The bread of the dead, calaveras and other foods of remembrance

03 November 2020

I’ve always loved the last days of October and the first of November, because I love the celebrations of the dead. I find a lot of life within them, and the idea of a link which can’t be broken, whether or not there is a life beyond this one.

And that’s why today’s article for Terra Madre is more of a short diary, inspired by the desire to share an aspect of civilization that sometimes seems to have disappeared, because all too often it seems that our memories don’t have value, and that sincere reflections on death are altogether missing from common discourse.

But it shouldn’t be like that. It’s important to maintain a link with those who have passed away, just as it’s important to confront the “great leveler”, as it helps us to live better and more fully in the here and now. That’s how I see it, at least.

The topic here hasn’t just come out of nowhere: the context is timely, linking death to food, and it comes from a Terra Madre community in Calpulapan, in the state of Tlaxcala, Mexico. Here Yara Muñoz Castillo, a traditional cook of the San Felipe Sultepec community, has made a video on the preparation of the ceremonial bread for the dead, and its meaning.


A How It’s Made episode which we were delighted to share, as it shows us some of the most authentic traditions of a people that, perhaps more than any other, has developed complex and colorful rites to celebrate and remember the dead. And to tell them that we still love them.

Yara recommended that we publish this video a few days before the Day of the Dead (which was yesterday, November 2, though this translation is being published the day after, sic). She thought people might want to prepare it in their own homes beforehand. In reality, watching and re-watching the video, I was a little dissuaded by the use of some “ingredients” like the oak wood to make the fire and the branches of false pepper to clean the oven and infuse the bread with its aroma. But I don’t give up.

I’d like it if as many people as possible tried to make this bread, obviously adapting the traditional recipe according to what they have available. As well as the oak wood and the branches of false pepper, there are lots of other things that we may not easily find: instead of piloncillo I’ve used panela, and I’ve substituted the pork fat with a plant-based lard. Regarding the anise and the cinnamon, I’ve stayed true to the Mexican recipe, as I wanted to make bread with an aroma as similar as possible to the one Yara makes.


What fascinates me in Yara’s recipe is the deep meaning behind it. “This bread represents the passage to the next life.” You’ll see that the bread is decorated with branches of dough. “The more branches we put on the tree signify how much we loved the person who passed away. So the bread is going to be very decorated very detailed, for this reason this bread is made well in advance. Here we make the offering on the 28th of October, where traditionally offerings are made to those who died in accidents. This bread will be included in the offering, they’re called donated breads.”


Also from Mexico, alternatively, there’s another food that we can try to make at home. Have you ever heard of calaveras? They’re colored skulls made of sugar, typical of Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico, though amazingly it seems they have roots in Italy. It was in fact a group of Italian missionaries who inspired the tradition when, in the 17th century, they imported some sugar “sculptures” to the New World which were part of their Easter celebrations: lambs and angels with a high calorie content were used as ornaments around the church altars.

The intention of these missionaries was more likely to have been to encourage the import of these sculptures, but this didn’t happen. The Mexican church was poor and couldn’t afford to buy these expensive sugar sculptures from abroad. Instead, given the abundance of local sugar, the sculptures were made by the local people, who introduced a new element which ended up supplanting all the others. The skulls of the Day of the Day are used to both as an offering for tombs and altars, and as candy for children – much better than the various macabre ideas that now represent the idea of Halloween night.

Let’s start with a list of things which are absolutely essential, i.e. granular icing sugar, powdered meringues, colors for decorating and above all, skull molds. There are lots of online tutorials that show you to make them.


There are recipes in Italy too that celebrate the dead. For example the cisrà, a soup of tripe and chickpeas – a poor farmer’s dish – made in the Piemontese countryside in the first days of November. Or the Sicilian “bones of the dead”, magnificent biscuits with an aroma of cloves and – again – cinnamon. The nougat of the dead in Naples, soft and covered in chocolate. Then there’s the broad beans of the dead and our own version of the bread of the dead…

Do you have a recipe to share with us? We’d love to see it!

by Silvia Ceriani,