*Compensation was provided by Crown Imports via Legacy Marketing Partners. The opinions expressed herein are those of the author and are not indicative of the opinions or positions of Crown Imports.*
Dia de los Muertos…
Day of the Dead…
However you say it, whatever you call it…it is not Halloween. November 2nd began the holiday of Dia de Muertos. This holiday, celebrated by many cultures but mainly in Mexico, focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember loved ones who have died. I have never been in Mexico during this time, however, Negra Modelo brought a Day of the Dead fiesta right to the heart of Chicago.
Full. Blown. Immersion.
As the elevator doors opened, immediately we looked into the boney face of an illuminated sugar skull, peering at our souls through the darkness. Black draped tables studded with candlelight allowed us just enough light to enjoy the vases of eye-popping orange and yellow marigolds. Uniquely painted paper mache skulls were watching our every move, all while enjoying facinating conversation with the backdrop of the city skyline fog lingering low behind us.
Despite the genius decorations, musical mariachi band, flowing food with cerveza and local artistry, every time I get the opportunity to speak with six-time James Beard award recipiant, Chef Rick Bayless, it is always the centerpiece of my evening. “The Mexican culture is stronger than it has ever been,” confirms Rick Bayless. “Aside from the children now dressing up as Lucha Libre characters, Dia de Muertos traditions have stayed true and separate from Halloween.” Chef Bayless’s lyrical storytelling is like a ballet of words in which you refrain from blinking out of fear of missing an act.
Rick went on to explain some of the Dia de Muertos symbols and their importance to the people. In Mexican culture and revered by the Aztecs, marigold flowers represent the sun. During this holiday, marigolds are placed on the graves of the deceased in order to “light” their way and again on altars to find their way home. The sugar skulls, or calaveras, are gifts to both the living and the dead. Typically, the name of the recipient will be inscribed on the forehead of bread (pan de muertos) and candy skulls. Have you often seen skeleton trinkets adorned as brides and grooms? They can also be dressed as plumbers, hairdressers or whatever job the deceased performed while they were living. All of these symbolic items can be found in cemeteries and home altars.
Above all, food and beverage is integral to the Dia de Muertos traditions. Surprising to me, more of the celebrating takes place in the home than anywhere else. The family members in each house create an altar, or ofrenda (altars can also be found in schools and government offices.) On these beautifully decorated altars, people might place candles, photographs, religious symbols/statues and, most importantly, food and beverages. “Plates with single servings of food are placed on the altar and left overnight. Most always contain mole, as each family makes their own version,” Rick Bayless tells us. “Grandma would say not to eat the food because it is no good; it is empty…meaning the spirits have already taken the nourishment…and, because it would probably make you sick after being left out all night.”
As we left the private conversation room and entered the reception hall, once again, we were overcome with the same feeling of awe. Now nightfall, the cityscape lights twinkled and surrounded the room as if holding us all in its arms for an evening to remember. Trumpets blast and guitars strum from the full mariachi putting us in a celebratory state of mind. Beautiful, uniquely individual people from different walks of life, discussing topics from career to travel to hilarious experiences. The food offering: guacamole, roasted corn in chipotle mayo, ceviche, fresh made corn tortillas, vegetarian and pork/beef mole, sweet corn tamales (my favorite) topped with crema, cotija cheese and salsa. Desserts consisted of rich pecan bars, light peanut cookies and a decadent chocolate cake (made with Negra Modelo) dolloped with toasted swiss meringue. Chef Bayless has been incorporating Negra Modelo into his cooking for 25 years, so for him to use it in a chocolate dessert is no surprise.
One would most likely not think of guacamole as being a demonstratable food, but according to Chef Bayless, it is deeper than you realize. When you envision a buttery bowl of guacamole at a party, you might think of avocado, onion, tomato, cilantro and lime. However, Bayless recommends using whatever is available. Red tomatoes aren’t the best outside of the summer season, so consider using tomatillos (recipe below). “For a fuller flavor, try roasting your vegetables in a toaster oven before adding them to the guacamole,” suggests Rick. “Also, after chopping raw white onion, soak it in cold water to ‘de-flame’ them.” The process of physically chopping an onion creates the chemical compound that burns your eyes and mouth. Cold water will wash that away leaving a pleasant onion flavor. How about the old debate of preventing guacamole from browning? Don’t flood your avocado with lime juice. The citric acid will help, but even better, keep your guacamole cold for maintaining the best color. Think about taking your guac up a notch by soaking sun-dried tomatoes in Negra Modelo beer before adding. Maybe some chopped red pepper, diced sweet mango or roasted pumpkin seeds is more your speed. Whatever you use to make the perfect guacamole, just be sure to pair it with a creamy, full-flavored Negra Modelo, Mexico’s top selling dark beer.
As the night waned, it appeared that no person wanted to leave the event’s seductive grasp. Slowly, one by one, guests slipped away with a fulfilled feeling of merriment and culture and a bit more understanding of the world around them. Dia de Muertos is a spiritual holiday; this celebration was an complete manifestation of that spirit in which we all claimed a piece and hid it in our hearts.
Buena vida mis amigos!