What Is Day of the Dead? Chefs Share Their Favorite Día De Los Muertos Traditions
"This is the time to slow down and recognize the fragility of life."
Called "Day of the Dead" in English, Día de Los Muertos (or Día de Muertos) is a holiday celebrated from November 1 to 2 to commemorate and honor, you guessed it, the dead. The origins of the Mexican holiday are somewhat complicated, as it's believed to claim both indigenous origins from the Aztec festival for Mictecacihuatl (The Lady of The Dead) and Catholic origins from All Saints' Day, brought over to Mexico by the Spanish conquistadors.
The day of remembrance pays tribute to the deceased, partially by way of delicious food: sugar skulls, cookies, mole and more dishes. Aside from eating the treats associated with the holiday, families visit their ancestors in cemeteries, cleaning tombs and building elaborate decorations with candles and flowers.
If you're searching for inspiration for your own Día de Los Muertos celebration, look to these chefs, who share their own traditions here.
Decorating his grandparents' graves
"Día de los Muertos was one of my favorite holidays growing up. It was my mothers birthday the same day, so it meant a whole week of celebration. We would go early in the day to the Tianguis near our home in Mexico City and stock up on pan de muerto and calaberitas de azúcar, or sugar skulls. We would then stop by the cemetery to visit my grandparents' graves and decorarte their tombstones with beautiful flowers and tasty treats. It was never a day of mourning, but pure celebration."
- Esdras Ochoa, chef of Salazar in L.A.
"In my family tradition, we’ll usually will make a small shrine with candles, flowers, pan de muerte and have a photo of a past-away family member. Over the years I’ve also adopted just drinking mezcal."
- Jose “JoJo” Ruiz, chef at Lionfish at The Pendry Hotel in San Diego
"As I write this email I am sipping on Oaxacan hot chocolate from my family, yearning to be home back in Oaxaca and taking in all the smells, flavors and colors that inspire art and food. Dia de Los Muertos is celebrated in Oaxaca as a celebration of all our dearly departed, and just like Mexican cuisine, this celebration tells a story of worlds clashing: the pre-colonial ceremonies and the Catholic imposition merging as one of the most recognizable celebrations in the planet.
The celebration with the food on the altars tells a story that dates back thousands of years. Every family will put up an ofrenda of food, usually what your dearly departed loved to eat, from the traditional tamales to mole made specifically for this occasion to the hot chocolate simmering away. And, of course, no celebration is complete with out mezcal.
This is an excuse to slow down and celebrate the bounty of the land, celebrate family and the dearly departed. This is the time to slow down and recognize the fragility of life and to take the rest of the year with gusto. Sharing food brings communities together and, if only for a second, slows down time. Now, off to make tamales!"
- Oaxacan-born chef Neftali Duran
"Growing up in Mexico, Dia de los Muertos was always one of my favorite holidays. My mom, Gloria (our restaurant is named after her), is a really talented artist, and when I was a kid, she would help me make and decorate traditional paper maché skulls. I still have a nice collection of them at home. Today, my mom still does Dia de los Muertos art and holds an exhibition every year with her artist friends. This year, she's holding the exhibition in Mexico for the first time.
One of my fondest memories of the holiday was when we honored my uncle who had passed away. His favorite food was chilaquiles, so to honor him, we had breakfast for dinner and enjoyed chilaquiles along with our pan de muerto and sugar skulls. These days, I don't go all out to celebrate the holiday, but I'll still set up my paper maché skull collection and have a little fiesta en mi casa."
- Diego Garcia, executive chef at Gloria in NYC
Eating "dead bread"
"Traditionally, the day starts with the food, and one of my fondest memories that I can reflect on is the smell of the pan de muerto, or ‘dead bread,’ cooking in the house."
- Derek Barragan, chef de cuisine at W Boston