Dia de los Muertos

By Kimberly Charles

Photos by Kimberly Charles

Photos by Kimberly Charles

Growing up as a military brat and having the opportunity to not only live in and appreciate different parts of the U.S., I was also able to live abroad in Spain and Italy with my family. As such, I became quite immersed in the culture and language of the places I lived.  In addition, military families like to say that you’re never alone in the world because we are like one big extended family and with those friendships also came a diverse set of backgrounds, ethnicities and traditions. It’s no surprise then that I found myself pulled to the Mission district of San Francisco where traditions from Mexico, Central and South America thrive.  Our 24th Street corridor is very much like a commercial street in Mexico City with bodegas, small mom and pop storefronts, coffee shops now mixed in with hipster cafes and stores.  I’ve lived in the neighborhood now for 7 years and am lucky to live literally at the parade starting point for both Carnival and Dias de los Muertos.

One of the traditions I’ve come to deeply appreciate, given my penchant for history and nostalgia, is Dia de los Muertos which is celebrated every year from October 30 to November 2nd.  It is one of the oldest Mexican celebrations and contrary to its name, it is a celebration of life.  Skeletons are dressed festively at gravesites and in window displays and spirits are welcomed as deceased relatives of families who come back to visit during this time.  

Photos by Kimberly Charles

Photos by Kimberly Charles

I recently attended a class @LaCocinaSF with cooking teacher and author Adriana Almazan Lahl who wrote Celebraciones Mexicanas recounting the history of holidays in Mexico coupled with classic recipes enjoyed at those times.  She shared with me more detail about the Day of the Dead and we prepared a typical Mexican feast of Pumpkin Mole, Mexican red rice, Refried Beans and Pan de Muertos, bread of the dead. 

Photo by Kimberly Charles

Photo by Kimberly Charles

She shared that there are three different commemorations within the Day of the Dead timeframe: October 31st or November 1st is the Day of the Innocents reserved for spirits of children who have passed, November 1 or 2 is the Day of the Dead which honors the spirits of deceased adults.  Another interesting fact I learned was that Dia de los Muertos is the only modern Mexican festival which has pre-Hispanic roots.  The Aztecs believed that the dead passed through the region of Mictlan on their way to Tlalocan.(Aztec heaven)

I spoke with Adriana about the fact that I felt more cultures could and should participate in this honoring of the dead.  I’ve always felt that it’s important to keep loved ones memories and stories alive and she agreed with me that although a deeply held Mexican tradition, it should be a universal celebration.   Last year, given my proximity to the start of the procession in the Mission district, I held a party where we painted our faces and dressed in appropriate funereal garb to walk the procession route.   My small gathering caught on and instead of a handful of friends, we had close to 40 people show up to participate.   This year, I’m expecting over 60 people to come and feast on a traditional menu, while enjoying Mezcal and Tequila as well as season appropriate wines of course!  I will prepare the traditional altar where photos of loved ones lost will be placed and we will then take to Bryant Street with thousands of others who share in this special custom.

In honor of this upcoming festival, I’d like to share a recipe from Adriana’s book, the Pumpkin Mole served over chicken with warm tortillas and my very simple twist on the margarita, it has a kick that’s a nod to the great spicy heat of Mexico.

Viva los Muertos!

Photo by Kimberly Charles

Photo by Kimberly Charles

Pumpkin Mole/Mole De Calabaza 

From Celebraciones Mexicanas 

(Serves 25. You can reserve and freeze some of the paste) 

8 puya chiles

4 mulato chiles

1 cup boiling water

1/4 pound toasted pumpkin seeds, hulled

7 prunes, pitted

2 large tomatoes 

1 bar of Mexican chocolate (Abuelita or Ibarra brand)

1 bolillo or 1/4 French Baguette, stale

2 tortillas, stale

3 cups cooked pumpkin or pumpkin puree 

1/2 table spoon cinnamon, ground

1/8 tablespoon cloves, ground

1/2 piloncillo 

1 1/2 cup chicken stock 

1 tablespoon salt

1/2 onion

3 garlic cloves 

Hydrate chiles in boiling water for 1/2 hour. In a blender, mix all ingredients except onion and garlic. Add 3 tablespoons of oil to a large saucepan with chopped onion and garlic. Cook for 4 minutes, or until onion browns a little. Then add mixture from blender and cook over medium-low heat for 1 hour covered, but stirring constantly to avoid burning or sticking. Place in the oven for another 1 1/2 hours at 350 degrees. Add 1/2 cup of hot chicken stock every half hour during the entire cooking process, stirring as you do so. Adjust salt to taste and serve over chicken, turkey or pork. Serve with rice and beans. 


Kimberly's spicy batch margaritas

These are great to make in larger batches served in my case in vintage large Mason jars. 


1 part Tequila

2 parts Tommy's Margarita mix (the best) or if not available fresh lime juice with agave nectar & sweeten to taste

1/2 of a jalapeno pepper thinly sliced, good for 750ml bottles entire pepper if 1.5L

Marinate the sliced jalapeno in a bottle of tequila (always 100% agave my preference is Milagro Blanco in 1.5L) over the course of 2 hours, longer if you like more heat.   Mix 1 part tequila to 2 parts margarita mix and batch or shake in a cocktail shaker with a salty rim if you like.  You might try chile pepper salt on the rim for an additional kick.  Garnish with fresh lime. 

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