David Roque Reyes Martínez has made pan de muerto (Day of the Dead bread) every year in his home in Oaxaca, Mexico, since he was 12 years old. Now 53, this tradition has marked his life each year in late October as Day of the Dead approaches.
“It wouldn’t be Day of the Dead if there wasn’t bread,” Reyes said with a hearty laugh, followed by a more earnest expression as the idea settled in his mind.
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Day of the Dead festivities begin on 31 October when families prepare for the return of spirits of deceased children on 1 November, known as Día de los Angelitos (Day of the Little Angels). The following day, 2 November is Día de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, when all other souls return. The nights of 31 October and 1 November, people visit cemeteries to decorate the graves of loved ones in preparation for the arrival of their spirits.
Every year, beginning a few days before the celebrations, the Reyes household fills with the smell of cinnamon and anise, the aroma of the wood-burning oven, and, eventually, of freshly baked rolls, which he sells to neighbours who eagerly await it each year.
It wouldn’t be Day of the Dead if there wasn’t bread
Reyes likes to make the sweet bread at night. He enjoys the quiet time as he weighs the ingredients on his 50-year-old scales that were once used by his father, a panadero (baker) from whom Reyes first learnt to make bread.
He thinks about his father as he bakes, he said, who died when Reyes was just 11 years old. The memories take not only the form of a painting of his father that will sit above an altar prepared in the last week of October, but also the form of the dough held in Reyes’ hands, which he kneads as his father taught him.
Working through the night is not without incidents, however, especially around this time of year, when it is believed by many that the dead travel back to the human world.
“Do you remember the time when the bread suddenly fell off the edge here?” Reyes’ wife, María Antonia, asked her husband as she passed by the table where Reyes was preparing his ingredients, a table that was also used by his father. Reyes nodded and recounted that they were sure that it was his late father who pushed the bread onto the floor. “We said ‘stop that, old man’,” María Antonia told me with a laugh.
This kind of casual conversation about death and spirits is not unusual in Mexico; and in my experience in Oaxaca, traditions around these topics are particularly strong. Every year, many families will build an altar in their home, topped with flowers, candles, water, bread and photos of their deceased loved ones. Each item has significance for guiding the dead back home: the flowers’ aroma leads spirits to the land of the living while the candles light the way. When they arrive, the bread eases their hunger and the water quenches their thirst. The favourite food and tipples of the deceased are also placed on the altar for them to enjoy upon their return.
The bread is also meant to be eaten by the living. Some families will eat the foodstuffs placed among the offerings after their ancestors have left the human world late on 2 November, but many, like Reyes, believe that the bread loses its flavour after the dead have enjoyed it.
“It no longer tastes the same,” he said. “That’s where the mystical comes in. The essence [of the food] is taken away by the deceased.”
Day of the Dead bread in its modern-day form cannot have been part of the pre-Hispanic traditions of honouring the dead, since many of the ingredients, most notably the wheat flour, were not found in Mexico until the arrival of the Spanish. In their book, Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes, Andrea Lawson Gray and Adriana Almazan Lahl say that when the Spanish arrived on Mexican shores, the devout Catholics were horrified to find the practice of human sacrifice taking place.
According to the book, one custom particularly disgusted the Spanish: a heart of a virgin was placed into a clay pot with amaranth before the ceremony leader took a bite of it in offering to the gods. In an attempt to eliminate this practice, the Spanish prepared a bread with a sticky, pink sugar topping – that represented blood – to be used in place of a real heart. Lawson Gray and Almazan Lahl describe how the Aztec’s “acceptance of this substitute marked the first time the Aztecs gave bread divine attributes, and the beginning of a slow transition to Catholicism.”
Now, across the country, there is a whole variety of different breads baked specifically for Day of the Dead. A fluffy, sugary white bread infused with orange essence and topped with extra dough shaped to represent bones, can be found in many areas of Mexico. In Oaxaca, however, the most common form of this bread – and the one Reyes makes – is pan de yema, a rich, sweet egg yolk-based bread. Pan de yema is sold throughout the year, but during Day of the Dead, a touch of anise and cinnamon is added for extra flavour and the bread is adorned with tiny decorative faces, or caritas. The idea in Oaxaca is that these caritas are the faces of the dead and the bread is their body.
The faces are noticeably white-skinned, which Mexican food historian and chef Susana Trilling puts down to them being the representation of saints, adding another layer of syncretism. Day of the Dead, after all, overlaps with the Catholic All Saint’s Day, a link that’s clearly visible in areas like Puebla, about four hours north of Oaxaca, where some altars are adorned with white satin and Catholic iconography.
Back in Oaxaca, Reyes began to mix the ingredients on the table, getting into a rhythm generated by years of bread-making. He kneaded the bread with a punch, pull, slap, punch, pull, slap that was almost mechanical – a beat his family has heard for generations.
“Because it is Day of the Dead, we have to kill the dough,” Reyes said with a chuckle and a glint in his eye as he continued to pound the mixture with an incredible strength.
As we waited for the dough to proof, Reyes sat and told stories of Day of the Dead that had been told to him by his abuela, his grandmother, when he was young. One was a cautionary tale of a man who didn’t believe the dead returned to the human world. Despite his wife’s insistence, the man stubbornly refused to create an altar to his deceased parents, and instead left them two large biznaga cacti; since they weren’t really coming back, he argued that it didn’t matter what he left in offering.
The deceased don’t die as long as they remain in someone’s memory
Later that night the man was on a hilltop above the town and saw a trail of people walking together. He got closer and saw they were carrying flowers, mole and bread. Suddenly he saw his deceased mother and father struggling to carry the prickly cacti back to the afterlife. The man was distraught and ran back home to plead forgiveness, and every year after, he created a huge altar for his deceased loved ones.
“Have you seen Coco?” Reyes suddenly asked as he came to the end of his story, referring to the Disney-Pixar film that came out last year. I smiled and said I had.
“It is not far from the truth,” he said, talking about the message of the film. “The deceased don’t die as long as they remain in someone’s memory.”
Once the raw dough was shaped into perfectly round balls, Reyes arranged them on parchment paper in preparation for baking in his homemade wood-fired oven. The mounds varied in size, from tiny bite-size rolls to larger half-kilo rounds. “The smallest breads are for the angelitos,” Trilling explained when I asked about the different-sized loaves a few days later.
As Reyes placed the rolls into the oven and closed the door, he chuckled and exclaimed, “Now we have buried the dead.”
The best thing I inherited was this knowledge
The smell of baking bread filled the air and made our mouths water. The perfectly baked caramel-brown loaves were pulled from the oven just as María Antonia finished preparing steaming Oaxacan hot chocolate. We ripped off pieces of bread and dipped them into our mugs to soak up the liquid; the cinnamon- and anise-infused, sweet rolls combined with the rich chocolate was simply delicious.
“The best thing I inherited was this knowledge,” said Reyes as he popped a slice of bread into his mouth.
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