From the Ground Up: Day of the Dead — a celebration of life
by Ann M. Evans & Georgeanne Brennan
In Mexico, as in many countries around the world, family members and friends share a meal and offering in remembrance of departed loved ones Nov. 1 and 2. Known in Mexico as Day of the Dead, or “Dia de los Muertos,” this is a happy occasion. This year, the public is invited to celebrate Day of the Dead, at an afternoon picnic, at the Davis Cemetery.
“I just think it’s a great tradition coming from the Mexican culture to look at death differently than what we’re used to,” Sandra Rodriguez, who is helping to plan the event, shared with us.
Sandra, who is Assistant Deputy to Yolo County Supervisor Jim Provenza, in whose district the cemetery is located.
“We remember loved ones how they were in life, celebrating their life with their favorite things and keeping them close to our hearts without the sadness that comes along with death.”
This year, Sandra will make a public altar for the first time, at the Davis Cemetery, in honor of the event. Often created with marigolds, sugar skulls, and ceramic or paper skeletons doing daily chores, altars, including one dedicated to Dr. Joe Pence, can also be seen this month at the Pence Gallery in Davis in honor of Dia de los Muertos. Their exhibit features local and regional artists who explore the meaning of Day of the Dead in their work, such as Alison Smith, Amanda Lopez, Malaquias Montoya, and Susan Shelton (also known for her “skellies” sold at The Artery.)
In the exhibit, Susan Shelton has a ceramic scene of skeletons picnicking on grass, with a colorful cloth and large picnic basket. The piece is entitled, “Here and Now,” which is the philosophy Susan, whom Ann caught up with at the Davis Farmers Market, says is absolutely what the celebration is about to her. That, plus her grandmother, who though now deceased, is still a legend for her cooking in Davis.
“I always remember my grandmother, known as Abuelita to me and my family, and all her Davis friends, especially during the Day of the Dead holiday,” Susan shared with Ann, who was lucky enough to cook with Abuelita. “She always prepared molé and Chiles en Nogada this time of year, and we included a dish of molé, rich, dark and glossy, and sprinkled with sesame seeds, on our home altar. This year her spirit will be with me in the kitchen once again as I prepare my own Mole for the holiday. Maybe I will bring it to the picnic!”
We’ve included one of Georgeanne’s favorite recipes for molé in honor of Abuelita. And if you go to www.slowfoodyolo.com, you can find Abuelita’s recipe for Chiles en Nogada, which Ann prepared from watching Abuelita cook years ago.
For Susan, Sandra and millions of others around the world, this is a very special time of the year. Susan, deeply moved by this celebration, reflects on the deeper meaning behind it.
“Not only do we remember our loved ones who have died, but we also celebrate the joy and beauty of being alive, and, with awareness of our own mortality, reaffirm our commitment to living with gratitude and mindfulness.”
In keeping with the lightheartedness of the day and with tradition, Woodland’s bakery, Panaderia Mana, will be providing the traditional Pan de los Muertos, bread of the dead, a flat bread baked in the shape of skulls and crossbones, for the celebration at the Davis Cemetery. Such bread is to be seen in Mexican bakery windows all month. Mexican hot chocolate will be available (bring a mug.) Music will be provided by one of Woodland’s favorite bands, Mariachi Tonantzi, to add to the family festivities.
The Davis Cemetery is an Audubon certified sanctuary and quite simply, a beautiful park. Come picnic with us. Over the past decade, with Ann and others on its board, environmental advances have been made, including allowing green burials, planting fruit and flowering trees, broadcasting thousands of wild flower seeds, and adding solar panels to the roof top. A fountain and seating area to honor local military veterans was built and serves as the site to celebrate their contributions and memory twice a year. Now the Davis Cemetery adds a third celebration – Day of the Dead – a celebration of life.
Chicken in Green Molé
Molés (sauces thickened with nuts and seeds) are a specialty of Mexican cooking, and there are many different types. In this one, chicken simmered in a fragrant broth is then covered before serving with a rich green molé, or sauce, that includes a head of romaine lettuce and green Anaheim chilies which give it its color, and seeds, nuts, and a tortilla thicken it. It is simple, but authentic, and makes a brilliant centerpiece for a casual gathering. The chicken can be made ahead, but the sauce should be made no more than two or three hours before serving.
1 chicken, about 4 pounds, cut into serving pieces
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1-inch cube fresh ginger, peeled
1/2 teaspoon salt
For the sauce
4 fresh green Anaheim chilies
2 Serrano chilies
4 tomatillos, papery husks removed
1 tablespoon pumpkin seeds
2 teaspoons sesame seeds
8 blanched almonds
2 tablespoons canola or sunflower oil
2 cloves garlic
1 green bell pepper
1 tablespoon unsalted peanut butter
2 allspice cloves
1 tomato, chopped and seeded
1 cup chopped parsley
1 large head romaine lettuce
1 corn tortilla
1/2 to 1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
Putting it together
Place the chicken pieces in a stockpot and cover by three inches with cold water. Add the onion, pepper, ginger and 1/2 teaspoon of coarse sea salt. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium, and simmer uncovered, until the chicken is tender, about 1 hour 15 minutes Remove and set aside. Strain the broth, reserving three cups.
For the sauce
On a griddle or under a broiler, roast the chilies until the skin is charred, about three to five minutes. Remove to a plastic bag and set aside. On a griddle or in a dry frying pan, toast the tomatillos just until they start soften, about two minutes. Remove the chilies from the bag, and peel them. Cut them in half and remove the seeds and ribs. In a blender or food processor, blend the chilies, tomatillos, and one cup of the broth. Set aside for 15 minutes to allow the flavors to develop.
In a frying pan over medium high heat, heat the oil. When it is hot, add the seeds and nuts, stirring, until fragrant and just turning pale gold, about two to three minutes. Place them in a blender or food processor, along with the chili mixture, garlic, onion, bell pepper, peanut butter, allspice and tomato. Add one half cup of the broth and puree. Add the parsley and lettuce, and tortilla and puree again. The mixture will now be bright green and somewhat thick.
The consistency depends upon how much moisture was in the vegetables, so if the sauce is too thick, add a little bit more of the broth. If too thin, add another tortilla a little at a time. Ideally, you will use about two to two and a half cups of broth and the sauce will have the consistency of thick cream.
In a saucepan over medium heat, heat the sauce until it turns a darker green, 10 to 15 minutes. Taste and season with salt.
Preheat an oven to 350 degrees F. Place the chicken in a baking dish covered with foil and reheat until fully warmed, about 30 minutes. To serve, remove the chicken to a deep serving platter and bowl, and pour the sauce over it. Serve immediately with rice and corn tortillas. Serves 8 to 10
~ Day of the Dead: A Celebration of Life, admission free. Sponsored by the Davis Cemetery and Slow Food Yolo. RSVP to email@example.com. Saturday, Oct. 29, 1-3 p.m. at the Davis Cemetery, 820 Pole Line Road, on the corner of E. Eighth St. and Pole Line Road. Use the E. Eighth Street entrance, which is always open. Parking available. Bring a picnic lunch and a brightly colored picnic cloth. No alcohol. For more information contact Slow Food Yolo: www.slowfoodyolo.com or Davis Cemetery staff: 756-7807 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
~ Dia De los Muertos (Day of the Dead), Sept. 22 to Nov. 20, 2011; Reception: Oct. 14, 6-9 PM. Pence Gallery, 212 D St., Davis. For more information contact Pence Gallery: 758-3370 or www.pencegallery.org.
(Ann M. Evans and Georgeanne Brennan are coauthors of the forthcoming book – the Davis Farmers Market Cookbook, Tasting California’s Small Farms, (spring 2012.) Co-leaders of Slow Food Yolo, they have a food and marketing consulting firm, Evans & Brennan, LLC, specializing in farm fresh food in school lunch. Reach them at email@example.com.)