Category Archives: Dia de Los Muertos

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.”