Day of the Dead: a bit of history and a recipe for age-old Mexican pumpkin treat

Day of the Dead, which is not a day at all, in fact, but in Mexico, a celebration which runs from Oct. 30th through November 2nd, will be celebrated here in San Francisco on November 2nd with a procession and a Festival of Altars, from 6-11pm, Garfield Park, 26th & Harrison Streets.

Note: the following is adapted from an excerpt of the book, Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes, by this columnist co-authored with Adriana Almazan Lahl.

Día de los Muertos is the only modern Mexican festival for which there is conclusive evidence of pre-Hispanic roots. During the month of Xocotlhuetzi, which fell in July and/or August, the Aztecs marked the Great Feast of the Dead. It was the conquering Spaniards who “relocated” the festival to coincide with All Hallows Eve. The Aztec celebration coincided with the harvest of beans, chickpeas, rice, corn, and pumpkin. These foods were part of the offering that was placed at the altar of the goddess Mictecacihuatl, ruler of the afterlife along with her husband, Mictlantecuhtli.  Researchers think that these traditions eventually became conflated with others, which included burying personal objects of the deceased, along with food and offerings.Screen shot 2013-10-13 at 7.21.55 PM

 Día de Muertos Totonaco at Huehuetla, Puebla, photo by Jorge Ontiveros from Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes

A Guide to Elements of the Modern Altar

Far removed from their origins in rituals dedicated to Aztec deities, altars today usually have three levels, which represent the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. On these, offerings (ofrendas) are placed to honor and nourish the dead.

  • On the first level are photographs of the deceased, seven candles representing the seven capital sins, and four veladoras (blessed candles) to guide the departed souls on their journey, their light symbolic of eternal love. Here, too, are the marigolds (cempazuchil), the traditional Day of the Dead flowers, their bright orange-yellow color representing the brightness of the sun, and their aroma attracting the souls of the dead to the altars prepared in their honor.
  • Oranges and fruits are found on the second level. On this level are the papel picado banners, intricate hand-cut colored papers that represent the freedom that death brings, each color having a specific meaning: purple for Christian mourning, orange for Aztec mourning, white for purity and pink for celebration.
  • On the last level, a tray with a pitcher of water called and aguamanil is placed along with a piece of soap, a towel, even a mirror, so the deceased can wash up before they eat.  Here, a treasured article of clothing, as well as their favorite foods (often mole, tamales and atole) toys and sweets for the returning souls of children, and for the adults, even tequila and cigarettes. It is not expected that the departed will actually consume the offerings, but rather that they will “absorb” them. Afterwards, the living usually partake of the food and drink that is left on the altar, sometimes wearing a favorite article of that clothing that had been worn by the deceased. A cross made of ash is also created on the last level as a way to purify the spirits of the dead. Incense (copal) is there to scare away evil spirits. Pan de Muertos (Bread of the Dead, found this time of year in Mexican bakeries or panaderias throughout the Mission) and alfreñiques (sugar skulls) are also found on this level.

Pumpkin has been an essential part of Day of the Dead ofrendas since Aztec times, when they used the sap of a maguey plant as a sweetener for calabaza. The arrival of the Spanish brought sugar cane, first introduced in Vera Cruz as early as 1524, which changed the was the sweetened pumpkin was prepared. Cooks began to candy the pumpkin by placing it into caldrons called tachas that were used for making sugar. It simmered along with other spices and fruits, resulting in the dish known today as Calabza en Tacha.Screen shot 2013-10-08 at 2.29.42 PM

Calabaza en Tacha, photo by Adriana Almazan Lahl from Celebraciones Mexicanas, History, Traditions and Recipes

Mexican children often eat this seasonal treat immersed in a tall glass, topping up the glass with cold milk, and eat it with a spoon. Click here to get a discount on your milk purchase to enjoy your Calabaza en Tacha this way!

Calabaza en Tacha

(serves 8)

5 cups water
7 piloncillo cones (order via or available at Casa Lucas on 24th & Florida Sts.
4 cinnamon sticks
2 oranges (juice and rind)
. tsp anise seeds
. tsp ground cloves
1 large orange pumpkin (8–10 lbs)
(Remember that carving pumpkins are not always the best for cooking. Here is a useful guide to picking pumpkins).
2 tbsp cal (calcium carbonate)*

Bring water to a boil, add piloncillo, cinnamon, orange juice, and rind. Wrap anise seeds and cloves in cheese cloth, close tightly and add to the pot. Cover pot and cook for 3 hours over low flame, stirring occasionally, until a medium light syrup forms.
Meanwhile, cut pumpkin into large chunks (3- to 4-inch pieces), place in a large pot and cover them with water and calcium carbonate and let rest for 3 hours. After 3 hours, drain and wash thoroughly.
Clear debris from spices from the syrup, combine pumpkin with syrup, and cook over low heat until pumpkin is tender, about 1. to 2 hours. Allow to cool for 15 minutes before serving or refrigerate overnight and serve (1)



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