Mexico’s Day of the Dead, despite the macabre name, is traditionally a festival full of color and music and life.
Taking place Oct. 31 through Nov. 2, the three-day Day of the Dead observance is a time to remember the departed and celebrate life. The holiday — which is recognized in Mexico and nearby countries like Guatemala, Honduras, and the United States — carries into the present many aspects of an ancient Aztec festival which, over time, incorporated Christian elements. Like Halloween, the Day of the Dead celebration begins on All Hallow’s Eve/All Saints’ Eve, the Christian holiday dedicated to remembering saints, martyrs, and other departed mortals.
For Day of the Dead in many Mexican-American homes (and, in fact, in our home, though none of us is of Mexican heritage), families set up ofrendas, small tables decorated with photos of those who’ve gone before, some of their favorite things — like foods, toys, or sports gear — and marigolds, lots of marigolds, the signature flowers for Day of the Dead. The brightly colored, boldly scented marigolds are thought to guide the spirits of the dead to their ofrendas. Why is this important? So that the spirits will understand that they are remembered, and in that way, still alive in the hearts of those who loved them. Setting up our ofrenda, we found ourselves thinking about lost family and friends in a more focused way than usual. It felt good.
Skeletons and skulls, of course, play a big role in Day of the Dead celebrations. In Chicago and throughout Mexico, you’ll see calaveras, images of skeletons, dressed up, dancing, singing, and acting like the living people they once were.
You may be familiar with Day of the Dead from the Disney/Pixar film “Coco,” an animated feature that conveys the life-affirming spookiness of the festival, as well as the color, music, and festivity of this autumn affirmation of the belief that love never dies.
In Chicago, blessed as we are with a large Hispanic population, there are several exhibits and events that celebrate this day, some with interactive aspects that involve the whole family.
Organized by the National Museum of Mexican Art, Day of the Dead Xicago takes place on Saturday, Oct. 27, between 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. This event focuses on the ofrendas created by members of the local community, as well as live musical performances, face painting (expect lots of skulls), art activities, and pan de muerto, a traditional sweet bread prepared for Day of the Dead, with bone-like images baked into the top crust. The National Museum of Mexican Art is also running a Day of the Dead-inspired art exhibition entitled “A Matter of Life” featuring ofrendas and other artifacts from Day of the Dead. There are also classes in decorating the sugar skulls that make their appearance during the Day of the Dead season, and you can buy sugar skulls in a variety of sizes on display at the museum; they will inscribe the name of one of the departed on the sugar skull you purchase.
Another event organized by the National Museum of Mexican Art, the Love Never Dies Ball takes place on Nov. 2, 6-10 p.m. There will be live music, traditional culinary treats, beverages, and a chance to win unique prizes. Guests are encouraged to don “creative cocktail” attire and, yes, face painting will be provided. Proceeds support the museum, which is worth a visit any time of year.
This 5K “Race of the Dead” is going into its eleventh year. Participants are encouraged to don Day of the Dead apparel and face makeup. From the makers of Pilsen Fest and Pilsen Cantina Crawl, and in support of the United Neighborhood Organization, this annual event — taking place this year on Nov. 2 — celebrates the Mexican holiday with style. The first three runners to cross the finish line will be awarded one-of-a-kind sugar skulls.
If you’re headed down to the National Museum of Mexican Art for Day of the Dead activities, here are some notable dining options in the area.
1725 W. 18th, Chicago
Carnitas, or “little meats,” are tender pieces of pork slow cooked in lard, which may sound over-the-top decadent, but it’s the same technique used to make the French duck confit, the fowl cooked in its own fat. Carnitas Uruapan is one of the best and most popular places to go for pork carnitas, and you can buy a quantity to take home or you can eat in the restaurant (provided you can find a seat; this place is hugely popular). If you’ve never had pork rinds, consider purchasing chicharrons, the crispy skin of the pig and a rich, tasty snack; a half-pound will last a long time.
1758 W. 18th, Chicago
One block from the Mexican National Museum of Art, 5 Rabanitos (five radishes) is chef Alfonso Sotelo’s much praised tribute to both traditional and innovative Mexican cuisine. Nick Kindelsperger of the Chicago Tribune has high praise for several dishes there, including the pozole, a traditional pork-based soup of hominy and other vegetables: “The first thing you notice is the color, an intense verdant green. Each sip is rich and meaty, with the hearty hominy only adding to the depth. On the other hand, the toppings are a mess of fresh textural contrasts: wispy shreds of cabbage, creamy pieces of avocado, crunchy chunks of chicharron and, of course, thin strands of peppery radish.”
1322 W. 18th, Chicago
Birria is meat, spiced and slow cooked, and served in a bowl or a tortilla. Birria can be made with many types of meat, but at Birrieria Reyes de Ocotlan they use goat meat, and it is spectacular. If you’ve never had this kind of meat before, Day of the Dead might be just the time to get a little bit adventurous and try what is likely the most widely consumed animal in the world.
Perhaps the easiest way to get a sense of Pilsen’s food and drink offerings is to celebrate the end of this year’s Day of the Dead celebrations on Nov. 2 by going on the Brew-Ja Beer Crawl. You get dressed up and paint your faces and then jump on a trolley to travel around one of Chicago’s most vibrant Mexican-American communities, with stops at 10 bars and restaurants, each serving food and/or drink.
Stepping outside your usual comfort zone is a big part of what Day of the Dead is all about. Like Halloween, it’s a day when we expect the unusual … and with the right attitude, you will usually find it.
David Hammond is Dining and Drinking Editor at Newcity and contributes to the Chicago Tribune and other publications. In 2004, he co-founded LTHForum.com, the 15,000 member food chat site; for several years he wrote weekly “Food Detective” columns in the Chicago Sun-Times; he writes weekly food columns for Wednesday Journal. He has written extensively about the culinary traditions of Mexico and Southeast Asia and contributed several chapters to “Street Food Around the World.”
David is a supporter of S.A.C.R.E.D., Saving Agave for Culture, Recreation, Education and Development, an organization founded by Chicagoan Lou Bank and dedicated to increasing awareness of agave distillates and ensuring that the benefits of that awareness flow to the villages of Oaxaca, Mexico. Currently, S.A.C.R.E.D is funding the development of agave farms, a library and water preservation systems for the community of Santa Catarina Minas, Oaxaca.