Reviving Dia de los Muertos

When I first moved to San Antonio, the places to see flowers and foods placed on graves to encourage visits from their inhabitants were the old San Fernando Cemeteries. Most of the wrinkled pilgrims picnicking with their deceased loved ones on All Saints and All Souls Days, November 1 and 2, appeared poised to repose alongside them. The remnants of the Dia de los Muertos traditions enduring from when San Antonio had been part of Mexico were dying with them.

Bedoy’s Bakery, founded in 1961, credits Father Virgil Elizondo with encouraging the bakers to dust off traditional old recipes for dead bread, pan de muerto. I used to buy the breads around Halloween, but felt guilty when we selfishly ate them without offering to share them with the dead.

In the past decade or two, artists in San Antonio began adding contemporary twists to ancient Day of the Dead traditions, and now the city sponsors a full-blown fiesta for Dia de los Muertos in La Villita. Altars, processions and even a concert by Girl in a Coma were part of this year’s event, held a bit early because the city’s Day of the Dead calendar is getting more crowded.

While a far cry from the celebrations we witnessed outside of and in San Cristobal de las Casas last November, San Antonio’s spirited version represents traditions worth reviving and refreshing for new generations.

Although I cannot comprehend why the marketing department at Coca-Cola is not all over sponsorship opportunities for this event. In Mexico, Coca-Cola dominates the graveyard market in San Juan Chamula, Chiapas:

One would think a people who have rejected so many standards held by outsiders would not consider taking even one sip of a Coca-Cola. But expelling evil spirits from the body is key. Spitting helps, but burping is best. And what is better at inducing burping than a few shots of rapidly consumed Coke….

But, what marketing genius convinced the Chamulans a half-century ago to incorporate Coke into not only their Sunday church-going regimen, but everyday life? I mean, Chamulans need to continually maintain their guard against those invasive evil spirits, burping them out on a regular basis.

And whoever the lucky holder of the local bottling franchise is really struck a home run with this. The market is larger than just the living. On Dia de los Muertos, even the dead are served Cokes to quench their parched throats from so much time spent underground and to burp away any evil spirits hanging around the cemetery.

Just think how large Coca-Cola’s market share would soar if this practice spread to the dead everywhere.

Here are some posts from last year in Chiapas, Mexico:

 

Postcard from San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico: Sweeping up the photographic crumbs

Street art and graffiti. Halloween. Fashion. Textiles. Museums. Street scenes. And the 43.

Random leftovers from our two-week stay in San Cristobal de las Casas.

It had been three decades since our earlier visit to this colonial city; we won’t wait long to return.

Postcard from San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico: She-chefs and expats revolutionize restaurant scene

Looking over the food photographs from our visit to San Cristobal de las Casas, it immediately struck me. Where is the Mexican food? What a dramatic change from our visit to San Cristobal more than three decades ago. There are so many contemporary fusion and international options lining the streets, we failed to eat much traditional fare.

Chef Marta Zepeda offers beautifully presented “haute” Chiapan cuisine at Tierra y Cielo, a boutique hotel focused on the food at its heart. Service was old-school Mexico; the presentation was not. Dishes we sampled included a julienned squash and apple salad with candied nuts; tamales with mole; and chicken with a pipian sauce on one side of the plate and a red mole on the other.

Another woman, Chef Daniela Mier y Teran, is at the helm of the contemporary Restaurante LUM in Hotel Bo. Our amuse-bouches were seafood empanadas, and the Mister opted for a spicily sauced tender pork dish. I jumped out of the country and plunged into a rich shrimp risotto.

Which leads us to pizza. We found a simple vegetarian pizza cooked in a wood-fired oven and loaded with chopped fresh tomatoes at the small, unpretentious neighborhood Pizzaria el Punto on a plaza reached by a flight or two of stairs in Barrio el Cerrillo. If directed to the second  floor with a view of the plaza, anyone over five-feet tall needs to watch their heads on the way upstairs.

What many consider the best Italian restaurant in town, Trattoria Italiana, was half a block from our house. Ordering is complicated because the owner-chef speaks Italian and Spanish and has no written menu. He recites the daily options – which are extensive – to you. We ended up over-ordering, which made our bill add up. An appetizer of ahi tuna was served in a crispy parmigiano reggiano basket. A successful Mexican take on lasagna layered cheese, custard and strips of poblano pepper instead of the customary pasta. The three-cheese ravioli was not exciting, but the Mister swears the pumpkin and sage ravioli was absolutely the best ravioli he has ever put in his mouth. We kept wanting to return for more pumpkin ravioli, but somehow didn’t make it.

Part of the reason is sometimes you long for something light, which led us to Te Quiero Verde for fresh vegetarian fare, such as a simple couscous salad. The Mister managed to bite into mountainous falafel burger, and not a drop of my coconut curry remained on the plate.

My favorite healthy meal was the ahi tuna salad found at a comfortable café around the corner from our house, Frontera Artisan Food. Preparation of coffee was raised to artistic levels, and the kitchen turns out wonderful gelato.

We even took a break to order Lebanese food at Arez Restaurant on Real de Guadalupe. The assorted grilled meat platter was nothing spectacular, but we enjoyed the appetizer platter laden with hummus, baba ghanouj, tabouleh, stuffed grape leaves, spicy potatoes, green beans and sort of an eggplant ratatouille. The friendly owner and his wife were enjoying an off-menu dessert they shared with us – a custard flavored with orange flower water and topped with pistachios.

But I saved the best for last. Our favorite spot was also on Real de Guadalupe, a Spanish tapas and wine bar – El Cau. We actually enjoyed it more than anything we found in Spain. The tradition of providing some complimentary tapas with orders of wine or beer lives on here, but we never stopped there. Everything we had was delicious, including lomo de puerco, pulpo, salmon, eggplant brochettas and the highly addictive honied slices of eggplant. We stopped here for lunch and a bottle of wine at least three times.

Am including a photo of the toy truck at El Cau bearing what a friend of ours in Mexico calls el dolor – the check – because it reminded me of one of the lessons from Portugal that should be replicated in San Antonio. Imaginative ways of presenting the final bill.

In Portugal, we had checks presented every which way – in elegant wooden boxes, in the pages of books and even curled up in an unused sardine can. It makes getting the dolor (pain, grief) so much more bearable.

However, settling the bill in San Cristobal de las Casas was rarely painful. The total bill for food and a bottle of wine generally was the equivalent of a single bottle of wine – no food – in a restaurant in San Antonio.