Irena Stein’s Day of the Dead celebration is about as far as you can get from a typical American Halloween party— and glorious because of it. Instead of a barrage of grinning jack-o’-lanterns and arch-backed black cats, teeth-rattlingly sweet Hershey bars and popcorn balls, there is an ornate altar, live musicians playing Latin jazz, delectable hors d’oeuvres and fresh margaritas at the ready. It’s a feast for the five senses with something for the sixth sense, too: something palpable yet inexplicable floating in the air.
Stein would say that something— or rather, those somethings— are the spirits of the dead, whom she’s invited to celebrate among the living for one night here at Café Azafrán. If it sounds like Isabel Allende’s “The House of the Spirits” crossed with Laura Esquivel’s “Like Water for Chocolate,” it is. “I grew up in magic realism,” says Stein, a native Venezuelan who came to the United States in 1980 to study cultural anthropology on a Fulbright scholarship. “My grandmother could turn the lights on and off with her psyche. With her, everything had an extrasensory feel. She put magic into things.”
Stein, who presides over a catering business in addition to the café, connects with her dead grandmother— and with all her deceased beloveds— through her annual Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) celebration in Café Azafrán’s digs at the Space Telescope Science Institute on Johns Hopkins’ Homewood campus. Far from an institutional food service operation, the café has become a hidden gem since Stein took over its operation in 2004.
From the kitchen, Stein’s staff brings out a variety of beautifully arranged appetizers that reveal her Latin-tinged multicultural roots— she spent time in Paris and Brussels as well as Venezuela— and her background as a jewelry designer. There are trays of meat empanadas, shrimp skewers to dip in Asian sauce, ceviche and tequenos, a Venezuelan pastry of cheese wrapped in paper-thin dough.
The 80 or so guests— some café regulars, some who’ve heard about the party and came to Azafrán for the first time— mingle, nibble and visit the altar created by Stein’s longtime friend, artist Irma Vega de Bijou, who comes each year from California. Splashed with bright reds, yellows and oranges, the altar is a visual demonstration of the Mexican relationship to death explained by Nobel laureate Octavio Paz: “The Mexican chases after it, mocks it, courts it, hugs it, sleeps with it.
It is his favorite plaything and his most lasting love.” This intimacy is quite in contrast to the American relationship to death— and is the reason why Day of the Dead is so different from Halloween: one is a celebration of death and one is a trivialization of it.
The altar displays the traditional Dia de los Muertos accoutrements: handmade papel picado (brightly colored tissue paper flags and banners), pan muerto (animal-shaped loaves of bread), calaveritas de azucar (skulls made of sugar) and calacas (whimsical skeletons that represent death).
Also on the altar are a variety of ofrendas, offerings for the dead: fresh fruit, letters and bunches of marigolds, which are believed to attract the dead to the altar. Some guests have set out photos of loved ones, including a dog and his award ribbon and squeeze toy. Someone has placed postcards from Reno and Virginia City, Nev., places that held meaning for a lost loved one. There is a matchbook with one match extended. Stein herself has placed a photograph of her Polish-born father, who died in 2004, near the things that delighted him in life: apples, vodka, herring.
When it’s time for dinner, guests find seats to await the first course, a jicama, orange and mesclun salad. Soon, Stein and her staff bring out the star of the evening, chiles en nogada, an elaborate Mexican specialty they’ve worked for days to prepare. It’s a rich and complex dish: poblano chiles stuffed with three types of meat, spices and fruit, topped with a creamy almond sauce and garnished with pomegranate seeds. “It takes forever to make,” says Stein. “It’s done for special occasions only.”
With the handmade decorations, the beautiful food— and the presence of the spirits— this certainly feels like a special occasion.