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Remembering dead with food

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Updated: October 30, 2012 9:26AM



This time last year in Yucatan, I watched how the Mexican state of Quintana Roo celebrates Day of the Dead, the holiday that corresponds with traditional Mayan celebrations of Hanal Pixan (“Food of Souls”), Halloween and the Catholic All Saints and All Souls Day.

With pre-Columbian antecedents, El Dia de los Muertos is marked by familiar rituals such as painting one’s face to resemble death’s head and putting out ofrendas — offerings — of favorite foods and other personal items to honor deceased family and friends. Ofrendas may include sugar skulls, the sweet bread pan de los muertos and mucbipollo, an oversized tamale.

We’ve found sugar skulls of all sizes at Dulcelandia locations around the city.

Pan de los muertos is shaped like bones. You can purchase this once-a-year-treat at Panaderia Nuevo Leon and other Latino bakeries in Pilsen and greater Chicagoland.

The tamale mucbipollo is made of cornmeal, stuffed with chicken and wrapped in moist banana leaves for a slightly acidic, vegetal flavor. Mucbipollo means “buried chicken” because the tamale is cooked in the ground under hot rocks for hours. The tamale is then disinterred (rising from the earth like the revivified dead), and served during the holiday celebration.

You can sample mucbipollo tamales at Xni-Pec, the Yucatecan restaurant in west suburban Brookfield, where co-owner Marisa Romo told us that when preparing this tasty tamale, “lard is one of the most important ingredients.” She knows what she’s talking about.

When we tried making tamales, our biggest mistake was not using enough lard to prevent the cornmeal from cracking. So for this one holiday, be liberal with lard.

It adds calories, but if you’ve seen Jose Guadalupe Posada’s drawings of skeletons cavorting and having a good time, you know most of the dead can afford to pack on a few extra pounds.

At Xni-Pec, Romo’s family serves other Yucatecan holiday foods, including earth-roasted pork and atoles, a beverage of guava and pumpkin seed.

Offering the dead their favorite foods is not, of course, practiced solely in Mexico. During the Chinese festival of Ching Ming and stretching back to ancient Rome times, it’s customary to set out the favorite foods of the departed during an annual remembrance.

Note to my survivors: better get a bigger table.

E-mail detective@suntimes.com.



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