You might think with a name like Día de los Muertos—or Day of the Dead—the Mexican holiday would be a somber one. But you would be wrong, because when celebrating Día de los Muertos, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans throw their biggest and best parties. As they say in Mexico, they throw the house out the window!
On Día de los Muertos, we celebrate our loved ones who have passed away. We build brightly-colored altars in our homes where we display their photos among foods and other items they loved. Instead of a day or mourning, the day is one of remembrance for lives well-lived. In fact, it is Culinary Institute of America’s Chef Sofia Sada’s favorite time of year, because it means spending time with her family doing something they all love to do, and that’s cook!
Like most Mexican celebrations, Día de los Muertos is about food and drink. And while there may be some common foods at many homes, each family has their own tradition. The key for Día de los Muertos is to prepare dishes that are worthy of a celebration, which usually means labor intensive ones you might save for a special occasion. That’s why so many tables often include dishes like tamales, posole, mixiotes, or many-ingredient moles. Not necessarily because they are traditional to the day, but because on that day, we prepare special foods, whatever those might be to us.
You should also prepare dishes that your family members loved—after all, you are celebrating for them! Chef Sada reminds us that Mexico is a huge country, and all of her grandparents came from different regions and had different tastes. When her family celebrates, they prepare lots of seafood and paella for her grandparents with Spanish origins. And for her dad’s mom, they always make her favorite classic American-style pineapple upside down cake, along with Oaxacan mole and carnitas.
Of course, with all of that food, you can’t forget the drinks! On Día de los Muertos, good Mexican beer, mezcal, and tequila are abundant, but you’ll also share the things that were favorites of your family, like Scotch for Chef Sada’s grandfather.
On the CIA campus in San Antonio, Texas, we remember the chefs that are part of our extended food family. We build an alter with pictures of legendary chefs, like Paul Bocuse, Julia Child, and Anthony Bourdain, and we prepare foods to celebrate the chefs whose legacies we teach every day. Our students get in on the fun by decorating the iconic sugar skulls and by hanging papel picado, the traditional decorative paper banners.
Like many of our global chefs on campus have learned, you don’t have to be Mexican to celebrate Día de los Muertos. Anyone can embrace the sentiment of the holiday, remembering your loved ones in happiness rather than sadness, and enjoying the company of your living friends and family by sharing your favorite meals.