Nov. 1 (All Saints Day) and Nov. 2 (All Souls Day), known as "Dia de los Muertos" or Day of the Dead, are times for traditional Mexican family observances honoring dearly departed ancestors and friends.
Celebrations in cemeteries feature elaborately decorated altars erected on gravesites with pictures of loved ones and tastes of their favorite food and drink.
1 (4- to 6-pound) pumpkin, stemmed, seeded and cut into 2-inch pieces, with skin on (may substitute acorn squash)
2 tablespoons brown sugar
6 whole cloves
6 allspice berries
5 cinnamon sticks
Juice of 1 orange
Zest of 1 orange
In a saucepan, combine the pumpkin pieces, brown sugar, whole cloves, allspice berries, cinnamon sticks, orange juice, orange zest and 4 cups water. Bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, cook for about 2 hours until liquid has reduced to a syruplike glaze. Remove from heat, let cool to room temperature before serving.
Makes 6 servings.
— Adapted by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution from a recipe provided by chef Mark Nanna.
But recently in the U.S., Day of the Dead has been translated into a cross-cultural phenomenon, as symbols such as sugar skulls and skeleton art lend themselves to a lively party atmosphere for the living as well as the dead.
Nidia Zuart, who works in the kitchen at Muss & Turner's in Smyrna, Ga., and has become known for her weekly Sunday evening dinners at the restaurant, has fond memories of Dia de los Muertos with her family in Mexico — made even more special because she was born Nov. 1.
"We were a very traditional family, and every time, it was like a party in my grandather's house," Zuart said. "Everybody was cooking, and everybody would stop by." Zuart has continued those traditions with her children, including creating a family alter, and making special foods, like Pan de Muerto, a Day of the Dead bread baked to honor ancestors that's often eaten graveside.
"My daughter and son love Dia de los Muertos and all the traditions," Zuart said. "And they know it's not just a party. It's a sacred time." At Muss & Turner's, Zuart regularly features tamales as part of her weekly multicourse menus.
But the tamales she makes for Day of the Dead are filled with a special ground beef mixture.
"This kind of picadillo tamale is special for Dia de los Muertos," Zuart said. "It's kind of sweet and spicy at the same time, with apples and raisins and jalapeno." Bone Garden Cantina, a colorful Atlanta Mexican restaurant and bar with artwork inspired by Dia de los Muertos, has been celebrating the holiday with music and food and drink specials for the past five years.
As she's done every year, Bone Garden owner Kristen Benoit has been molding and decorating dozens of sugar skulls for the occasion. And new chef Mark Nanna has been getting up to speed for this year's event by researching Day of the Dead recipes.
"I love it," Nanna said. "My wife and I actually got married in Cabo San Lucas on the Day of the Dead, so that's our anniversary, and we each have a skull tattoo to mark the occasion." One of the recipes Nanna has been working on is Calabaza En Tacha, a slow-simmered, candied pumpkin dish. "It's traditionally more like a dessert," Nanna said. "It's seasonal because that's what's happening at farms this time of year, and it's a neat way to do pumpkin, with long, slow cooking and sugar and spices." He's also coooked up a Mexican rice pudding that's often eaten for breakfast on Dia de los Muertos. "In addition to being a dish for the holiday, it's a traditional breakfast food and morning snack," Nanna said.
Kristen Benoit and her artist husband, Michael Benoit, grew up in Southern California, where they were surrounded by Mexican culture, and came to love Day of the Dead celebrations.
"When we decided we wanted to open an authentic Mexican-style cantina, we wanted to bring in the meaning behind that holiday by collecting and creating artwork," Benoit said. "The idea of bringing family and friends together to honor ancestors and departed loved ones seemed to translate to a small family-run restaurant.
"And because this is our theme and we really appreciate the meaning of the holiday, we made it our big celebration of the year. We set up a shrine to honor people who have been friends and family of the restaurant, and we just try to have a fun time."