“Caliente!” Juan calls out, and we all duck to avoid the steaming hot pan as it floats across the kitchen. He holds one side with a folded up towel, the other with a pair of pliers.
Kitchen might be a bit of a misnomer. The small stall sits on the sidewalk, with a temporary tin roof overhead and brand new white tarps tied tightly to the back to protect against Mexico City’s afternoon thunderstorms. Each day for the three weeks leading up to Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead holiday, Tito Garcia, the stand’s owner, and the rest of the crew, will make hundreds of pan de muerto sweet rolls, as part of the Jamaica Market’s holiday romería.
The market is commonly known for its endless aisles of flower stands, but during the Day of the Dead season, in addition to the truckloads of marigolds and royal purple cockscomb, people come from all over for this romería, an open air market that sets up around the perimeter of the building selling every bauble and trinket necessary for a successful Day or the Dead. Tito’s family – mother, cousins, aunts, uncles – have had stands in the Jamaica market for over 50 years, and they have been making bread on the sidewalk now for more than 20.
As the trays start to emerge from the massive three-door oven, the passageway created by makeshift tarps and wooden stands fills with the scent of freshly baked bread. Customers wander over, forming a hesitant line, searching for the source of the yeasty perfume.
A woman wants three pieces to go. She patiently waits as Juan and Sebastián, Tito’s son, paint the tops of the rolls with butter and douse them in sugar. Sebastián passes out small pieces of oven-warm sugary bread to everyone in the vicinity – it melts in our mouth.
“This is the only bread we know how to make. We’re not bakeries, just for the season.”
Along the rows of temporary stands outside the Jamaica market, amongst the sugar skulls and Halloween costumes, you’ll find plenty of people selling pan de muerto. Most are run by big commercial bakeries that put out versions covered in colored sugar or made out of chocolate, in addition to other kinds of sweet bread. None of these mass-produced buns are like the ones coming from the Garcia family’s stand (one of the few to actually make bread in the romería). Dense and moist on the inside, with a hint of orange blossom that sits on your tongue, their pan de muerto only comes in two traditional preparations – covered in sugar, or with an egg wash and sesame seeds.
“My in-laws are the ones that taught me how to make bread,” says Tito, “They worked in a Chinese bakery. At first I just helped them to sell. I knew absolutely nothing about making bread. In fact, this is the only bread we know how to make. We’re not bakeries, just for the season.” He laughs.
Even more than the final product, which is delicious, the Garcia’s stand is a show. Sebastián lugs in a 44-kilo sack of white flour, cuts it open and slowly distributes it along the length of a wooden table. His arms go white up to his elbows as he pulls the flour from the sack, careful not to spill any on the floor. He makes a slight valley in the center of the flour mountain and begins to crack eggs into it one at a time.
People pass by, ask how much the bread costs, music blares and then goes silent as someone searches for the right soundtrack. Juan swivels with his pans – “Caliente!” – and all the while Sebastián and Tito keep cracking eggs, crumbling yeast, adding kilos of sugar, pouring in the orange blossom essence.
“The ashes of Jose Jose,” says Sebastián as he sprinkles in the cinnamon, referencing the beloved Mexican crooner who died a few weeks ago. “He got a little toasted,” he adds, and the customers chuckle.
And then suddenly it’s time to mix the dough. We’ve been invited to participate – if we can hack it.
You wouldn’t think it would take so much strength but by the time those last few liters of water are added it feels like mixing cement. That such a sticky, weighty mess could turn into something so delicious is one of the wonders of the universe.
Pan de muerto, Day of the Dead bread, dead bread. Whatever you call it, it’s an essential part of Día de los Muertos in Mexico. “It’s still the tradition,” Juan says. “You always have your pan de muerto and cempasúchil [marigold] on your altar.”
Although some argue its roots are tied to the amaranth dough figurines made by the Aztecs in honor of their gods (and then eaten), its history is likely much more European. According Stanley Brandes, in his book Skulls to the Living, Bread to the Dead, pan de muerto is likely the Mexicanization of the breads traditionally made in places like Galicia, Portugal and Catalonia. Communities across the Iberian Peninsula had been making sweet breads and candies – many in the shapes of human forms or bones – for All Souls’ Day and All Saints’ Day long before the Spanish brought these traditions across the ocean, as well as the sugarcane to create them.
The dough rests for 30 minutes, slowly inching its way across the wooden table towards the marker that Juan has set out to know when it’s fully proofed. The team takes a break to eat. Tito’s wife Guadalupe has brought mixiotes, and by this time in the afternoon Sebastian’s sister, Samanta, has joined his wife Daniela in slicing open bread and filling it with cream cheese or fruit or chocolate or Nutella or all of those things together – gussied up pan de muerto for customers to eat on the go.
Alejandro, one of the few workers unrelated to the Garcia family, is also at the stand today, running errands and filling in – grabbing water, sugaring bread, packing up orders. It’s all an orchestrated dance, set to the rhythm of cumbia on the radio. Sebastián sings along to songs about heartbreak as he tears off pieces of proofing dough and rolls them into tiny, solid balls.
The scene is not the idealized quaintness that outsiders might envision about this timeless tradition – this isn’t some little old woman making bread in her cozy kitchen. Here it’s loud and chaotic and frantic. But in a way this is much more representative of the holiday.
The entire Garcia family is here, including dead relatives that Tito honors with his own version of a Day of the Dead altar hanging in the back of the stand. As evening starts to darken the streets around us, the lights of the market shine brighter and the passageways crowd with people fresh from work and school, here to buy items for their altars and sample a little pan de muerto. Family and friends pass by and call out their greetings, kids stop to stare at the furious kneading of Sebastián and Juan, and nowhere does it feel more festive than in the warm glow of the oven on the sidewalk.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on October 31, 2019.
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