Monday, November 1, 2010

Day of the Dead: Susan Wittig Albert Guest Blogger

Today in honor of the Day of the Dead, I welcome Susan Wittig Albert as Guest Blogger.  Susan recounts the 'herbs' of the Day of the Dead, as well as a great recipe for Pan del Dia de Muertos.

Susan Wittig Albert's fiction includes mysteries in the China Bayles series, the Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter, and a series of Victorian-Edwardian mysteries she has written with her husband, Bill Albert, under the pseudonym of Robin Paige. Previous nonfiction includes What Wildness is This: Women Write About the Southwest (winner of the 2009 Willa Award for Creative Nonfiction); With Courage and Common Sense; Writing from Life: Telling the Soul's Story; and Work of Her Own: A Woman's Guide to Success Off the Career Track.


Here in Texas, we’ve learned to celebrate some of the cultural traditions of our south-of-the-border friends. These celebrations often involve food and herbs, and I often try to include these in the China Bayles mysteries. (China owns an herb shop in Pecan Springs, halfway between San Antonio and Austin.) Here’s an example:

Hispanics celebrate their dead throughout the year, but especially on El Dia de Muertos, the day when families hold reunions at the cemetery, where the spirits of the dead are invited to join the festivities and share in the holiday food, music, flowers, candles, and incense. It’s a reflection of Hispanics’ respect for death, their belief that death is only a part of life, in the natural progression from this world to the next.

Bleeding Hearts: A China Bayles Mystery

In Mexico, Day of the Dead celebrations usually take place between October 27 and November 2. The rituals differ, depending on family, community, and regional traditions. Families create home altars displaying the ofrendas, or offerings, which include flowers and herbs, pictures, candles, and pan de muerto, as well as favorite foods. The community celebrates with music, dancing, gay costumes, and quiet visits to family gravesites, where candles and incense are burned. But whatever else the celebration involves, three important herbs are likely to be used.

Amaranth (Amaranthus hypochondriacus) was a staple grain for pre-Columbian Aztecs, who believed it had supernatural powers. Associated with human sacrifice, ground amaranth seed was mixed with honey or human blood and formed into figures that that were eaten during rituals. At modern Day of the Dead celebrations, the seeds are mixed with honey and chocolate and made into skulls called calaveras, with the name of the dead on the forehead. The skulls symbolize death and rebirth.

Marigold (Tagetes sp.), or zenpasuchitl or cempasuichil, figured in Aztec beliefs about the seven-year journey to and from the afterworld, which must be completed before the dead could rest. In search of nourishment, souls returned to the land of the living each year. They took strong-smelling marigolds from the ofrenda to drop behind them, marking the trail they would take on their return the following year. Often, the living create such trails, from the cemetery (where marigold flowers decorate the grave) to the home.

Copal, a resin from the copal tree (Bursera bipinnata), is an ancient ceremonial incense of the Aztecs, gathered as a resinous sap from their sacred tree. In pre-Columbian times, it was burned, with human sacrifices, on top of the Aztec and Mayan pyramids. It is burned on the ofrenda to bless and purify the returning souls of the dead.

Here’s a traditional bread that is part of the El Día de los Muertos celebration:

Pan del Dia de Muertos: Bread for the Day of the Dead

1/4 cup milk
1/4 cup margarine or butter, cut into 8 pieces
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 package active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water
2 eggs
1 teaspoon orange flavoring
3 cups all-purpose flour, unsifted
1/2 teaspoon anise seed
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons sugar

Bring milk to boil and remove from heat. Stir in margarine or butter, 1/4 cup sugar and salt. Cool to room temperature. In large bowl, mix yeast with warm water until dissolved and let stand 5 minutes. Add the cooled milk mixture. Separate the yolk and white of one egg. Add the yolk to the liquid mixture. (Reserve the white for glazing.) Add the orange flavoring. Stir flour into the liquid mixture, one cup at a time. Continue stirring hard until dough ball is formed.

Flour a pastry board or work surface and place the dough in center. Knead until smooth (about 5 minutes) and form into a large ball. Place in large greased bowl, turning to grease the dough ball, and cover with dish towel. Let rise in warm place for 90 minutes. Grease a baking sheet and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Punch down dough. Cut off and reserve about one quarter of the dough. Divide larger portion and form two round loaves. Place on a greased baking sheet, leaving space for expansion. With remaining dough, shape skulls and crossbones. Divide dough into 4 parts. Roll 2 pieces into 8" long ropes for crossbones. Cut each in half. Crisscross 2 strips over each loaf and shape ends. Form remaining 2 pieces into small balls. On each loaf, slit the “bones” cross-over and press one ball into each slit, to form a "skull."

Cover bread with damp towel and let rise for 30 minutes. In a bowl, mix anise seed, cinnamon and 2 teaspoons sugar. In another bowl, beat egg white lightly. Brush top of bread with egg white and sprinkle with sugar mixture. Bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes.

1 comment:

Lindy said...

Excellent piece of history. Thank you, Susan for sharing this and thanks to "Mystery Fanfare" for inviting you to be a guest blogger.