The Day of the Dead is a sumptuous fiesta for the eyes. Starting in late October, families construct elaborate ofrendas, altars that serve as a kind of lighthouse to guide the spirits of loved ones who’ve died. These are resplendent with marigolds, candles, sugar skulls, and, of course, food. Pan de muerto (or "bread of the dead"), tamales, and bottles of alcohol are common accoutrements.
You might assume that the food was an offering, that it had been left out for the returning spirits to consume. To an extent, that’s true. But a deeper look at the role food plays in Dia de Muertos celebrations provides a richer, darker text, one that has a lot to say about how the regions that partake in it use food as a tool to abate existential dread.
Mary Andrade is an expert on Dia de Muertos. Pixar leaned on her expertise in the making of Coco, the 2017 animated film that centered on the holiday. “So much of the food for Dia de Muertos depends on the region,” Andrade told me. “But the idea is that when the soul comes to visit their family members, the family has to provide them with things they liked when they were alive.”
It’s no surprise that the food would be shared among the living. Historically, food offerings, like those in ancient Greece, have been offered as a symbol to less tangible deities and spirits before being consumed by mortals. But what makes these offerings distinct in Dia de Los Muertos celebrations is just how predicated they are on metaphysical angst, even if it’s been dressed up in bright colors.
Indeed, everything about Dia de Muertos is strictly ephemeral. Sugar skulls are meant to be eaten. Papel picado, the delicate paper flags that adorn the streets and ofrendas, represent the fragility of life. Candles are lit to be snuffed out, and cempasuchil, the Mexican marigold, takes as its origin story the legendary tale of two deceased lovers.
The food put out on the altars is no exception, and also serves to underscore the fleeting nature of life. It is not the food itself that the spirits imbibe, Andrade tells me, but the aroma and the warmth. “The soul is meant to enjoy the feel of the food, the smell, the heat. The food is taken to the cemetery and later shared among the family on the grave.”
When the living do get to dig in, it’s often in the form of a picnic in a cemetery, or among strangers in their open house. Doors are flung open and private ofrendas in living rooms made public. Even in death, food remains a kind of community glue, just as it is around the year in Mexico and in the Central American countries that also celebrate the holiday. This sharing of physical space with the dead harkens to indigenous traditions of burying the dead beneath the home.
The Dia de Muertos imagining of food is interesting from an anthropological perspective, but it also holds deep philosophical meaning. “Food, like humans, has an essence,” it tells us. “It has a soul.” Aroma, warmth, these are properties already widely associated with metaphysical nourishment, especially among marginalized communities in the United States.
In much the same way that the “food of the dead” is meant to nourish the spirit, the holiday itself has been a sort of balm for diasporic Latinos with roots in regions where Dia de Muertos is celebrated. It has become a way for communities to come together and learn about their heritage, with large celebrations taking place in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Antonio.
“This holiday is a treasure of the Mexican culture,” Andrade said, mentioning that Dia de Muertos was recognized on the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2008. “People, especially Mexican-Americans, come to regions where the holiday is celebrated, and then they take the knowledge back to their communities.”
While the decorations and recipes might change by region, the philosophy unites the various celebrations. Be it tamales, pan de muerto, mole, or chile relleno, the message remains the same. Eat up. Savor every bite. It won’t last forever.
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