Día de los Muertos: Food and Mutual Aid

Some of the wall murals in Zaachila.
Some of the wall murals in Zaachila.

Please understand that I am new to Mexico, and this post is really truly just a reflection, made from my inadequate understanding of a celebration with many layers of significance and ritual. I am including a post about it because I was struck by how deeply preparing food and eating communally is woven into the fabric of celebration within the many cultures here in Mexico.  

Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a celebration and communion with ones ancestors and loved ones that have left this world.  It seems designed to bring colour and light to the shadows of soul as well as buildings homes and graveyards, in the most artistic and dramatic manner.  Oh, and did I mention that food is at the centre of all this too?!  The smell of sweet breads and mole was everywhere.  Alters constructed both publicly and privately to honour the dead, are adorned with oranges, beer, mezcal, bread encrusted with candy skulls, tamales, and chocolate…oh the chocolate…and flowers.  Mountains of flowers.  There is a soft mix of smells everywhere. This is both a very private celebration within churches, homes, and kitchens, but it is also very public and shared within streets and cemeteries.

A blockade expressing anger for the 43 disappeared students.
A blockade expressing anger for the 43 disappeared students.

Characteristically a joyful acceptance of the cycles of life, this years celebration also included expressions of palpable rage that threw light onto the shadow of the 43 students that disappeared at the hands of state forces in September.   These students were remembered very publicly.  Not declared dead and therefore not to be mourned in the way of the dead, but the pain of their loss brought clearly into the actions of everyone and everything passing.

On the eve of the Day of the Dead I arrived in Oaxaca City, which is renowned for many things including its celebration of this festival. I tagged along with a group of university students, one of whom had invited us to experience and engage in this beautiful celebration on the land of his childhood home.  Now vacant, this house became our communal space of rest, conversation, laughter, and of course cooking. I was honoured to be invited into the public and private spaces of this celebration by people proud to share their culture. 

Wall murals in Zaachila.
Wall murals in Zaachila.

On the Day of the Dead our group travelled to a neighbouring village, Zaachila, known for its veneration of their ancestors through celebration and art.  Annually, the walls of the town are converted into murals…folding into one another, there is no space that isn’t included in the elaborate and magnificent shades of death and mourning depicted on the walls.  There was also a children’s art show, live music, a carnival, a parade, and of course food everywhere.  As we meandered through the streets we stopped at one of the many stations that were serving hot chocolate, tamales and sweet bread.  These stations clearly powered by the community itself, a mix of women and families, young children running to a fro in total jubilation to be of service.  And it is all free.

Eating together at one of the many free food stations.  Everyone eating keeps the dead happy!
Eating together at one of the many free food stations. Everyone eating keeps the dead happy!

One can only imagine the time and energy that goes into preparing the food for such large scale festivals, and as I was to come to understand soon, it is only because of the highly practiced skills of mutual aid amongst community members that any of it is possible.

Lessons on Sazón At The Road Side Kitchen

Isla Mujeres at its most southern point.  So pretty.
Isla Mujeres at its most southern point. So pretty.

I have noticed that the best way to wiggle my way into Mexican kitchens, is to wear my hunger for knowledge on my sleeve.  That is how I met Abuelita (Grandma) on Isla Mujeres, where she runs a small roadside kitchen.  She had one main dish everyday, and then the usual selection of tamales, tacos, and quesadillas.  This woman was truly inspirational in her simplicity, flavour, and refusal to cater to the list of desires that the extrañeros (tourists) carried.  She never lacked respect but her exasperation and clear boundaries were often evident. Her two most notable dishes included an adobo of guajillo and ancho chile in which the chicken pieces were cooked.  More on this simple and extraordinary dish to come.  The other was a simple whole fish fry, covered in oil, filled with a tomato based sauce -influenced by the tradition of the Veracruz sauce, wrapped in tinfoil and cooked over the comal.

A señora at her comal.
A señora at her comal. A comal is a traditional cooking surface. It is metal and covered with lime (to prevent sticking, and heated by fire underneath.

Unfortunately, this experience happened before I felt comfortable enough to pull out the camera.  But I have a million pictures in my head of this joyful, firm, half-toothed woman, which are given colour and texture by the memories of our long and slow – in the heat of the day conversations.  Over a tall glass of cool jamaica water,  she explained cooking processes, chile combinations, and the definition and sensation of cooking with sazón.  Sazón is something that folks refer to and talk about in the tones of remembering the kitchen of ones grandma or mama.  Sazón is not something that you learn, you feel it, it is revealed in you.  It feels you, speaks through you.  It is the art, and bears the signature of its creator.  It is what there is no recipe book for.  It is love, and you can taste it.

My conversations with this Abuelita taught me a lot about how to enter respectfully into a conversation with an elder willing to teach you.  Through our conversations about technique and ingredients she wove the tapestry of community, culture, and history.  Her pain for the suffering land evident as she spoke to the multitude of animals and plants that have been lost to the kitchen with the destruction of their habitats. “They can no longer be honoured by becoming food”, she said.  She even offered me an invitation to spend time with her in her kitchen…but due to an unfortunate run in with a ceiling fan I was unable to follow through, but that as they say is another story. 

Getting my feet on the ground…and how to make rice (really)

Please check out the tab at the top labelled “ …The Whole Idea Of This Project” for background information and a general sense of what this blog is all about.
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I arrived in Isla Mujeres, a magical island deeply nestled inside of the cuisine of the Yucatan, but also influenced by the food traditions of Cuba, literally a stones throw away. There, I settled into 2 weeks of reorientation in the most relaxing manner and began to think through this thing I was calling my “learning project”.  I put energy into envisioning how exactly I was going to proceed, and it’s not extraordinary – everything is based on relationship.  So that is where I started.  I was introduced to Huitzi, a resident of Isla Mujeres, through a friend who described her as a healer and amazing cook. Huitzi is one of those superwomen who despite raising 2 children and caregiving several community and family members, teaching, and working – still laughs all the time and glows with love.  She is powerful and beautiful…and yes can she cook.  Huitzi was very happy to share the work of the day by inviting me into her kitchen, or at least change the focus of it.  While Huizi juggled my presence she also gave math lessons and danced around the newest members of the family…a tiny kitten and a rescued turtle.

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Huitzi: superwoman, healer, and cook extraordinaire

Over several days she included me in the creation of some of her standards that featured her own mix of Cuban-Yucatan flavours and local ingredients. Following are my notes from the meal that really rocked my socks in terms of simplicity and pure nutrition. 

Zucchini Squash

In Mexico there are several types of squash that are used in different regions, but zucchini is common everywhere, and is often referred to as “calabacitas”, which look like small round zucchini’s (super cute too).  I imagine that this dish could easily be turned vegan by using cauliflower or nut based cream sauce…but seriously if you can eat the fresh unaltered cream like the cream available at the markets here in Mexico you wouldn’t want to substitute it out.  It would also work well as a main vegan dish with roasted cashews, and served with the rice or another grain.

  • non flavoured oil or butter
  • 1/2 white onion julienned
  • 2 cloves of garlic minced
  • 2 baseball sized zucchini or one large straight one cut into cubes
  • 1 cup of corn
  • 2 roma tomatoes cut into small cubes
  • 1/2 cup sour cream or fresh cream if you can find it
  • salt and pepper

Method:

On a medium high heat, start with the grease in the pan and heat the pepper, add and cook the onions till transparent, add the garlic and cook, stirring for a minute.  Add the zucchini and cook for a short minute.  Add the corn and tomatoes.  You want the zucchini to still be a little crunchy so don’t over cook it.  Add the cream or substitute at the end and heat through.  Salt at the end.

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The meal that knocked my socks off. The banana might seem weird, but the mix of sweetness with the meat was amazing!

Chicharos (dried split peas)

This is basically a stew that we started by making the stock with the pig meat, making sure that the bones and marrow were included – because if you haven’t learned anything about the kitchens of the community is that everything is used that produces nutrients and flavour.

  • 2 cups split peas or any legume of your choice
  • 1 onion in bite sized size
  • cumin
  • a couple of sticks of parsley chopped up
  • meat with bone on it

Method:

cook the split peas until fully cooked and falling apart, very liquidy.  Separately, brown the meat (on high heat and quick).  Next, cook the meat with the onion, parsley, cumin, and enough water to just cover the ingredients.  When the meat is close to being cooked, add the split peas.  Cook down till it is thick.  Season with salt.

Arroz Mexicana (Mexican style rice)

Really good rice I have discovered, is like baking.  You have to be very exact with measurements.  Mexican rice is absolutely amazing, and it has converted me from calling white rice candy, and looking down my nose at it…into a serious fanatic.  Rice is really seen here in Mexico as a dish all on its own, and is served as such.  After much trial and error after Huitizi’s lesson, I’ve learned the major key is to not add too much oil, and include the purred onion and garlic in your water measurement.  And always be hardcore with your measurement of rice and water.

  • 1/4 onion
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 1 cup rice
  • 1 cup liquid (you can mix stock with water for extra yumm) and include the onion and garlic in this measurement

Method

Rinse the rice till clean and let dry.  Blend the onion and garlic.  Heat the oil and add the rice.  You want the rice to turn transparent like you would with onions (about 10 minutes). Then add the liquid.  Adding a few small cubes of carrots or peas is also common.  Bring to a boil, cover and then turn the flame as low as possible.  Cook for about 20 minutes and then let it rest at least 5 minutes before fluffing.