Photography: James Fisher
Words: Shane Mitchell
In the streets leading toward the Church of San Andrés Apóstol in the village of Mixquic, an hour southeast of Mexico City, vendors tempted the festive crowd with the hominy rich stew pozole, radishes, fried grasshoppers, and pillowy pan de muertos, Spanish for “bread of the dead,” a sweet holiday treat. Children laughed around me, begging for cotton candy and sugar skulls. Mariachis strummed guitars. The sun was setting as everyone proceeded through the gates of the churchyard’s walled cemetery.
On the Day of the Dead, the veil between the worlds of the deceased and the living becomes more transparent; only then may spirits press against that elastic fabric to savour the essence of tequila poured into a glass or a cigarette burned to ash. To mark the way from Mictlan, the Aztec underworld, families across Mexico create ofrendas (altars) piled with spices, black beans, tamales, and other favourite foods that serve as earthly signposts for the departed and help everyone else evoke endearing details that might otherwise be lost.
Inside the cemetery, families sat bundled next to headstones covered with marigolds during the candlelight vigil known as La Alumbrada (The Illumination), awaiting the return of their lost loved ones. Weaving around the graves late into the chilly November night, adrift and hoping for God knows what, I was invited to slug mescal from a communal bottle by cheerfully drunk brothers. Another family shared pan de muertos. It was coarse and chewy, with a dusting of sugar on the brown crust. One of the daughters was near to tears. Her sister had died almost four years before. “It takes that long for them to reach Mictlan,” she said. I hugged her.
The path to the underworld is fraught; departed souls must pass many challenges: the crossing of obsidian-sharp mountains, freezing gorges, a river of blood. Fearsome jaguars and lizards lurk along the way. With these obstacles surmounted, however, they are permitted to visit with mortals again.
Mexicans have always poked macabre fun at death in their art, literature, and music. Few other countries have this intimate relationship with the most mysterious aspect of the cycle of life. The Aztec goddess Mictecacihuatl was keeper of the bones in the underworld and presided over festivals of the dead. With the arrival of Catholic missionaries, these celebrations received a Christian overlay, and became syncretically aligned in the Gregorian calendar with All Souls Day. Mictecacihuatl didn’t perish; she transformed. In the early twentieth century, cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada created a series of satiric engravings depicting dandified calavera (skeletons), including one wearing an extravagant bonnet. La Calavera Catrina, or the Lady of Death, was further celebrated by Diego Rivera in a mocking mural titled “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park.” Now, this animated skeleton is depicted humorously in all art forms — from papier-mâché to sugar — related to Day of the Dead.
A stinging fog of copal incense rose from clay burners to swirl eerily around our heads. Most celebrants settled down for the night, huddled in blankets, the sounds from the street slowly dying away as the taquerías closed. And before dawn, when the church bells chimed, throughout Mixquic, the aromas and flavours of proffered food faded as phantom travellers, sated, fled once again into the mystic.
This article is an adaptation from the recent book “Far Afield: Rare Food Encounters from Around the World” Published by Ten Speed Press. James Beard Award-winning journalist Shane Mitchell and photographer James Fisher have traveled the world on assignment for food and travel publications such as Travel + Leisure, Australian Gourmet Traveller and Saveur. Along the way, they have encountered the fascinating people who are keeping some of the world’s oldest food traditions alive, such as taro farmers in Hawaii who have never left the islands, Maasai warriors in Kenya, and Icelandic shepherds who still use the techniques of their Viking ancestors. Full of compelling photography from far-flung locations, Far Afield profiles these people, sharing their unique and captivating stories along with forty recipes.