Monthly Archives: November 2010

bake the bread, fly the kites, pickle the salad

In Guatemala, the dead apparently prefer a nice pickled salad.

The other day, I posted a thing where I listed a number of food items that people in Mexico prepare for their dead on Dia de los Muertos – Day of the Dead. Here’s a compelling excerpt:

…people leave favorite foods on altars or at the graves of their ancestors that include nuts and fruits, chocolate and tequila, moles and tamales, atole (a sweet, thick corn drink), sugar skulls decorated with jewel-colored icing, and pan de muerto – a sweet, egg-based bread that can be flavored with anise seed, cinnamon, and orange…

My boyfriend, Raphael, grew up in the largest city in Guatemala and therefore can’t speak for how people celebrate in the more rural areas (with the notable exception of how in one particular town, they fly kites “as big as our house” on the Day of the Dead), but his family brought none of the above-listed items to their family tomb on Dia de los Muertos and in fact rarely visited the tomb on that particular day at all.
For the most part, his family shared food and prayer at home rather than at the cemetery. Raphael’s Aunt Aurora, however, who lives in Antigua, went to a big Mass on Day of the Dead and then to the cemetery bearing wreaths and carnations she purchased at the market and armfuls of flowers from her backyard – bird of paradise, brilliant red heliconia, orange roses – and on occasion, her nieces and nephews went with her. Raphael remembers the cemetery at those times being so crowded with people picnicking at their family tombs, paying their respects to the dead, offering prayers, and decorating the graves that you had to be watchful for those who would steal flowers and food from your family’s tomb.

According to Raphael’s experience, in Guatemala two dishes in particular are prepared especially for Dia de Los Muertos. Cabacera, or chilacayote, is pumpkin cooked with cinnamon and clove and a dark brick of molasses until a syrup forms, and fiambre is a uniquely Guatemalan dish that is essentially a pickled salad made over the course of two to five days. Fiambre combines vegetables and all kinds of sausages and salted meats with capers and olives and cheese – queso duro, a crumbly white cheese, or queso kraft (which is exactly what you suspect it is), arranged atop the salad in an aesthetically pleasing fashion. At the cemetery, plates of fiambre and chilacayote are placed on the tomb while everyone picnics nearby.

When I asked Raphael about making fiambre, I was assured that this is simply not within the realm of possibility. Fiambre takes years to perfect. Currently, Raphael has one sister (out of five) who makes fiambre. And it took this sister decades to work it out. And I don’t have a Guatemalan mamacita to teach me all the ins and outs. And you can’t make it if it’s not Dia de Los Muertos, which it just practically never is.

Despite the seeming direness of the fiambre situation, we actually have a recipe for fiambre at home. I will include the recipe below with the caveats that I have not yet actually used it to achieve fiambre and that, if Raphael is to be believed, you apparently attempt fiambre at your own risk.

I’ve copied the recipe exactly as written. I particularly like the section on “Decoration” which I think you should try reading as a Beat poem.

Fiambre(From Kitchen Fiesta, 1981 Revised Edition, published by the Women’s Auxiliary of the Union Church, Guatemala, C.A.)

Note: this dish must be started a day in advance

luncheon tongue (plain or corned) – cut in squares.
Chicken boiled with necessary seasoning – deboned and separated in small pieces
Pork loin – cooked and cut in small pieces
Beef (corned or plain) – cooked and cut in small pieces
Ham – cut in small pieces
Sardines or mackeral (whichever preferred)
Sausages – highly flavored Italian Type – two or three different kinds as particularly preferred
frankfurters may be included, cut in slices

These vegetables (below) cut in small pieces, should be cooked the previous day in salt water, covered with sauce (after cooked) and allowed to marinate. (See below for sauce.) Keep in refrigerator to be thouroughly chilled. Retain to one side some of the vegetables (before marinating) for decoration.
string beans

This is made by grinding on a grinding stone (which is an intrinsic part of all Guatemalan Kitchens); could probably be done in electric blender.
Parsley (2-3 little bunches)
Green onions (2-3 little bunches)
1/4 cup mustard seed
3 chiles morrones (slightly piquant)
2 oz. capers
1 tsp. ginger powder (or if available 2 pieces ginger root, fresh) Mustard (English powdered) or French

After grinding above to a paste, add vinegar and oil to make salad sauce. Salt to taste.

Following day, meat and vegetables which have been well chilled are mixed together and additional oil or vinegar added as desired. Also add to this mixture 2 oz. capers.

Put aside a few of the sardines.

Keep certain pieces of chicken, sausage, tongue, ham. Pickles, capers, olives, radishes. Pieces of fresh cheese. Can of chili pimento. Vegetables – carrots and beets (cut in decorative figures). Small pieces of cauliflower. Cocktail onions (may also be placed in salad). Slices of hardboiled eggs, parsley and anchovy.

After salad mixture has been placed on a platter over lettuce leaves, all of the above mixture of decorations is arranged decoratively over the platter. Sprinkle with powdered cheese.”


feast of the dead

Stiltwalkers and silk flowers. Ghostly bagpipers. Dead brides and belly dancers. Dogs dressed like skeletons. Babies dressed like skeletons. Skeletons riding bicycles and wearing hats and posing for photos. And far more papier mache and fire than you could normally combine in polite society. These are some elements of Tucson’s strange and wonderful All Souls Procession. The event takes place after dark in November in downtown Tucson. A slowmoving river of people illuminates the streets, swelling block by block as spectators step off the sidewalks to follow the procession. More than 20,000 people came out this year. The whole thing culminates in a glittering theatrical finale comprised of aerialists lifted with a giant crane to spin over the crowd, music and mighty drumbeats, and plenty of things on fire.

My significant other, Raphael, can’t step out the back door without making new friends or randomly running into and then engaging with Tucson celebrity. And so, only days before the commencement of this year’s All Souls Procession, he met (she’s a friend of a friend, I think is how it goes) the woman who founded it back in the 1990s. The gist of her answer (and my apologies to her if I haven’t got this exactly right) is that she developed, after the death of her father, a fascination with the myriad ways in which death is celebrated throughout the world. Although the All Souls Procession today takes many elements from the Mexican Day of the Dead (which occurs on November 1 and 2), it was never meant to adhere strictly to Day of the Dead traditions, but rather was based more on an amalgamation of the various ways in which people all over the world approach death.

The Procession has apparently taken on something of a life of its own, morphing into something that differs from but also takes elements from both its original form and the Latin American El Dia de Los Muertos as well as incorporating other, more paganistic aspects. This makes sense, as my understanding is that the folks in Mexico don’t go around slipping prayers into a giant urn that is then hoisted up into the night sky by a huge crane and set spectacularly on fire. And there is a marked absence of bagpipes at their celebrations.

What they have in Mexico and in other Latin American countries is a celebration that has emerged over the course of about three thousand years as a combination of ancient Aztec rituals performed to honor Mictectacihuatl, the Aztec goddess of death, and the Catholic All Saints and All Souls Days (November 1 and 2, respectively). During Dia de Los Muertos, it is believed that the dead are able to hear and communicate with the living. They are welcomed by their loved ones among the living with gifts of flowers, candy, alcohol, and food. Altars are prepared in homes and businesses for the dead and visits are made to the cemeteries where family members were laid to rest. In Latin American countries where the Day of the Dead is one of the most important holidays of the year, humor and color and flowers and food are key elements in this communion of the living and the dead, but as far as I have been able to ascertain, belly dancers are generally not.

Food plays an important role in traditional Latin American Dia de Los Muertos activities. In Mexico, for example, people leave favorite foods on altars or at the graves of their ancestors that include nuts and fruits, chocolate and tequila, moles and tamales, atole (a sweet, thick corn drink), sugar skulls decorated with jewel-colored icing, and pan de muerto – a sweet, egg-based bread that can be flavored with anise seed, cinnamon, and orange and shaped into skulls, bones, angels, or animals. The dead take sustenance from the flavors and scents of the food left for them and once they’ve had their fill, actual consumption of the food falls to the living.

I did not make sugar skulls in honor of Tucson’s All Souls Procession this past Sunday, although I considered it briefly and will try it one of these years. Instead, I made my face up like a skull (With glitter! Just like a real skull!) and made a sign honoring my grandpa who passed away last November.

I also attempted some pan de muerto. I’ve stumbled across some reference to the possibility that the preparation of this bread has its origins in anthropomorphic figures shaped from sweet amaranth dough and used in mortuary rituals by the Aztecs way back in the day. The recipe I tried lacked in the amaranth department (as did every other recipe I saw) but did feature anise, orange zest, and a bright, sweet orange glaze that gave the finished loaf a golden glow. Others I’ve read call for a brush of egg whites or melted butter and a sprinkle of sugar. People also decorate the finished loaves with colored sugar or white icing. Given that I made my pan de muerto for Tucson’s All Souls Procession, an event that takes a little something from Day of the Dead traditions and a little something from everywhere else and mixes it all into something sparkling and surreal, the act of making pan de muerto and consuming it while preparing for the Procession could be considered an homage to the re-shuffling and mixing of the elements of old traditions into wonderful new ones.

Pan de Muerto with Orange Glaze

(altered slightly from the recipe found here:
• 1/4 cup unsalted butter
• 1/4 cup milk
• 1/4 cup warm water (about 110 degrees F)
• 3 cups all-purpose flour
• 1 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 2 teaspoons anise seed
• 1/4 cup sugar
• 2 eggs, beaten
• 1 teaspoon orange zest
• 1/4 teaspoon orange extract
• ¼ cup fresh orange juice
For glaze:
• 1/4 cup fresh orange juice
• 1 teaspoon orange zest
• ¼ cup sugar

1. Heat the milk and the butter together in a saucepan, until the butter melts. Remove from the heat and add the warm water. The mixture should be around 110 degrees.
2. In a large bowl, combine 1 cup of flour, yeast, salt, anise seed, and 1/4 cup of the sugar. Stir in the warm milk mixture. Add beaten eggs, orange zest, and ¼ cup fresh orange juice and stir until well combined. Stir in 1/2 cup of flour and continue adding the rest of the flour until a soft, sticky dough forms.
3. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about ten minutes.
4. Lightly grease a large bowl with butter and place the dough into the bowl. Cover with plastic wrap or a damp, clean towel and let rise in a warm place for 1 to 2 hours until doubled in size. Punch the dough down and remove two to four golfball-sized lumps (depending on how you want to decorate the loaf.) Shape the remaining large lump of dough into a large round loaf and place dough onto a baking sheet. Form the smaller lumps of dough into bone shapes or other shapes and attach them to the loaf. Loosely cover the loaf with a damp towel or plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place for about 1 hour or until doubled in size.
5. While dough is rising, preheat oven to 350 degrees.
6. Bake bread for about 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from oven and place loaf on a rack to cool slightly before glazing. (Bread should still be warm when glazed.)
7. To make glaze, combine 1/4 cup sugar, orange juice, and orange zest in a small pan. Bring to a boil over medium heat and boil for 2 minutes. Brush over top of bread while still warm.