“Mom, are you going to make pan de muerto (bread of the dead)?” Wyatt asked me on the phone from his dorm room three hours away. Life has been a swirl of blessed busyness in the past weeks with my focus on that day and that place. I realized that Day of the Dead, Día de los Muertos, was here.
This call came on the heels of Wyatt coming home from college briefly a few weeks ago and telling me, “Mom, do you know what I really miss? Home cooked snacks and food.” This inspired a 12-hour flurry of baking and cooking, as I prepared a big box of food to send back to Colorado with him.
I wrote this piece about Dia de los Muertos last year. These recipes and rhythms will fill our day today, as we create the altar, take our the sugar skulls, and Yes, Wyatt, make pan de muerto. A box will be on its way to you on Monday.
If you make pan de muerto or celebrate Dia de los Muertos today, I’d love to hear from you and share these traditions together. Dawn
November 1 approaches, ushering in one of the most sacred rhythms of the year for our family – the Mexican tradition of Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos). Known in English as All Soul’s Day, this tradition honors loved ones who have passed. While I wasn’t raised with this tradition, it speaks deeply to me and is an integral thread in the fabric of our family.
Every year, we create the altar of loved ones, make the traditional foods, scatter the marigold flowers, and light the candles. There is something deeply soothing about these rhythms, this honoring, the sense of connection between past and present, and the familiar scents and sounds. As I place each photo of the altar, I feel a tug on the other end of the thread between myself and the loved one.
As I sit two days before Day of the Dead, I find myself late with everything this year. While The Blizzard that Never Was, known to the world as Storm Atlas, took place 1,500 miles from away, the events there rocked my world off its axis and scattered the rhythms of life that make the ground firm under our feet. People ask how my parents are doing on the ranch.
Again and again, I quote my dad, “This is a tough ol’ deal.”
As I write by the light of my oil lantern in the pre-dawn dark, I think of the preparations happening right now, all over Mexico and the Southwest. People have been preparing for the past month and on the evening of November 1, families and friends fill cemeteries, cleaning the graves of their loved ones, bringing food, candles, and song.
Candles flicker softly on altars (ofrendas) composed of photos, favorites foods and drink of loved ones in homes. Markets fill with overflowing baskets of marigolds, whose petals are sprinkled on altars, as they are known to lead the spirits home. Kitchens fill with the warmth and fragrances of the traditional foods of tamales, mole (chocolate and chile sauce over chicken), and the sweet, earthy scents of pan de muerto (bread of the dead). The scraping sounds of spoons mixing sugar in bowls to form the traditional decorated sugar skulls join the fragrances. Colorful papel picado (squares of tissue paper cut into designs and strung together) hang inside homes and flutter in the breezes outside.
Pan de muerto and decorating sugar skulls are two of the traditions our children most look forward to every year. Essential in understand these traditions is to know that in the Mexican culture skulls represent life. The tradition of skulls as poison and danger is foreign in the Mexican tradition. Pan de muerto is traditionally shaped into the forms of skulls and bones to represent life. “Mom, when are we going to make the pan de muerto?” Wynn asked me yesterday.
We use Frida Kahlo‘s recipe and the kids wait all year to eat the small, sweet bread, decorated with brightly colored sugar, that they’ve shaped and decorated right out of the oven.
Her words poked a hole through the curtain that I’ve felt around me ever since the blizzard and in came a shaft of light, reminding me that is the traditions and rhythms of life that help to create a sense of our Place in the world. I’ve learned that it is when we least feel like putting energy into these rhythms, is when we need them the most.
Tomorrow, we’ll bring out the box, packed away through the year, filled with calaveras (skeletons), papel picado, books about Day of the Dead, and collected treasures for our altar. I’ll lift the photos of Noé’s parents and my grandparents and great grandparents from the wall, dust them, and place them on the altar. I know of two more spirits who will be honored this year, a beloved mother of one friend and brother of another. I will include candles for both on our altar.
The new addition to our altar this year will be the small figure of a cow and all it represents. And perhaps in doing so, create a bit of firm ground within our new landscape.
Frida Kahlo’s Pan de Muerto
This recipe makes 30 small breads. The hard part is making them look like she did: shaped like skulls and dancing whirligig bones. Just making it tasty is not complicated, but you do have to start the dough the evening before you’re going to eat, then bake them just beforehand.
7 ½ cups white flour
2 cups sugar
1 ¼ cup butter
2 pkgs active dry yeast, dissolved in 5 tbsp warm milk
2 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp vanilla
Put flour into a large bowl, cut in the butter, make a well in the center and pour in the yeast and milk, eggs, cinnamon and vanilla. Work it with a spoon, then your hands, until it pulls away from the sides of the bowl. If dough is too soft, knead in more flour. Shape into a ball, grease and flour it lightly, and let stand in a warm place for 2 ½ hours, until doubled. Refrigerate overnight.
Shape chilled dough into balls the size of a peach. Then shape or decorate them in any way that makes you think of your deceased ancestors. Place on greased baking sheets and let rise until doubled, about 1 ½ hours. Dust with sugar and cinnamon, bake at 350 for 30 minutes, until the bottoms sound hollow when tapped.
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