Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Day of the Dead Celebrations Unite Food and Memory

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This is one dinner party where the guests of honor are only there in spirit. But what a feast it is! On Day of the Dead, the holiday that starts at midnight on the day following Halloween, the souls of lost relatives are reunited with the living. And like so many other traditions, food is central to consummating this union. Not only are feasts prepared that include special offerings and dishes that were favorites of the deceased, but specific breads (pan de muertos), candies, and other sweets such as skulls made of crystallized sugar are used to appease the souls and the stomachs of celebrants.

Día de los Muertos in Mexico has become one of the most famous of celebrations because of the elaborate food preparations and decorative offerings at the altars constructed for this holiday. Technically, the holiday begins on October 31st, Halloween, with festivities continuing on November 1st, All Saints Day, and November 2nd, All Soul’s Day.

In Mexico families often gather at the tombs of those who have passed, but in the United States, Mexican restaurants have picked up on the holiday to offer exotic dishes, bringing customers to the table with some of the best and most typical of dishes.In Washington, D.C., the food tradition for Día de los Muertos is now a well-established ritual, with many local and national chain Mexican restaurants providing the city’s foodies with an array of exotic appetizers and entrees. Recently, Oyamel, the Mexican establishment owned by celebrity chef, José Andrés, hosted a Día de los Muertos preview with a menu that featured such dishes as frog’s legs in mole verde, braised ox tail in vegetable stew, hangar steak with nopalitos, baby roasted pig in chile morita, and locally foraged mushrooms in a sauce of epazote, sorrel, and jalapeño.

To wash it all down cocktails made of a new organic tequila, El Luchador, were transformed into drinks with names like Zombies and the Witch’s Attack to honor the famous folk-hero, El Santo.

The word Oyamel, which means butterfly in the ancient Nahuatl language, is especially significant in the history of the Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico.  It is not a coincidence that this very Catholic celebration had deep roots in a month-long Aztec festival held at the end of the summer to commemorate the migration of the Monarch butterflies from the Central Valley and to honor the goddess Mictecacihautl, the Lady of the Dead.

After the Spanish conquest the Catholic priests conveniently used this celebration, which coincided with the Catholic calendar’s All Saints Day, to bring new converts into the faith. The convenience of using this pre-Hispanic event to get recent converts to conform to Catholic holidays is ever-present in the religious syncretism that abounds in indigenous regions of Meso-America.

Not to be outdone, Rosa Mexicano, another restaurant with branches in other cities, is also offering a special Day of the Dead dinner. Its menu and altar honor its founder, Chef Josefina Howard, and features two of her favorite dishes, a guacamole de otoño, which features pomegranate and pumpkin seeds, and a chicken enchilada with mole sauce.

There are also exotic cocktails that feature mezcal, a liquor made from the Maguey plant, laced with agave, orange, lime, and very fiery chile de árbol. For a sweet dessert they offer a traditional buuelos, a fried donut pastry that is filled with ice cream.

Altars with food offerings are also important for families celebrating this holiday. Washington has one of the most wonderful examples of such an altar at the Mexican Cultural Institute. This year the Institute decided to dedicate it to Colombian author, Gabriel García Márquez, who passed away in Mexico on April 17th. This spectacular piece of art with color tissue and other bright adornments includes the offerings of sweets that are characteristic of the celebration. You can view the altar on Saturday November 1st starting at noon and remain open until November 7th.

At Oyamel the altar honors Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta, widely known as El Santo, Mexico’s legendary luchador wrestler, folk icon and actor.  He is credited with having popularized luchador wrestling, but was also a symbol of justice that pervaded the themes in his films and comic books.

Although he died thirty years ago in 1984, his funeral was one of the largest and grandest in recent history. Given the challenge of ongoing violence in Mexico today it is not surprising that El Santo is being revived as a cult figure who symbolizes a much more peaceful time in that country’s history.

Mexico has taken the celebration of Día de los Muertos to a new level.  The focus on the decorative aspects of the festivities—the use of skeletons and skulls—and the famous sweets and food offerings that accompany the rituals at family offerings or outings to the graveyard play an important role in connecting past and present, living and dead. Celebrations are not ones of sadness, but of remembrance.

Like the use of favorite foods prepared for those who are no longer living with us, it only reinforces the power of food as memory.  And on the Día de los Muertos we are all transformed into Mexicans when we recreate such fiestas as a way to link us with our shared heritage.

So go out for a zombie cocktail, and even if your community does not have a special meal at a local Mexican restaurant, recreate the spirit of the holiday at home. And don’t forget that these days of Halloween and All Saints Day carry with them ancient roots of the seasons changing, of lives ended and sprits renewed.

This holiday offers more than the candy filled trophies that are too often the only memory that kids will have from the act of trick-or-treating which is really only one night of a longer, and more meaningful holiday.

This article first appeared in VOXXI.


Johanna Mendelson Forman is a Scholar-in-Residence at American University and teaches Conflict Cuisine at the School of International Service in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter at @JohannaWonk

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