Death Becomes Us

Day of the Dead pays homage to the deceased in jubilant fashion, with bread of the dead, sugar skulls, and other favorite dishes.

September 5, 2015

FeaturesIssue 14: September/October 2015

To read this piece en español, follow this link.

Growing up in western Mexico, Griselda Vargas’ early memories of the Day of the Dead holiday involve a home altar laden with marigolds, candles, a variety of dishes, and a special sweet bread.

The food and fragrant, yellow flowers surrounded photographs of deceased loved ones whose divine return was eagerly awaited during a days-long ritual punctuated by prayers, laughter, and music. Too young to understand the complexities of a centuries-old tradition, Vargas patiently kept her eye on the altar’s rainbow of sugar skulls that made her mouth water in anticipation.

“When you’re a child, you’re just waiting to eat the candy skulls,” she says. Food is central to the Day of the Dead celebration. Mole, pronounced MOH-lay, tamales, rice, posole, sweet pumpkin, and the bread of the dead, pan de muerto, are typical edibles found on altars and dinner tables. Families also personalize the altars to entice the deceased back to earth with dishes and drinks once favored in life.

At El Rio Bakery, Mario Leyva adds a final egg wash on loaves of pan de muerto to give them their characteristic sheen.

At El Rio Bakery, Mario Leyva adds a final egg wash on loaves of pan de muerto to give them their characteristic sheen.

Out of respect for the dead, no one at Vargas’ home would touch the food until after the departed had savored it. Family and neighbors prayed together and placed flowers on graves in the nearby cemetery, certain in their belief that although no longer in physical form, the dead briefly dwelled among the living again. Back at home, everyone shared the meal prepared earlier and remembered the departed with anecdotes. “It was a very festive time,” Vargas recalls.

The native of Jalisco state now lives in Tucson, but her hamlet still observes Dia de los Muertos much as it did in her childhood. Indeed, late October ushers in the annual extravaganza throughout Mexico with the predominant sight of artsy skulls grinning and decorated skeletons, some life-size, mimicking daily life as they eat, cook, work, and play.

The merrymaking associated with the observance can baffle those unfamiliar with a culture whose view of death may seem peculiar. In his book Labyrinth of Solitude, the Mexican Nobel laureate Octavio Paz wrote:

“The Mexican … is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love. True, there is perhaps as much fear in his attitude as in that of others, but at least death is not hidden away: he looks at it face to face, with impatience, disdain or irony.”

The Day of the Dead dates to a 16th century blending of indigenous rituals and European Christian beliefs. Unable to stamp out the local customs, Spanish conquerors who arrived in what is now Mexico shifted them to coincide with the Catholic celebrations of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.

The observance in modern Mexico actually involves more than one day, and mainly revolves around Nov. 1 and 2. The first day honors children and the second, adults. Celebrations vary from state to state and can last longer in rural areas and regions with strong indigenous influence where ancient traditions hold deep cultural meaning. In many places, families spend the night at cemeteries eating traditional foods such as tamales, chiles rellenos, and enchiladas next to the scrubbed-clean graves of relatives. Tequila, hot chocolate, and corn-based atole, are choice drinks.

In the northern region, residents more recently began to mark the holiday in greater, more visible numbers, largely because of migration from southern states and rural areas of the country.

In the border town of Nogales, Sonora, across from Arizona, it wasn’t until about 30 years ago that Luz Amelia Gonzalez’s family-run bakery started baking the bread of the dead, an integral part of altars.

“People who had moved here from the south would come in and ask if we had the bread,” she recalls. “So we looked into how it was made and then we started baking it.”

Juan Pedro López, who bakes a massive amount of the special bread at Gonzalez’s La Espiga de Oro bakery every year, says he remembers only a handful of places in town that offered it before his employer did. The bread, usually round and topped with sugary decorations that represent bones, now abounds in bakeries, grocery stores, and food stands.

Each year, a growing number of schools in Nogales incorporate Day of the Dead altars as an educational tool to teach students about their heritage. It’s partly in growing recognition of the observance and partly to minimize the influence of Halloween just over the border, Gonzalez says.

At El Rio Bakery, Daniel Mendoza shapes dough into human forms that will become part of Day of the Dead celebrations honoring the deceased.

At El Rio Bakery, Daniel Mendoza shapes dough into human forms that will become part of Day of the Dead celebrations honoring the deceased.

“The Day of the Dead is not to scare, or to be sad,” she explains. “On the contrary, it’s a day to celebrate and remember the life of people who have died.”

As October wanes, a convoy of trucks packed with freshly cut marigolds, wreaths, and harvest fruit makes its way to the town’s cemeteries. Parked along the streets leading to the final resting place of many, the trucks join a legion of vendors offering oranges, roasted corn on the cob, sugar cane, carne asada tacos, and numerous other wares to those visiting the graves of loved ones.

The revelry resembles a carnival. Crammed in between tombs, many border families indulge in Sonoran-style red posole and corn tamales. Champurrado, a thick drink made of corn flour and chocolate, often accompanies the bread of the dead, which most eat as dessert.

Families reminisce about the deceased and some sing along with roaming musicians late into the night. Entrepreneurial-minded youths, bucket and broom in hand, make a few pesos cleaning tombs.

“It definitely has grown, as more and more people who believe in the custom have moved to Nogales over the years,” López says of Day of the Dead celebration.

Similarly, the holiday tradition—or parts of it—has spread north across the U.S.-Mexico border.

In Tucson, Vargas keeps alive the observance through her Mexican bakery in Barrio Hollywood. A few days before Dia de los Muertos, customers start arriving at El Rio Bakery at West Speedway and Grande Avenue to pick up the bread of the dead that bakers Daniel Mendoza and Mario Leyva shape into form.

“There’s high demand for it,” she says. “We also deliver to grocery stores, restaurants, and schools.”

And each year, the bakery adds more schools to its list of customers.

Vargas and her husband, Guillermo, bought the bakery a few years ago from Sabino Gomez and his wife, Artemisa, who had established it in 1971. The original owners didn’t start selling the bread of the dead until the mid-1970s, when schools and walk-in customers began asking for it.

“At first we were making small quantities, but by the time we left the bakery, the pan de muerto was very popular,” Gomez recalls.

The number of Mexican bakeries in Tucson has risen since El Rio opened, and most have incorporated the bread of the dead into their array of baked goods. Not all offer Mexico’s ubiquitous sugar skulls that Vargas coveted as a child, but many do.

steven-meckler_death-becomes-us_edible-baja-arizona_05

Co-owner Guillermo Vargas at El Rio Bakery in Barrio Hollywood; the bakery was one of the first in Tucson to offer bread of the dead.

At El Rio, which also offers Jalisco-style food, bakers Mendoza and Leyva are accustomed to making the sweet bread of the dead. Although they don’t reveal all the ingredients, some bakers flavor the treat with anise and orange-blossom water. Other variations use ground cinnamon, sesame seeds, lemon zest, or orange juice.

Year after year, Leyva and Mendoza prepare huge batches of dough in a hot work area. Standing before a large table not far from a big oven, the men mold and punch dough into round loaves and doll-like figures lying flat on their backs. They banter while a radio blares Spanish music in the background. They then place them on baking sheets and load them into a fermentation cabinet. Lastly, they top the bread with dough “bones” and, after baking it, brush a bit of butter on it and roll it in an orange glaze.

The main baker is Mendoza, and Leyva helps out during busy times. Leyva used to bake the Day of the Dead bread at La Espiga de Oro in Nogales, working with Gonzalez’s late father, Manuel González. He remembers marking the observance by taking flowers to the graves of relatives there.

Mendoza grew up in the city of Tapachula, in the southernmost Mexican state of Chiapas. The Day of the Dead back home is considered one of the most important holidays, he says. Cemeteries overflow with flowers, families set up altars in their homes, and singing children in costumes knock on doors asking for pumpkin candy.

Like Leyva, Mendoza also got his start as a baker in Mexico. In Tapachula, he learned to make the bread in the form of round loaves and figures that he calls monitos, which symbolize a deceased person.

“Schools have competitions and the best monito wins,” Mendoza says.

Sugar skulls are a traditional Dia de los Muertos treat.

Sugar skulls are a traditional Dia de los Muertos treat.

For his boss, Guillermo Vargas, preparations for the Day of the Dead in Zapotiltic, the Jalisco town where he was born, began early.

“People go clean the graves about eight days before, and on Nov. 1 and 2 they light votive candles on graves and pray for the deceased,” he says. “The cemeteries are very crowded.”

In Ameca, another Jalisco town where he lived for some years, the custom was to create a communal altar outside a particular home that all residents in the neighborhood could embellish with photos and offerings. He later moved to Guadalajara, Mexico’s second-largest city. There, “many people mostly just take flowers to the cemetery,” he says. “And people always sell bread of the dead at church entrances.”

Griselda Vargas hopes to revive her family tradition of building an altar in Tucson, like the one her family and neighbors used to take turns setting up in their homes to celebrate the holiday together. She wants to put it in the bakery, and an image of her late father, José Villa, to take center stage. The cheese enchiladas and sweet pumpkin he loved will be close. Right next to the requisite bread of the dead.

Lourdes Medrano is a Tucson writer who covers stories on both sides of the Arizona-Mexico border. Follow her on Twitter: @_lourdesmedrano.

steven-meckler_death-becomes-us_edible-baja-arizona_04

Hank Tusinski’s Banda Calada will be available for viewing at the Tucson Museum of Art from September 26, 2015 through January 3, 2016.

~:Banda Calaca:~

Co-owner Guillermo Vargas at El Rio Bakery in Barrio Hollywood; the bakery was one of the first in Tucson to offer bread of the dead.

Co-owner Guillermo Vargas at El Rio Bakery in Barrio Hollywood; the bakery was one of the first in Tucson to offer bread of the dead.

~:Banda Calaca:~ is a community memorial altar rooted in the Mexican Day of the Dead tradition. This installation, created by Tucson artist Hank Tusinski, is a large-scale, 15-piece skeleton band marching atop a platform and beneath a circus tent top. Says Tusinski, who has spent 15 years focusing on the Day of the Dead, “The altar is a place to reflect and connect—with our lives and those who have gone before us, and influenced our own sense of self and place.” Visit the Tucson Museum of Art from Sept. 26 – Jan. 3 to see an exhibition of Tusinski’s work, and learn more on the Tucson Museum of Art’s website.

A <em>Dia de los Muertos</em> altar, complete with candles, photos, and sugar skulls. Each altar is unique, like the lives it honors.

A Dia de los Muertos altar, complete with candles, photos, and sugar skulls. Each altar is unique, like the lives it honors.

The Day of the Dead Altar

Also called an ofrenda, or offering, the altar is built to ease the journey of departed souls back to this world. It can be simple or elaborate, with two tiers or more, and typically includes:

A photo of the deceased.

The bread of the dead, pan de muerto, which is a symbol of those who have died.

Skulls made of sugar or nonedible materials to symbolize death and the afterlife.

Favorite foods of those who have died, including drinks and fruits of the season.

Personal objects that once belonged to loved ones, such as a book.

Candles, marigolds, and copal incense to welcome and guide the temporary return of the departed.

Paper banners, or papel picado, with skeleton and skull cut-outs in yellow and purple colors that signify the union between life and death.

A glass of water to quench the thirst of traveling souls.

Salt, a purifying element.

A cross and other religious figures.

Mole ingredients.

Recipes

Food of the Dead

Making mole and pan de muerto is a complex undertaking. It takes a lot of time and requires many steps. Do not attempt to make these dishes by yourself, in a day. It is meant to be a celebration, shared by family and friends, a time to remember those who are no longer with us. Spend the time together—cooking, laughing, learning, tasting, and sharing stories. Love and remembrance are ingredients that are essential to this wonderful tradition.

steven-meckler_death-becomes-us_edible-baja-arizona_10

Mole poblano con pollo.

Mole Poblano con Pollo
Print Recipe
This hearty recipe can be made both vegetarian and non-vegetarian for a meal everyone can enjoy.
Servings
8 portions
Servings
8 portions
Mole Poblano con Pollo
Print Recipe
This hearty recipe can be made both vegetarian and non-vegetarian for a meal everyone can enjoy.
Servings
8 portions
Servings
8 portions
Ingredients
To Toast
To Grind
To Fry
To Soak
For Chicken
  • 8 pieces Cooked Chicken (cook with 6 cups water, 2 carrots, 1⁄2 onion, 2 garlic cloves, 2 celery stalks, kosher salt to taste. Reserve the broth.)
Servings: portions
Instructions
Toasting:
  1. Remove the stems and seeds from the dry chiles.
  2. Separate 2 tablespoons of the chile seeds.
  3. Toast two sides of the chiles in a skillet (hot, no oil) three at a time, being sure not to burn (5-10 seconds).
  4. Place them in a large mixing bowl and add the hot chicken broth to soften.
  5. Toast the chile seeds; continue with toasting almonds, peanuts, and sesame seeds; place them in the broth.
  6. In the same skillet, one ingredient at a time, toast cumin seeds, anise seeds, all spice, cloves, and peppercorns. Grind all together in a small bowl.
Grinding:
  1. Grind all toasted spices with canela, oregano, thyme, and salt in a molcajete, or a mortar, and mix with the chicken broth.
Frying:
  1. In a large skillet, heat the manteca, or frying oil, until smoking.
  2. Once ready, add plantains and sauté until golden brown; stir a bit and use a slotted spoon to transfer them to the hot broth bowl.
  3. Add onion to the oil and fry until translucent.
  4. Add garlic, tortillas, and bread, one at a time; sauté until tender and mix with the broth.
  5. Add roasted tomatoes (skinned and chopped), raisins, and Mexican chocolate, to the broth (enough to cover all ingredients) and soak for 10 minutes or until the chiles are soft.
Assembling:
  1. Place all soaked ingredients in blender or food processor, and blend until well incorporated and texture is smooth.
  2. Add the blended mole sauce to a large pot, bring to a boil, and reduce heat to a simmer, stirring almost constantly for at least 2 hours, or until the sauce reduces and is darkened and thickened.
  3. If it gets too thick, thin it out a bit with water or stock.
  4. Taste and add salt if needed.
  5. Serve over the warm chicken pieces and garnish with toasted sesame seeds.
  6. Top with 1⁄2 slivered white onion, mixed with the juice of 2 limes, 1 tablespoon white vinegar, a pinch of salt, and 1-2 thinly sliced serrano chiles.
  7. For vegetarians: Use vegetable stock and serve sauce over tortillas for enchiladas, chilaquiles, or with huevos rancheros. You can freeze the sauce for later use. Defrost and then reheat slowly in sauté pan over low heat before using.
Share this Recipe
 
Powered byWP Ultimate Recipe

Mexican Rice
Print Recipe
This rice is a light and fluffy Mexican classic.
Servings
6 servings
Servings
6 servings
Mexican Rice
Print Recipe
This rice is a light and fluffy Mexican classic.
Servings
6 servings
Servings
6 servings
Ingredients
Servings: servings
Instructions
  1. Rinse rice under cold water, drain excess water, and set aside to dry slightly.
  2. Heat the oil in a large, heavy pan, and add the rice.
  3. Cook over medium heat until it starts to become a delicate golden brown. Stir frequently for about 10 minutes. Remove the excess oil with a spoon if needed.
  4. Meanwhile, pour the tomatoes, garlic, and onion into a food processor or blender with 1⁄2 cup of the broth.
  5. Add the tomato mixture into the rice and stir over medium high heat.
  6. Bring to a boil and add salt to taste. Stir in the broth and vegetables and mix once.
  7. Cover the pan and reduce heat to simmer, cook until all the liquid has been absorbed.
  8. Remove pan from heat, without uncovering it, and let it stand for 10 minutes. Using a fork, lightly fluff up the rice and serve.
Share this Recipe
 
Powered byWP Ultimate Recipe
Pan de Muerto

Pan de muerto.

Pan de Muerto
Print Recipe
This fun-shaped bread is a homemade treat that the whole family can enjoy.
Servings
2 loaves
Servings
2 loaves
Pan de Muerto
Print Recipe
This fun-shaped bread is a homemade treat that the whole family can enjoy.
Servings
2 loaves
Servings
2 loaves
Ingredients
Starter:
For Eggwash:
Dough:
Servings: loaves
Instructions
Starter Culture:
  1. Mix the flour, salt, sugar, and yeast together in a mixer or beat by hand.
  2. Add water and eggs. Knead about 3 minutes until dough is elastic and shiny.
  3. On a floured table, shape into a ball and place in a greased container.
  4. Cover and let rise approximately 2 hours (the ideal temperature is 77°).
Bread:
  1. Mix starter with remaining bread ingredients.
  2. On a floured table, divide the dough into two equal portions (for two loaves.)
  3. Work one half of the dough at a time. Separate each half into three sections. Use one third to make four smaller pieces of equal size for the decorations.
  4. Form one of the pieces into a small ball for the center, and the others into strips to make the “bones.”
  5. Form the larger portion into a ball, as round as possible.
  6. Place all pieces on a baking sheet and let rest until double in size, approximately 1 hour.
  7. Brush large ball with eggwash and place small ball in the center and the strips vertically around the loaf. Firm up with both hands.
  8. Brush the bread again with eggwash.
  9. Bake at 375° for five minutes, then lower the temperature to 355°. (If the dough browns very fast, place a sheet of aluminum foil over the bread.)
  10. Turn off the oven and leave the bread inside for 2 minutes.
  11. Remove from oven and let cool on a rack.
Decoration:
  1. Use a pastry brush to paint the loaf with softened or melted butter and sprinkle with white sugar.
Share this Recipe
 
Powered byWP Ultimate Recipe







Previous Post

Photo Essay: Sonoran Desert Musings

Next Post

La Muerte Nos Sienta Bien