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Food Fit For the Dead—And the Living

Today is Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday that seeks to honor—or even communicate with—the spirits of the deceased. I've seen posters for Day of the Dead festivals in previous years and felt unsettled by the images of grinning or dancing skeletons. Why celebrate death so br...

Today is Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday that seeks to honor—or even communicate with—the spirits of the deceased. I've seen posters for Day of the Dead festivals in previous years and felt unsettled by the images of grinning or dancing skeletons. Why celebrate death so brazenly, I wondered? Wasn't Halloween spooky enough?



But now that I've read a bit more, I'm beginning to understand that it's about life as much as death. According to the Smithsonian Latino Center:
Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a day of celebration for the people of Latin America, particularly in Mexico and Central America, and more recently for Mexican Americans. Rather than grieve over the loss of a beloved family or friend, they choose to commemorate the lives of the dearly departed and welcome the return of their spirits.
Another site explains that "indigenous people believed that souls did not die, that they continued living in Mictlan, a special place to rest. In this place, the spirits rest until the day they could return to their homes to visit their relatives." The Food Timeline offers more details on Aztec conceptions of the afterlife and how these ideas blended with the Catholic tradition of All Souls' Day.

As with many holidays, food is a big part of things. The living construct altars to specific individuals or groups of people, decorating them with marigolds, candles, incense, photographs and the favorite foods and drinks of the deceased—especially aromatic treats like atole, mole and spicy tamales, so the spirits can "eat" the smell if not the substance.



Here in D.C., the Mexican Cultural Institute has an altar dedicated to Mexican revolutionaries on display through November 30th. In Los Angeles, one cemetery even features a Dia de los Muertos altar-making contest (though it notes that traditional candles must give way to battery-operated lights, to keep the fire department happy). Come to think of it, I've seen plenty of non-Mexican gravestones similarly strewn with flowers, stuffed animals, photos, candy and other personal memorabilia. It seems to be a basic human impulse to leave offerings to our dead.

For the living, the day is a chance to savor certain edible pleasures, pan de muerto, or "bread of the dead," is a sweet, yeasty dough flavored with anise and shaped to look like bones or something creepier. Chocolate takes the form of skeletons and coffins. Children enjoy calaveras de azucar, or "sugar skulls"—often emblazoned with the name of a particular dead friend or relative—and candied pumpkin, or calabaza en tacha. Adults drink tequila or other types of mezcal distilled from the agave plant. Specific traditions vary from place to place, but there seems to always be food and partying involved!

Have you ever celebrated Dia de los Muertos? What foods or drinks were part of it?
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About Amanda Bensen

Amanda Bensen is a former assistant editor at Smithsonian and is now a senior editor at the Nature Conservancy.

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