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Tasting the Bread of the Dead During Día de Muertos

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The Day of the Dead in Mexico City, Mexico
Credit: Cyndra Schultz

When it comes to honoring our faithful departed in Mexico, we immediately think of food! But what else could it be when eating is one of the biggest pleasures in life. That’s why tasting the bread of the dead during Dia de Muertos is tops on our list of things to do.

Of all the food we prepare for the Day of the Dead celebrations there is one in particular that stands out from the rest: El Pan de Muerto, or the Bread of the Dead. This bread is only made at this time of the year, so everybody waits anxiously to eat it.

Pan de Muerto is a real treat because it is a sweetened soft bread with some orange essence, shaped like a bun, decorated with little pieces of bread on top called canillas and a tiny ball of bread on top with sugar sprinkled all over it. Delicious!

All of the elements of the bread of the dead have a meaning: The little ball on top of it is the skull, the canillas are the bones and the whole bread represents the deceased.

People from small towns to the big cities, especially from the center and south of Mexico, have had a particular craving for this bread for centuries.

The bread of the dead has its origin in the time of the Conquest, inspired by pre-Hispanic rituals. The tradition of this very special bread goes back to the time of human sacrifices and the arrival of the Spaniards to then New Spain, and now Mexico. Back in those days, a princess was offered to the gods, her heart, still beating, was placed in a pot with amaranth and then the priest took a bite of the heart as a sign of gratitude to a god.

When the Spaniards saw this savagery, they replaced the princess’ heart with a heart-shaped wheat bread bathed in sugar and painted in red, simulating blood of the maiden. At the beginning it wasn’t accepted by the natives of Mexico. Eventually, though, they accepted it.

Jose Luis Curiel Monteagudo, in his book “Azucarados Afanes, Dulces y Panes,” says “For Mexican people, eating the dead is a real pleasure, it is considered the anthropophagy of bread and sugar. The phenomenon is assimilated with respect and irony, where the death is challenged and they mock her by eating it.”

Other historians have said that the origin of this bread is based on a rite that the first settlers of Mesoamerica performed to honor the dead by burying the deceased with their belongings. They explain the elaboration of a bread composed of ground amaranth seeds and toast, mixed with the blood of sacrifices that were offered in honor of their gods.

Nowadays, there are many different varieties of the bread of the dead, depending upon the region of the state. What has not changed is the tradition to honor those who have left this world before us. They are represented with this symbolic bread of the dead.

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