In the slew of social media postings leading up to Day of the Dead, there’s a good chance the food most posted about is the traditional sweet bread: Pan de Muertos. True, who doesn’t love fluffy light sweet bread scented with orange and coated all over with the sandy crunch of fine sugar?
But, whether living or dead, ‘man cannot live on bread alone’. Vegetables and fruits are necessary nourishment for the returning souls, and on Day of the Dead altars they also represent the deep connection to the source, to Mother Earth.
Let’s take a look at some of the fruits and vegetables typically found on Day of the Dead altars.
It’s said that on the altar, this tuber represents the earth from which man comes, and to which we return in death. As water is necessary for sustaining life, this watery vegetable can also serve that purpose to give the dead precious refreshment. The vine of the jicama may also be used to make an arch over the altar.
The glow of sweet oranges and tangerines, along with the bright golden cempasuchítl flower (Mexican marigold) light the way for the dead. Their sweet juice also gives sustenance.
Calabaza en tacha is a preparation of small hardened squash cooked soaked in a syrup of piloncillo (raw cane sugar formed into pylon-shaped cones). Holes are bored through the wall of the squashes in order to fill the centre with the syrup before roasting. The seeds are left in – to be used by the dead to find their way back – and the sweet syrupy dish is a rich delicious treat.
Guayaba (guavas) and tejocotes (a Mexican crabapple) are seasonal fruits that perfume the altar and rejuvenate the soul. Both are also ingredients in ponche – a warm fruit punch that is served from Dia de los Muertos into the Christmas season.
While neither fruit nor vegetable, sugar cane joins guayaba and tejocote as another ingredient in the seasonal ponche. Some say the long canes, sometimes attached together into a tripod formation, represent a place on which enemies can be hung, but most look upon it for the sweet and juicy sugar itself which family enjoys snacking on at the gravesite with the usual chile and lime.
To honor the memory of the dead, It’s important to personalize the ofrenda, so other favorite fruits like papaya, or cooked plantain might also be offered. The dearly departed deserve plenty of sweet sustenance in order to refresh them, and to ease the soul’s long journey back to its resting place.
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