Every year, someone asks me the question. I don’t know who will ask, usually an acquaintance or someone I have just met, or when they will ask, but I know the question will come. It always does.
“What will you be doing to celebrate on New Year’s Eve?
My answer is always the same. “Sleeping.”
It usually draws a double-take from the questioner. “Really?”
Really. By 10:00 PM on New Year’s Eve, I am tucked warm in bed and drifting off to sleep. I may wake up at midnight when my neighbors sound off their horns in celebration, but quickly drift back off to sleep. This has been my pattern for most of the past twenty-plus years.
So, why do I always crash so early on New Year’s Eve, you might ask? And what does this have to do with food?
Those folks who know me well could tell you the answer. For the past 24 years, I have spent the week between Christmas and New Year’s decorating floats for the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California. I work as a volunteer decorator for Phoenix Decorating Company in a big barn-like building across the street from the Rose Bowl.
We use a lot more than flowers to turn those floats into rolling works of art. Seeds, grains and dried beans and lentils of all kinds add color and texture. Dried seaweed, the same type used to make sushi rolls, coconut, crushed walnut shells and corn husks all find their way onto the floats in great quantity. Spices of all kinds are used to add depth and detail to the faces and bodies of various characters and critters.
Kumquats, oranges, lemons, artichokes and brussels sprouts add tons of color and create amazing affects when viewed up close and from a distance.
The theme for the 2011 parade is "Building Dreams Friendships & Memories" and Paula Dean is the Grand Marshal. I am working on two floats this year – Kiwanis International and the City of Alhambra. My time is mostly spent on Kiwanis, but I am lending a hand where needed on the Alhambra float. This Randy, the Kiwanis float crew chief, standing in front of the Kiwanis float.
For the first two days, I decorated a dragonfly on the front of the Kiwanis float that is resting amongst some giant morning glory blossoms. Its body is covered in finely crushed dried parsley flakes with touches of purple statice flower. For the eyes, I used dried seaweed, blue statice, one everlasting petal and a highlight of soy around the edge. The wings are a combination of crushed split peas, and dried fine-cut blue statice, rose statice and white everlasting flowers.
I also helped decorate the morning glories with white everlasting flowers on the Kiwanis float, “Children’s Dreams.” Everlasting, one of the most expensive flowers in the world, is a small, multi-petaled papery blossom. We use the flowers after they have been dried. The petals are carefully cut off of the flowers and then blended (yes, in a blender) to create a fine-cut, translucent material. Because it is so valuable, only experienced decorators are allowed to apply everlasting to the floats.
My friend and long-time decorating cohort, Michele Brown (31years working on floats), climbed the scaffolding to decorate the ladybug on the Kiwanis float and then moved down to work on the stamens and centers of the morning glories on the front of the float. (Thanks for the photos of me, Michele!)
Meanwhile, Michele worked on the high scaffolding to decorate the cat and other characters on the center lantern. I used to do a lot of high scaffolding work, but have opted for mid-level and lower-level jobs as my equilibrium is not what it used to be following a car accident several years ago.
On December 29, I moved back to the Kiwanis float to decorate the morning glory calyxes with ti leaves as we start to move from applying dry materials to adding fresh materials to the floats. From her vantage point working on the high scaffolding, Michele took this photo as I check to make sure a section of one of the calyxes is covered. (That’s me in the white hat.)
The fresh flowers are applied in earnest on December 30 as we prepare for the first judging and anticipate the completion of the floats. A few floats will be completed by late-night on the 30th, while most will be finished up during the morning and afternoon before the judges arrive in late afternoon.
My project on December 30 was to cover a giant leaf on the back of the Kiwanis float with ti leaves, a tropical leaf from Hawaii that is often used to make hula skirts. I made a leaf out of leaves. There is a heavy vein that runs down the center of the ti leaf so we cut each ti leaf into two long sections and remove the vein. The design for the leaf I was covering was to place the ti leaves on an angle with the ends of the leaves meeting in the center. I then wrapped an inch of the tip of the ti leaves around to the back of the big leaf. The back of the leaf was covered with ti leaves that again met in the center, but were cut off half an inch from the edge without wrapping around to the front.
The original plan had been to add a row of mung beans down the center of the leaf to hide the seam where the ti leaves came together. But the float designers were so impressed with the job I did in matching up the center cut edges of the ti leaves that they decided to eliminate the mung beans because they felt the beans would detract from the beauty of the leaf I had created. I was thrilled when the art director saw my leaf for the first time and he just kept repeating “Wow.”
Here is a photo of the mushroom houses in the center of the Kiwanis float. They are decorated with flax seed, crushed walnut shell, paper bark, crushed orange lentils, crushed white rice and lots more.
The two flower tents contain a massive amount of flowers waiting to go on the floats. This is just part of one tent. The buckets in the foreground are filled with carnations of all colors to be used whole or broken down into individual petals, while the racks in the back hold flats of roses already cut and placed into water picks.
Flats of roses in water picks wait to be added to the bottom gardens around the lower level of the Kiwanis float. We have to finish all of the decorating on the main part of the float before the flower gardens can be added.
These photos of giant vegetables are from the Trader Joe’s float, which was next to Kiwanis in the decorating building. They have an impressive garden of asparagus, artichokes, carrots and radishes stretching along the base of the float on both sides.
Notice the stalks of brussels sprouts nestled amongst the asparagus. I vividly remember the year the major feature of the float next to the one I was working on was a huge dragon. The plan had been to cover the dragon with green Bells of Ireland blossoms, but it was a cold year and the flowers did not open up. So it became necessary to improvise. (We do a lot of improvising when it turns out planned materials are in short supply in a given year.) The brilliant solution – brussels sprouts! They cut them in half and glued them all over that giant dragon. Bushels and bushels and bushels of them. The affect was spectacular. And I can tell you, that after three days, it not only looked like a dragon, it smelled like a dragon! Those brussels sprouts made quite a lasting impression.
Have you ever wondered what Santa does to unwind after his busy trip around the world on Christmas Eve? He comes out each year and helps decorate floats for the Rose Parade. Here he is working on one of the many murals on the Western Assets float.
I hope you enjoy these photos of an inside look at the float decorating process and as you watch the Rose Parade on New Year’s morning, think about all of the dedicated volunteers who worked many long hours to decorate these remarkable floats for all the world to see.
I wish you all a Happy New Year.
Next week, its back to baking.
Copyright © Linda J. Amendt 2010