Pan de muerto in Mexico
It was mid-October when Fernando bought a fresh pan de muerto in a nearby bakery for the first time this year. It was warm and soft, lightly sweet, and smelled of orange zest and roasted sesame seeds: a familiar smell that would guide deceased relatives to the house two weeks later. While my daughter was loudly praising the bread’s taste, I remembered my first experience with it four years ago, before she even existed.
My small family—me, eight months pregnant, my partner Fernando, and our golden retriever, Pek—had just moved to Puebla and we were crashing at my parents-in-law’s house. Day of the Dead was just around the corner and my partner’s mother had set up an altar made of papel picado, a special type of ornamental paper with motifs of skeletons, photographs of the loved ones that had passed away, marigolds, candles, a glass of water, some salt, tangerines and guavas, a skull made of sugar, and pan de muerto. I was told that the deceased ones from the photos would visit us on the Day of the Dead, and treat themselves to the food placed on the altar. On the morning of Nov. 2, we discovered that someone really had feasted on these offerings: the bread was missing.
Pan de muerto, or bread of the dead, has a special meaning in Mexican tradition. Its circular form represents the cycle of life and death. It has a small bump on the top that represents a skull, while four shinbones, placed in a shape of a cross, reference the four directions of the universe or the four cardinal points according to the Aztec calendar, related to four principal gods: Quetzalcoatl, Xipetotec, Tlaloc, and Tezcatlipoca. It is believed that in the pre-Hispanic times, blood—obtained from human sacrifices—was added to the dough.
Today, the bread retains its traditional shape, but it’s made with different techniques, ingredients, and recipes depending on the region. In central and southern Mexico, they sprinkle it with white and red sugar or sesame seeds, while in other parts of the country they fill it with chocolate, dried fruits, coconut, nuts, cream, apples, or even pumpkins and parmesan cheese. Usually, it’s available only in October and November—the first of many signs that Day of the Dead is approaching. On Nov. 2, it’s impossible to find any other bread in any local bakery, so you involuntarily end up eating it for breakfast.
That morning four years ago, we set the table with pan de muerto, freshly squeezed tangerine juice, and hot black coffee. We were grateful for the opportunity to spend the day together, and satisfied with our first Day of the Dead. Our golden retriever was satisfied, too. He got his share of pan de muerto: the night before when nobody was watching.
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