The foods of Day of the Dead

Happening each year on the first and second of November, Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a beautiful celebration of life and death. While the first of the month is dedicated to remembering and celebrating adult loved ones who have been lost, the second of November serves as a time to remember and celebrate kids who have tragically died too soon. The Mexican holiday is a wonderful way of commemorating loved ones, putting a focus on celebrating their life rather than fixating on their death. While the holiday has many unique aspects to it, the one I will focus on today is the food. Food is a very important aspect to this holiday, not only are there traditional dishes and drinks made specifically for those remembering lost loved ones, there is also many foods that are made and left out for the dead so that they may rest in comfort and happiness.

A staple food at any Day of the Dead celebration across Mexico is ‘pan de muerto’ or Day of the Dead Bread. Pan de Muerto is a sweet and delicious bread that is usually in a rounded shape and decorated to have what looks like skulls and bones on them. Often families will have both bread that they eat and some that is left on the altar for the departed. Pan de Muerto has a very rich history that dates back to the time of the Aztecs, but the Pan de Muerto that is eaten today is a mixture of Indigenous and colonial Spanish cultures. As it is mostly known today, the bread is round to represent the circle of life, with the bones symbolizing the departed loved one, and it usually has the scent of orange blossom that symbolizes the everlasting presence of the deceased and their continued connection to this life.

One of the more famous confectionaries that is eaten during the celebration are sugar skulls, or ‘calaveras de azúcar.’ Many people will recognize these, as the colourfully decorated skulls have become synonymous with Día de los Muertos worldwide. While they are entirely made of sugar and icing and can be eaten, they are more often simply placed on the altar dedicated to the deceased loved one who has passed. These colourful skulls represent the soul of the departed person whom the altar is dedicated to.

Mole Negro is another food traditionally associated with Day of the Dead and will be found across Mexico during the few days of the celebration. Mole Negro is a very rich sauce that is quite complicated and time-consuming to make. Not only does it require a long list of ingredients and several days to cook, the fumes that arise from burning the chilies releases fumes that causes coughing and one’s eyes to tear up. Because this sauce requires such labour, it is reserved for special occasions, such as Day of the Dead, to make. The sauce is enjoyed by both the living and the dead alike during the celebration. 

You will also find several traditional Mexican drinks at a celebration for Day of the Dead. One of the most prevalent drinks is Horchata. Made mainly from rice, milk and cinnamon, this delicious drink is served cold and is a popular treat both during celebrations of Día de los Muertos and year-round.

Another drink you will often find at these celebrations in Mexico is Champurrado. Champurrado is a warm chocolate-flavoured drink made mainly from masa (a corn-based dough), chocolate, and cinnamon. This beverage dates back to the indigenous civilizations of Mexico, the Aztecs and the Mayas, who used corn-based ingredients to make foods because it was what grew naturally on their land. Champurrado is another delicious drink that is enjoyed both during Día de los Muertos and throughout the rest of the year as well.

While there are certainly lots of traditional Mexican foods that will be found at a celebration for Day of the Dead, the truth is that you can find almost any kind of food there, since not all of the food is meant to be eaten by those who are physically present. As is the tradition of Day of the Dead, people make altars for their deceased loved ones; these altars, among many other things, include photos of the deceased, candles, Cempasuchil flowers (Mexican marigolds), containers or bowls of water, and the foods and drinks that the deceased enjoyed the most during their time on earth. These foods are left out so that the deceased person’s spirit may enjoy them as they make their way back to visit their family during the celebration, and to make them feel more comfortable and loved. Not only is this a testament to the uniting comfort of food, but it is also a beautiful way to celebrate loved ones who have died.

Day of the Dead is a beautiful holiday that chooses to celebrate deceased loved ones and offer them comfort and affection while they are in the next life. Food plays a special and important role in this celebration, both for those remembering lost loved ones and those who have died and live on in the afterlife. This celebration proves that food can be a wonderful unifier even between the living and the dead.

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