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Dead Bread

I for one am thrilled that Dia de Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, festivities are becoming more and more a part of Americana, more and more a part of our still largely Anglo-centric observance of Halloween. The beauty of the celebration—and it is a celebration—the vibrancy and color, the pathos and poetry, adds a new level to our yearly autumnal commemorations. And just as the jack-o-lantern is the one symbol always brought to mind when one thinks of Halloween, its defining emblem, its mascot, what image could be more endemic of Dia de los Muertos, more instantly associated with it, than the ubiquitous sugar skull? But did you know that when rendered as those tasty, decorative little cookies, the skulls are made from a special concoction known as pan de muerto, literally the “bread of the dead”? (I doubt the ones I bought at Walmart this year were made from it, but we’re talking about the authentic stuff, here.)

What makes pan de muerto, baked in the panaderías (bakeries) all throughout Mexico in the days leading up to the holiday, different from regular bread? From the linked article: “Traditionally, the dough is made with eggs, butter, and sugar—no milk or water—and it’s infused with fresh orange blossom or orange blossom water.” Sounds yummy. The bread has a long tradition, too. “After the Spanish arrived, they incorporated Aztec traditions into their culture. One way this was done was by incorporating a bread into their diet made of wheat, decorated with sugar, and painted red or pink, symbolizing ancient, sacrificial rituals. They served this bread on the Christian holiday of All Saint’s…” Red food coloring, then, is meant to represent blood.

A portion of Day of the Dead treats are left out as offerings, or ofrendas, for the souls of dead relatives, who are believed to come for a visit over the holiday. Treats left over the next day, after the spirits of the departed have “fed” on them in a spiritual sense, are said to have a different taste.

TheCheezman • November 12, 2018

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