Bread of the dead

It was the middle of the summer. My parents, a couple of cousins​​ and I found ourselves in the middle of the capital of Oaxaca, one of the most culturally-traditional states in Mexico. We came for a mini vacation, as both of my maternal grandparents are from this place.

And, of course, because in Oaxaca you will find the best food in the country. You just need to enter the gastronomy market to be surprised with so many smells and flavors: tlayudas, tacos, quesadillas and… bread of the dead?

If you are not Mexican, when you think of the Day of the Dead, you may think of painted skulls, many colours and festivities in the middle of the streets. Or maybe you start humming “Remember Me” or picture the James Bond scene in Mexico City. Yes, the parade one.

In my house, we celebrate the Day of the Dead on November 2 by making bread, which we call bread of the dead. We make ofrendas, of course, and even dress up as vampires and ghosts much like Halloween, but the bread is our main ritual.

The rest of my Mexican friends eat another type of bread, but I never liked it; too sugary. For me, the real bread of the dead is Oaxacan, eaten as October turns to November.

I remember my grandmother, aunts and mother preparing the dough for a whole day. We children were made to believe that we were helping when we were only playing with the leftover dough that was going to be thrown away. After arduously kneading the mixture, it has to be left to rest for a whole night.

I remember arriving excited the following day, knowing that the year-long wait for my favourite breakfast was almost over. My grandmother would bake the first rounds of bread when she saw us arrive, and that delicious smell was released little by little. The whole house ended up smelling like magic, and tasting like it too.

I say remember because I haven't celebrated the Day of the Dead in a long time. I won an opportunity to study abroad three years ago, so I haven't been back to Mexico in November since. It's been a long time since I smelled those orange flowers emblematic of the Day of the Dead because they only bloom at that time of year.

It's been a while since I helped prepare the ofrenda, and I forget when I last visited my grandfather's grave on November 2.

However, what hurts me the most is that my family hasn’t baked bread for a long time because now my grandmother is too tired and sick. That is the reason for my grandmother's absence on our trip — although she wanted her granddaughters to get a taste of the Oaxacan culture, even if it was without her.

I glided through the different aisles of the market, probably the same ones my grandmother saw growing up before she emigrated from Oaxaca to Mexico City. I was surprised to see so many stalls selling bread of the dead in July. It didn't feel right; that bread belongs to my grandmother's house; it belongs to us on the second of November.

My mother revealed to me that our tradition of bread did not exist outside our house. That bread that I have been calling bread of the dead all my life is actually called yolk bread, and it can be found at any time of the year, in any bakery, throughout Oaxaca.

I felt… deceived? Betrayed? Disappointed? Our bread is not unique — it's everywhere, and surprisingly cheap. I no longer have to wait for the second of November to eat it; I could buy one right now. And I did, just to see if it tasted better than ours.

The following day, I prepared the hot chocolate, a faithful companion to the bread of the dead. I foamed it until it's just the way I like it. I dipped the bread in the chocolate, an act so repeated over the years that it seems like a reflex. I took a piece, and suddenly, it all came back to me: the smells, the colours, the music. My aunts laughing and talking among themselves. My serene grandmother in the background, smiling tenderly at me. My cousins ​​and I playing, seeing who could pretend to cook raw dough better.

The ofrenda at the back, with a photo of my grandfather next to a bottle of tequila, his favourite. And I realized my grandmother's great act of love, creating a tradition for us that she never had.