By Lucinda Hutson
Photography by Lucinda Hutson
It can strike in the dead of night—the gnawing obsession for something profoundly desired or missed. It’s an almost desperate craving for a certain food, something usually unattainable at that very moment. Perhaps you’re dying for a beefy burger smothered in blue cheese, bacon and grilled onions, or an extravagant indulgence of crisp-seared foie gras with white nectarines. Often, though, the yearning is simply a hunger for comfort—for food that conjures sentimental memories or a sense of place.
For me it would be our childhood housekeeper Hermila Contreras’s cheese enchiladas doused in a fiery, brick-red New Mexico chile sauce and topped with a fried egg. Or a plate of sizzling camarones al mojo de ajo (grilled shrimp bathed in fresh garlic butter), a big bowl of frijoles charros speckled with bacon and hot peppers and that inimitable trilogy of silver tequila, fresh lime juice and a splash of Cointreau. Heaven.
Families celebrating the Day of the Dead in Mexico seem to have an inherent understanding of this longing for soul nurturance. They know what their dearly departed loved and must long for in the afterlife, and they honor them by lovingly preparing those favorite dishes, catering to every whim. On November 1, they welcome the dead back home to partake in earthly pleasures, to enjoy culinary love and to mingle with the living for just one night.
To celebrate, ofrendas (altars) are constructed and laden with photos, sugar skulls, precious remembrances and food. Perhaps a bottle of mezcal for Tío, a bowl of pozole for Abuelito and some cajeta (goat's milk caramel candy) studded with pecans for Mamá. Bouquets of colorful cempazuchitl (marigolds), intense clouds of copal incense and a multitude of glowing candles scent and illuminate the path back home.
In the kitchen, seductive scents rise and drift through the house, then waft outside to lure the dead—pungent chiles, sesame seeds, nuts and spices toast on a hot comal, soon to be ground into dark, mysterious mole; tamales steam and hot chocolate simmers with cinnamon and spices while chunks of calabaza (pumpkin) caramelize in a fragrant syrup of anise and piloncillo (Mexican brown sugar). Familiar sounds provide a comforting background hum—the rhythmic beat of many manos patting out freshly ground masa for tortillas, and the whirling of hand-carved molinillos (whisks) rolled between the palms to produce a delicate froth for each cup of chocolate.
Hints of sweet, yeasty Pan de Muertos (Day of the Dead bread) escape from panaderia ovens and float into the streets. Soon, whimsical sugar skulls and trays full of sugar-sprinkled bread shaped like skulls, corpses and crossbones fill the bakery windows.
In graveyard vigils throughout the night, women stir enormous cauldrons of champurrado (Mexican hot chocolate) over open fires. The enticing aroma of dark chocolate, cinnamon and spice mingles with the smoke from the bonfires and the scent of melting beeswax candles. The porridge, thickened with corn masa and spiked with chilies, vanilla and anise, is poured into glazed ceramic mugs to await dunks from spongy pieces of Pan de Muertos.
And at the ofrendas, the spirits feast on the essence of the food, but nothing goes to waste. After midnight, families eat what remains while sharing precious stories, jokes and memories.
What flavors would entice you back from the dead? Create a tradition this Day of the Dead by making a home altar, preparing a passed loved one’s favorite foods and joining them with a toast of remembrance.