In Mexico, Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration is a beautiful tribute to life itself. This UNESCO-declared World Heritage celebration is not only about honoring and remembering loved ones who have passed away but also about savoring unique seasonal treats.
One such delicacy is "pan de muerto," translated as "bread of the dead," a seasonal pan dulce (sweet bread) placed on the altars to pay homage to the departed. Interestingly, it's also a sought-after delight among the living in Mexico, with people eagerly anticipating its arrival to enjoy themselves.
In this blog, we delve into the world of pan de muerto—a delicious treat filled with history, meaning, and culture! While there are numerous stories surrounding the origin of this food, today, we'll explore some of the versions regarding its origin and tell you about the unique variations found only in Mexico!
As we have discussed in other blog pieces, the tradition of setting up altars during the Day of the Dead has its roots in pre-Hispanic Mexico. For instance, they used to offer "breads" shaped like butterflies or lightning bolts to the goddess Cihuapipiltin.
According to Spanish chronicles from Bernardino de Sahagún, there was a variety of bread made from amaranth, as well as dried and toasted corn. This variety was called "yotlaxcalli." However, after the Spanish conquest, the customary pan de muerto we know today was introduced in the offerings.
Now, the origin of pan de muerto dates back to pre-Hispanic times as well. Legend has it that during the Aztec empire, a noblewoman was offered to the gods. With her sacrifice, her still-beating heart was then placed in a pot filled with amaranth to finally be bitten by the ritual leader. Some sources suggest that this pan de muerto has its roots in the human sacrifices of the pre-Columbian era. After a human offering, a bread made from ground amaranth mixed with blood was prepared to offer to the gods.
The Spanish, upon arriving in Mexico and being appalled by human sacrifices in religious ceremonies, not only rejected the practice but also made symbolic efforts to replace it. Consequently, they created a wheat bread, sugar-coated and painted red, resembling a heart and symbolizing the blood of the sacrificed.
There's another version that explains the origin of pan de muerto. It is said that pre-Columbian civilizations would prepare a kind of bread made from amaranth seeds and the blood of the sacrifices. They would then offer it to Huehuetéotl, Cuetzaltzin, or Izcoxauhqui.
These are the early signs of pan de muerto, a recipe transformed into one of the clearest symbols of Hispanic-Indigenous fusion, thanks to the introduction of wheat and the baking tradition that the Spaniards brought to America. In Spain, there was a similar tradition: "panes de ánimas," which were prepared, blessed, and offered to dearly departed loved ones during All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day.
With the arrival of Spanish conquerors, this sweet treat gradually shifted from an ancestral ritual to a sweet bread placed on altars and enjoyed, especially during these special days.
Pan de muerto comes in various forms, although you'll most commonly find it as small round buns, adorned with four crossed strips of dough and a little ball in the center, symbolizing the bones of the human body. It's dusted with cinnamon and white sugar, which is sometimes tinted red, still evoking the blood of sacrifices, just like the original bread.
If we focus on the traditional round bread from Mexico City, its shape represents several elements:
- Round Shape: This cyclical figure resembles a mound of earth used to cover the coffin of the deceased. This round shape also symbolizes the continuity and cycle of life and death.
- Four lines and center bump: Above the "mound," a "skull" protrudes, with arm and leg bones (called canillas) on either side, forming a skull and crossbones. It is said that that the four “bones” or lines, also symbolize the directions of the Mesoamerican universe, the four cardinal points, and/or the points dedicated to Quetzalcóatl, Xipetotec, Tláloc, and Tezcatlipoca
-Sugar: It is said that this pan dulce, or sweet bread is made to symbolize the sweetness of death, an approach commonly seen in Día de los Muertos. It is also offered to our loved ones as a sweet treat to enjoy during the afterlife.
- Tears: Some versions suggest that the sesame seeds represent tears of the souls.
- Flowers: The orange blossom flavor used in this bread symbolizes the journey to the underworld or is associated with the floral decorations of marigolds in the offerings.
There are dozens of different types of pan de muerto, with bakers offering their own interpretations based on their regions and backgrounds.
Today, the most well-known version is the round bread, adorned with "bone" shapes made from dough. Its main ingredients are wheat flour, sugar, eggs, and it's usually decorated with sesame seeds or covered in sugar, sometimes scented with orange and anise.
However, in various regions of Mexico, it takes on different forms: it can be a ring, a triangle, a cross, a figurine, twisted bone shapes, animals like rabbits or sheep, and more.
For example, in Puebla, sesame seeds are added, while in some parts of Oaxaca, it's shaped like a sugar skull, with the appearance and size of a human body. In Yucatán, it's filled with cream cheese, in Morelos, it's made in the shape of a human figure with crossed arms, and in Guerrero, some breads represent the deceased who died from wounds, adorned with red. On the other hand, in Tepoztlán, Morelos, a bread is made to commemorate women who died during childbirth, with the figure of a woman holding a baby.
The variations of this bread are so wide that, even within the same, common pan de muerto one can find them with varying flavors and even with innovative fillings, like Nutella, chocolate and even nata, a sort of sour cream.
So, as you can see, pan de muerto is not just a delightful treat but a rich tapestry of history, culture, and regional variations, making it an integral part of the vibrant Mexican tradition of celebrating life and remembering the departed. We would love to read about your thoughts, so be sure to let us know in the comments below!
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