description and one can just image the horror, such a clash of cultures, for Frida, Death was so much a part of life, and its imagery was ever present. She had also just been on the cover of Vogue magazine, so no doubt, she was sought after by those in the ivory towers of Fifth Avenue. From the film, I remember many of her portraits, but this commission really intrigued me and I find the story behind it totally fascinating.

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      • Fascinating story, Claire. Thanks for sharing. I liked very much what you said about how two different people from different cultures can interpret a work of art totally differently.

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      • So true, I think that even applies to the book I’ve just read, when we read books from other cultural story telling traditions, we don’t always elicit the same meaning, but that is what often makes it so interesting, our cultures often act as a metaphor for meaning.

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    • Not being from a culture that celebrates Halloween or visits the dead during these days, I hadn’t been completely aware that the Day of the Dead was even approaching, but here in France, today 1 November is a public holiday Toussaint or All Saints and it is the day that family members visit the cemeteries and replace flowers and respect and remember those who have passed.

      So I saw the connection between Haghenbeck’s novel and these days approaching, My original reason for reading it, is because I’m going to see the Diego and Frida exhibition at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris in December. Thank you for the compliment, I am happy you enjoyed reading the review.

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  3. I must admit I am only vaguely aware of Kahlo and Rivera – through seeing clips of the film rather than any other media. This book does sound rather interesting, but maybe I’d like to read a more conventional life first?

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    • There is a well known book by Hayden Herrera called Frida, A Biography of Frida Kahlo, upon which the film was based, which is probably the better place to start as this book summarises much of her early life that is essential in really getting to know her feisty character. I have never read the biography, but must look out for a copy, since the film it inspired is excellent.

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  4. Claire, I love Frida Kahlo’s work. I had the opportunity to visit an exhibition of her work in the city of Philadelphia years ago.
    She had a sad life but she found joy and meaning in her paintings.
    Thank you for this review. Needless to say I’d love to read this book.

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    • I think this book is a worthy addition to the collection of works that celebrates and pays tribute to her life, she was indeed an inspirational woman. How wonderful that you have seen her work in person. I hope you enjoy the book and maybe even try some of the recipes!

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  5. I’m trying to wrap my mind around fictional doings involving Frida… hers is such a fascinating story as it is… I’m glad you enjoyed it. I imagine it would be horrific if done poorly.

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    • I think the book follows her life story according to the facts, but the recipe book is fictitious and imagining nay kind of interaction or conversation sometimes requires imaginative expansion, I actually like books that attempt to get into the mind of historical character, when done so with respect and research, they bring the person alive often more than historical texts can do, it’s like watching the film, which is also pure fiction and yet we have a real sense of how she lived her life.

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  7. You had me at Selma Hayak…I jest of course, once again your wonderful mix of literature and history makes for a thoroughly intriguing read. I had a burrito not to long ago so now that I am almost a Mexican this post held special significance for me.

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  8. I’d bookmarked your post because it reminded me of the “first” Frida movie I saw. I remember how much it affected me and how uncannily similar the actress who played Frida was physically to the artist. I found it on youtube. For those who speak Spanish… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PZo8H_fvyJE
    I also dug up a book I got long ago called “The Letters of Frida Kahlo, Cartas Apasionadas” which I’ve put aside to read again.
    Fascinating, and loved your post!

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    • Thanks for the link, I was intrigued to look at it as the day I posted this review, coincidentally, there was a Spanish film about Frida on French TV which I watched the end of and it was indeed the same one that you link to here. How wonderful that you can read her letters, I am wondering if there will be books on sale at the exhibition in December, watch this space 🙂

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  11. I have been fascinated by Frieda ever since stumbling on a biography of her in our local library ( yes, remember those??) when I was a teenager. Went to the exhibition at Tate Modern a few years ago. Fascinating post …..and yes very timely !

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