To Feed the Dead, You First Need Pan de Muerto
HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Over the past week, Elizabeth Hernández has turned La Patrona Bakery into a frenetic pan de muerto operation, making dozens of round loaves topped with bony fingers.
This bread of the dead — similar in texture to challah and sprinkled with sugar or sesame seeds — is a staple of the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. The celebration on Nov. 1-2 aims to reunite the souls of the dead with the living.
“It’s a symbol of their death, but at the same time, life,” Ms. Hernández said in Spanish of the bakery’s bread, which uses a recipe from Mexico City.
People eat the bread with their families, but it is also an essential offering on home altars, or ofrendas. The sweet-smelling bread sits alongside photos of the dead, and an array of their favorite foods and drinks, attracting and nourishing the souls who visit, said Michelle Téllez, a professor of Mexican American Studies at the University of Arizona.
By the time the holiday is over, the food usually doesn’t have any smell or flavor because the dead have presumably eaten it, said Antonieta Mercado, a professor at the University of San Diego who has written about the history and significance of Día de los Muertos.
Beyond the Mexican diaspora, the holiday has found broader appeal in popular culture. The popularity of films like the 2017 Disney Pixar feature “Coco,” which is set during Día de los Muertos, underscores the significance of the holiday and gets people to ask questions about the celebration, Dr. Mercado said, but it also comes with the risk that the cultural meaning may be lost.
While scholars generally agree that it originated with Mexico’s Indigenous people, they debate how the living initially memorialized the dead. Some scholars, like Dr. Téllez, believe it was a celebration tied to the changing seasons. Others, like Dr. Mercado, associate it with the growing cycle of corn, when people asked the souls of the dead and the forces of nature to bring a good harvest.
After Spaniards began to convert Indigenous people to Christianity, the Indigenous celebration absorbed traditions from the Catholic All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls’ Day (Nov. 2).
“It’s beautiful because you honor your ancestors,” Dr. Mercado said. “For a lot of Latinx and Indigenous communities, their ancestors are a part of the community. They never leave, they just translate to another plane.”
In 16th-century Mexico, Spaniards celebrated All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day with cemetery vigils, laying out flowers, candles and bread, said Stanley Brandes, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who has researched Día de los Muertos. Pan de muerto owes its sweetness to the sugar brought to Mexico by the Spanish.
There are dozens of different types of pan de muerto, and each is influenced by the baker, where they live and where they’re from.
While Ms. Hernández of La Patrona Bakery uses anise seeds, Jaime Reynoso Pérez, an owner and baker at La Migaja Mexican Bakery inside the Mi Rinconcito Mexicano restaurant in Miami, uses orange blossom. His bread is also round, representing the circle of life. It pays tribute to the dead with pieces shaped like bones and a small circle in the middle to represent the skull. The bread, a recipe Mr. Reynoso Pérez said is like a hamburger bun and a concha combined, is covered in white sugar and tastes like a flower.
Mr. Reynoso Pérez, who is from Veracruz in Mexico, also makes another bread with sesame seeds and caritas, or little faces, he imports from Oaxaca. The caritas, sometimes representing the visage of an angel or the Virgin Mary, are made with dried pieces of dough that are decorated with vegetable paint. He places them in the center of another variety of pan de muerto.
“When it’s your time to make it, you personalize it to the way you want to do it,” said Mr. Reynoso Pérez in Spanish. He is preparing to sell about 800 loaves of bread for the holiday. “I try to be more classic and stick to the original because that’s the flavor you look for when you’re away from home to take you back. It brings back a lot of memories.”
Recipe: Pan de Muerto
Follow NYT Food on Twitter and NYT Cooking on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Pinterest. Get regular updates from NYT Cooking, with recipe suggestions, cooking tips and shopping advice.