Don’t be alarmed if on Nov. 1 and 2 someone wishes you “Feliz Día de los Muertos,” or Happy Day of the Dead. The Mexican holiday of Día de los Muertos is a sacred time celebrated for millennia (In the modern era, the Day of the Dead corresponds with the All Souls Day and All Saints Day). But it’s by no means macabre. Día de los Muertos, with its roots in Aztec tradition, is a joyful time. Beloved ancestors return to the realm of the living to mingle with loved ones—and eat. The journey from the afterlife works up an appetite.
Like any holiday worth its salt, Día de los Muertos is heavy on the feasting. And, like the energy spent during the trek from the hereafter, the ritual preparation of the food associated with the holiday is labor intensive and best undertaken with family.
Tamales, an Aztec staple, are perhaps the most significant of the Día de los Muertos comestibles. Its elements (filling, masa, and cornhusk or banana leaf wrapper) correspond to the innards and skin of the individual and his/her petate, a straw bed-mat. In pre-Hispanic times the petate represented a death shroud. Simply put: Death nourishes. I say, find said nourishment at tamale factories across Dallas-Fort Worth.
The tamale’s piping hot deliciousness is matched by a big pot of mole, the most common of which, at least stateside, is the dark mole poblano, a complex sauce of chilies, nuts, spices and chocolate of legendary origin. It can take up to a day and whatever number of ingredients you care to use to make a mole, and they can be green, red, yellow, black, or any color of the earth to which we will all return.
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To remind us of the joy of life and death is pan de muerto, a sweet bread available at many local Mexican bakeries. For a bit of holiday color, I recommend ordering the pan from Maroches in Oak Cliff. The pasteleria, across the street from the Kessler Theater, also has fine carne asada tacos and trampoline-soft conchas. Look for the Mexican Elvis skeleton.
Each of the aforementioned treats is placed on a family altar alongside mementos of those relatives who have passed. Also on the altars are toiletries and water. Brilliant sugar skulls (Calaveras de azúcar) serving as candy for children can also adorn the sacred space.
These elaborate displays will be found at area restaurants, including Mesa, which already serves an exquisite mole made twice weekly from more than 20 ingredients. Co-owner and chef Raul Reyes told me last night at a media dinner that plans are still being cemented but diners can expect “Tamales of chicken and pork wrapped in cornhusks and banana leaves, an altar and sugar skulls.” Details should be available soon.
Regino Rojas of contemporary Mexican restaurant Revolver Taco Lounge in Fort Worth is also planning a celebration. On Nov. 2 and 3, costumers will be treated to gratis antojitos (snacks) and the chefs will be roasting pastor on the eatery’s sidewalk.
Prep your home altars and get hungry. In the meantime, let me be the first to wish you a “Feliz Dia de los Muertos.”
And restaurants or bakeries, please feel free to list your plans below!