The end of October means a time of changing leaves, warm soups, and Halloween. To many, Halloween means dressing up, ghosts, and ghouls, but to many others, the days around Halloween are a time to extravagantly honor the dead. In Mexico — or other places with significant Mexican populations — that means El Día de los Muertos.
Like many traditions, El Día de los Muertos differs depending on where it's celebrated and what the family's specific traditions are. However, there are a number of elements that are present across the board. Many families build altars for the dead and adorn them with ofrendas: sugar skills, Pan de Muerto — a sweet bun-like bread —marigolds, and the favorite foods and beverages of the departed. Families also visit the grave sites to pray and leave items for the dead. Some communities also host large, vibrant parades. Favorite foods of the dead are made, and a large feast is enjoyed by the family.
I set out wanting to learn more about food traditions that were specific to Día de los Muertos. Maybe a special preparation or sauce to go along with the great feast to honor the dead. But, after talking to a few chefs at popular New York City Mexican restaurants, I learned that there's really nothing specific at all. Sure, Pan de Muerto shows up in almost all celebrations, but really, the celebration is all about sharing favorite family foods. That is, favorites of the living and the dead.
Mexico is a huge country with a vast and widely varied culinary tradition. There's no way — no time — to know it all. I grew up in Southern California and Arizona, two US states that border two Mexican states with very different culinary traditions. Tacos look different in every state. Beef is king in some, while fish reigns supreme in others. The cuisine is influence by the ingredients and techniques of the indigenous populations, as well as the Spanish. This should come as a surprise to no one, but Mexico cuisine is a lot more than tacos.
I spoke with chefs at Gran Eléctrica, Fonda, and Chavelas — all three are helmed by chefs that grew up in different regions in Mexico, so they have a unique take on how the holiday is celebrated. All have distinct memories of celebrating with family, as well as the different recipes that were served.
On a crisp fall night I spoke with Chef Paolo Peralta at Gran Eléctrica, a small, semi-upscale Mexican restaurant in DUMBO. Paolo is from Cuernavaca, the largest city of the state of Morelos, and started working at Gran Eléctrica as soon as he "saw the lady pressing tortillas in the kitchen." In spite of his position, Paolo ironically grew up in a family that didn't cook a lot. His dad was a professional footballer, so the rules in his house were "play soccer and stay out of trouble." Despite a childhood filled with football, Paolo still remembers eating the foods that his grandmother and aunts made, and uses those memories to build his menus at Gran Eléctrica. "I try really hard to make everything traditional."
Paolo's menu at Gran Eléctrica is driven by seasonal and local ingredients, but he takes pride in sourcing traditional Mexican ingredients. "Mexican ingredients are cheap, but you can elevate them." Like the other chefs I spoke with, he remembers his family preparing large meals to be shared together on El Día de los Muertos. "We'd make the dead's favorite meal and eat it as a family." They'd also leave water on the altars to purify the soul, and candles so the dead can see their way home. For Día de los Muertos each year, he designs a special menu, highlighting his favorite dishes — dishes that remind him of home.
When I talked to Chef Roberto Santibanez at Fonda — a small chain of Mexican restaurants in NYC — he had more specific memories. His favorite part of the celebration was actually the poetry that was read aloud. "We'd write poems about the dead, and they were often very funny." As head chef of Fonda, he takes the regional approach to showcasing Mexico's vast cuisine, each year, he chooses a different state and this year, he's focusing on Tlaxcala, a state he calls "one of the historic food meccas of Mexico." Mole — a sauce typically containing a fruit, chili pepper, and nut — is an important part of this state's cuisine. He will feature Mole Verde on this year's menu, but Roberto was quick to point out that in Mexico what you serve is "dependent on where you're from. It's dependent on your region, your community, and your family."
Just like the vastness of Mexican cuisine, there's a great variation in childhood memories among the chefs I spoke with. Chef Sam Molina of Chavelas in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, grew up in northern Mexico close to the United States, so he spent his youth celebrating Halloween. When he finally learned of Día de los Muertos, he was mesmerized with the colors, food, and general joyfulness of the holiday. In his memories, dishes were often served with cempasúchil (marigold) in soups or quesadillas, as well as Pan de Muerto and sugar skulls for dessert. Other chefs at Chavelas said the holiday focuses less on specific dishes, and more on what's available in season. "November in Mexico is a wonderful time; not too cold and finally the heat of summer is gone ... we take advantage of seasonal ingredients that match with what's typically available in Mexico." Where you'd find squash or chayote in a dish in Mexico, you might find winter squash at Chavelas.
I've considered myself an expert in Mexican food only because it's my favorite cuisine to make and eat, but really, I know so little. After spending time with each of these chefs and learning about their memories and traditions — through the lens of one of Mexico's greatest holidays no less — I realize there is so much more to know. Mexican food is complex and sophisticated, simple and comforting. El Día de los Muertos is one of Mexico's biggest holidays, a chance to cook for your loved ones their most favorite of dishes. Attending a celebration means experiencing a family's history, eating their most cherished of foods.
As the non-expert that I am, I can only hope to be invited to a few.
Brianna is the Founder & Editor-in-Chief at Hook & Blade Mag. She is based out of New York City where she enjoys exploring the city, trying new foods, and people watching. She works as an Email Marketing Manager at General Assembly, and tries to travel as much as she can.