My family visits my grandmother Julia’s home every year in a small village outside of Puebla, a few hours from Mexico City. For days we dedicate ourselves to preparing her favorite dishes and hosting several relatives, friends, and neighbors.
We delight in sharing stories about my grandma’s mole and tamales. As one of her town’s most celebrated cooks, we make sure the food we serve is up to her standards. Like many Mexican parties, this goes well into the night. But, unlike most others, its observance is simultaneously private and collective; it bridges spirit and body; it happens in this life and in the next one, as my grandma and many other guests at this party are no longer with us.
My family’s party is merely a snapshot of Día de Muertos, an elaborate and mystical celebration shared with the souls of our departed share and those still alive. Ofrendas, or offerings, are carefully and lovingly curated with food, drink, and other symbols believed to guide, welcome, and feed the souls of those who have crossed over.
An essential ofrenda, one that’s usually easy to spot well ahead of time, is pan de muerto, or “bread made from dead.” This ceremonial item is a result of the convergence of peoples, cosmogonies, and ingredients from five centuries ago in pre-Hispanic Mexico.
The recipe for pan de muerto generally calls for flour, salt, sugar, water, butter, eggs, and yeast, though the final product varies from state to state — and even from community to community. Variations include lard, pulque, milk, anise seeds, cinnamon, orange peel, or orange blossom essence, which give the bread different textures and flavors.
The most well-known presentation is a round bread decorated with a skull, tears, or bones and pointing to the four cardinal directions. Other variations include animals, ribbons, hearts, flowers, or human figures.
Pan de muerto comes in different shapes, decorations, and sizes. For example, the shape of the pan de muerto alludes to the funeral mound created during burial, and some speak about its circular shape as a nod to life’s cycle. Different shades of red are often seen on it, as the color is associated with the ceremonial dust used to distinguish important figures in pre-Hispanic funerals.
And while the round or slightly oval shapes with either sugar or sesame seeds are the most commonly found in the city, we also spotted quite a few places that carry it in the form of human figures.
In Chicago, home to the second largest Mexican-born immigrant community in the U.S., including a robust representation from standout bread-focused states like Guanajuato and Michoacán, there is no shortage of traditional-style Mexican bakeries. The increasing demand for pan de muerto has made the bread so easily accessible that some establishments sell it all year.
Here is a list of some of the bakeries where you can find it. Note that most businesses will carry pan de muerto through Wednesday, November 2 — Dia de Los Muertos.Read More