Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Circle of Life: Dia de los Muertos 2015

I grew up observing All Saints Day on November 1 and All Souls Day on November 2. Some years later, after several trips to Mexico, I decided to celebrate Dia de los Muertos instead. The holiday was more reflective and celebratory.

For 32 years, I’ve put up an altar. It has always made me happy and peaceful but this year was different. No longer an outsider, I was pulled in the high spirited celebration and it was exhilarating. At times, I felt like I was in the animated fantasy-adventure The Book of Life, which I saw and loved at the Guanajuato Film Festival this past fall.

The Dia de los Muertos celebration in San Miguel de Allende was never recognized to be among the best in Mexico. Experts say you have to go to Patzcuaro or Oaxaca in order to get the real high points of the celebration. I can’t imagine a holiday more meaningful than the one I just experienced last week.

Perhaps it was because I immersed myself in all the traditions preparing for it. Throughout this process, every day brought great joy and new discoveries. I was moved by the simplicity of it all. It was though I woke up and finally got it. 

In September, it was one fiesta and parade after another so I was spiritually prepared for a new round of celebration.

Prior to the holiday, I made several trips to the cemetery of Our Lady of Guadalupe at Camino Antiguo al Panteon and the San Juan de Dios Cemetery at San Antonio Abad and Muertos. 

San Juan de Dios Cemetery had not been decked out like this for years. It was beautiful. What hit me was that everything about the preparation was carried out with such immense joy and anticipation.

There was a sense of festivity throughout the weekend and when it was over, there was not the usual let-down. I packed away my altar with the same love as when I put it up. The serenity that took hold of me the week before Dia de los Muertos was there that day. In fact, I’m still feeling it a week later.

I spent so much time at the sugar shacks on the top of Avenida Insurgentes in awe of the alfeñique figures that all of the women there knew me by name.

I stayed out well past midnight and got up early the next day with the same enthusiasm I had the day before. There was no sleep for the living that weekend … or the dead.

I ate Andy’s Tacos at 11:30 PM instead of 7:00 PM. and got a different take on street food as its approaching midnight.

Watching the children interact with their parents, you were continuously traveling back and forth on the fine line of roaring with laughter and crying.

I loved the music, where mariachis and local singers like Yoremem Jocobi performed songs that were favorites of those who came back for a visit… just for the night.

Families danced on graves. I closed my eyes long enough to make sure I wasn’t dreaming and then I danced with them.

Much to the family’s delight, I helped carry water and wired pots of fresh flowers too big to stand up on their own. I hugged hard and long at the end of the day and never let go until the cemetery closed. No pun intended but for me, it was almost an out-of-body experience.

As a photographer, it was magical. 

I photographed the catrina parade and created images that have real meaning for me personally. Long after it is over, the holiday will still be with me.

As with just about everything in Mexico, food is a major part of Dia de los Muertos.

When you leave food at the altar, your dearly departed come back to enjoy the aromas. The holiday heightened my sense of smell and I was aware of every scent around me from the oversized bouquets of marigolds to the open bottles of tequila and mezcal. I never paid attention to that one little detail before; that the Dia de los Muertos world smelled this good.

I spent a lot of time thinking about the food that I would want on my altar besides Michael Coon's Okonomiyaki pancake and SMA tacos. I even wrote a letter to my son about it.

Dear Tommy:

When my soul returns for the night of Dia de los Muertos, you better have something really good on my altar.

Large quantities of bacon would be nice. Key Lime Pie, chocolate and chardonnay, fried chicken, ice cream, tacos al pastor, ribs, a 3’ steak, gumbo and cornbread, bread pudding. You know… the usual.

Remember, I can eat anything now, not that I didn’t before, so feel free to pass on a few of your own pleasures. I taught you to appreciate good food and besides, Mama always loves a surprise.

Tequila and Mezcal would be good…they’re probably what killed me in the first place.

If you’re going to do it right and make this culinary love in go on all night, here are a few more I found lately that you can add to my stash:

Homemade Ice Cream with Yerba Mate from Chef Mariano Alvarez at Buenos Aires Bistro

The Chilaquiles tower from Chef Gaby Green at Aguamiel

Artisan Cocktails from Mixologist Miguel Bastida at ZUMO

Mole de Olla; Short Rib from Executive Chef Marko Antoine Cruz at B'UI - cocina de campo

Chocoflan from La Casa del Diezmo

BBQ Pork Panini from Dana at the Market

Huevos Mexicanas WITH Salchicha Siciliano from Café Oso Azul

Deep Fried Strawberries from Chef Laura Buccehri at La Cucina di Afrodita

Pina Ice Cream from Gelatería Dulce Fusión 

Bags of sugared Churros from outside Mercado Ignacio Ramirez

French Fries and Cosmos from Hanks New Orleans Cafe and Oyster Bar (yes, you read it right…my favorite happy hour combo)

As a tradition of my own, during the month of November, I cook meals that my dearly departed loved to eat.

I happily overdose on Chinese because it was my mother’s favorite. 

I grill a steak or two or three because my dad was an expert on the BBQ. 

My brother loved tequila so that gives me an excuse to overindulge for 30 days. It’s also my birthday month; a reason to continue the celebration until Christmas.

During Dia de los Muertos, I spent a lot of time in restaurants eating and drinking with friends. Feasting together brought an additional significance to every day of the celebration.

La Vida es Buena!

Buen Apetito!