Whatever your views on the great beyond, it’s difficult to miss El Día de Los Muertos (the Day of the Dead)—the annual Latin American celebration of loved
ones who have passed.
Friends and families congregate at gravesites and home altars at the beginning of November to pay homage with colourful decorations
and traditional offerings, many of them aromatic.
Why? Smells resonate in the spirit world because they’re also invisible.
Beyond the marigolds, candles and copal incense, El Día is like most communal gatherings: all about the food. And offerings are as varied as the culinary favourites of the deceased.
It’s more harvest than Halloween, and few places celebrate it with more fervour than Tucson. Here's how to experience it for yourself:
Pan de Muerto
Since the ritual is a native Mexican riff on All Saints’ Day,
bread is a staple. Traditionally, pan de muerto is heavy on
the egg, slightly sweet and often flavoured with anise seed.
Occasionally, there’s a hint of lemon, orange, cinnamon or vanilla, but regional nods usually manifest in the lively shape of the loaves: skeletons, skulls, animals or embellished circles.
La Estrella Bakery Inc. handcrafts gorgeous versions in three sizes (US$5, $9, $13), and also adds skull-shaped sugar cookies to its daily output of fresh pastries and flour tortillas.
Given the pageantry of the Day of the Dead, elaborate recipes from other special occasions are often whipped up.
For anyone with Mexican roots, that means a dish involving mole—the complex, slow-cooked sauce made with dried chilies, spices, herbs and nuts (for starters).
Around Tucson, and perhaps the entire American Southwest, the buck stops with Suzana Davila, an understated culinary hero with more than two dozen mole recipes in her repertoire.
The blackboard menu at her acclaimed Cafe Poca Cosa changes twice a day, every day, but includes offbeat takes on gourmet Mexican food like tamales, grilled meats and stuffed chilies.
To be fair, sugar skulls aren’t
really edible in the same way as, say, Easter bunnies. But you could eat one.
Made with granulated or powdered sugar and water, they’re hardened one of two ways: either using meringue powder (dried egg whites, starch and vanilla), or via expert boiling methods that are guarded like family heirlooms.
Cast in clay moulds and adorned with coloured icing, glitter and tinfoil, the sugar skull gives a warm, jovial welcome to returning spirits.
Find them life-sized (US$18) to thimble-small (US$4) at ¡Aqui Está! along with other imported Mexican treasures, plus local art and furniture.
A glass of water is usually part of the offering, but any journey from the netherworld to the real deal deserves a stiff drink.
While tequila or mezcal are natural choices, a rarity like Hacienda De Chihuahua Sotol Añejo is worth seeking out.
Sotol comes from a particular species of low-yielding agave plant that grows in the Chihuahuan desert. The straw-coloured añejo is aged in French white oak for two years and fermented in champagne yeast, producing a mellow flavour with vanilla, citrus and herbal notes.
Find it at The RumRunner, an upscale, well-curated emporium for craft beer, fine wine and a kaleidoscope of exotic spirits, with an artisanal market and dining room.