“Cáscara or piñon?” That was the choice my oldest sister Dolores offered us in our youth, as the aroma of our mother’s homemade bread wafted through the kitchen.
Bread was a Saturday staple in Mom’s kitchen, and those first in line got the choice pickings. Let’s define a few terms first:
A cáscara is a shell. The piñon is what’s inside. So when Dolores gave us a choice, naturally we were thinking piñon. Besides, who wants to fill up on piñon shells? We’d naturally ask for the piñon.
Then Dolores would grant our wish; she’d give us the still-moist, warm inside of the newly baked bread (the piñon). Good, but not quite as pleasing as the crusty part. I would have died happily if the crust (cáscara) of Mom’s bread had been my last meal.
Now we’ve metaphorically skipped from piñon to bread, with one more step to go: the cáscara of an egg.
It’s possible some Las Vegans have gone through life without ever having heard of a cáscara or a cascarón. The cascarón party sponsored by the Las Vegas Museum on Saturday was one of the last vestiges of the fun people used to have at cascarón dances.
Cascarón dances took place on Easter Monday, the faithful having given up dances and other fun activities for Lent. I usually give up squash, beets and menudo. My former next-door neighbor, Mary Alice Maestas Aragon, and her husband Flavio refreshed my memory on the custom that took place in the ‘50s and ‘60s and seems to have vanished after that.
Flavio recalled that the dances took place in the old National Guard Armory on Douglas Avenue. And he said that the live music generally was provided by Don Guerin’s orchestra, which included such musicians as Hector Guerin, a pianist named Willie Tafoya, a sax player surnamed Almanzar, and of course, Don Guerin with the trumpet.
“The music was always live,” Aragon said. He remembers it was “simply good, clean fun, with no liquor served in the dance hall.” Aragon conceded, however, that some attendees often took a break, walked next door to the Elks Club, had a drink, and returned to the dance.
The dance was sponsored by the Immaculate Conception parish, and its pastor, Msgr. George V. Rieffer, seemed to love the action at the dances, his being recognized as the consummate cascarón breaker. My recollection was that people were more intent on aiming their missiles eggs-actly at someone’s head than on perfecting the cha-cha or the rumba.
Even better than a cascarón filled with regular paper-sliver confetti was the ready-made confetti the Optic provided. In those days, we used Teletype machines, which processed rolls and rolls of perforated yellow tape.
Little pins punched the tape, and in a year’s time, we gave away several dozen boxes of yellow confetti to be loaded into the empty, dried shells.
Our mom was among the best producers of cascarones. And I believe she put us on Marie-imposed egg diets in order to have more excuses to buy more eggs and thus more shells. Mary Alice’s mother, Tillie Maestas, produced copious amounts, as did the Eisabel Peña family, a large group who owned a grocery store across the street.
We children often helped out. We’d carefully crack eggs at the tip, pour out the ingredients, and, after allowing the shells to dry, fill them with confetti. We’d then seal and decorate the eggs.
A family friend, Jon Sandoval, once showed us how the best-looking cascarones ought to be made. He’d make BB-sized openings on the ends of the egg and blow the contents out the other end. It didn’t seem too appetizing, and after that procedure, we simply got used to breakfast of omelets or scrambled eggs.
We’d take these eggs to the dances for our own stash, or else donate them for resale; some made money selling a dozen cascarones for a quarter. The only people who might not have had a blast were the cleanup crew.
The confetti generated from our Teletype machines was all standard size. It made the dance floor slippery, and it was difficult to shampoo away from one’s scalp or flush out of one’s eye.
We always went by the dictum that having a cascarón cracked over one’s head was a form of flattery and a predictor of good luck. It could also be considered a flirtatious gesture.
Some reports trace the custom of making cascarones back to China, with a detour in Europe by Marco Polo. In Italy, the process of having an egg cracked on someone’s head was a courting ritual.
Back in antiquity, the cascarón was highly symbolic. A dozen such shells would contain miniature elements of the Crucifixion, among them: a thorn, a nail, a sponge, dice (used by the soldiers who drew lots), a miniature spear, and a pebble, to represent the stone covering the tomb.
For us, it was more fun to line the balcony of the armory and drop the projectiles on girls we’d fantasize about courting. No courtships evolved from our marksmanship, but we did get threats from the girls’ older and bigger escorts.
Few people seem to know exactly when or why the Easter Monday rituals ended in the Meadow City. Flavio Aragon guesses that the mothers of the parish — the real driving force — gradually died off without the custom being passed on.
It was touching to see a page 1 photo of 2-year-old Jovan Archuleta in Monday’s Optic. Under the watchful eye of Kristin Hsueh, the city museum educator, Jovan is shown preparing a cascarón which possibly his own parents have never done, maybe not even his grandparents.
Maybe Jovan’s interest in the project, as shown by his expression in the picture, will become contagious, and possibly it’ll spawn more interest in cascarones.
Art Trujillo is a copy editor at the Optic and a contributing member of the newspaper’s Editorial Board. He may be reached by calling 425-6796 or by e-mail to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.