Bienvenidos a Los Dos: Yucatan: A Culinary Expedition

About Chef David Sterling
The Urban Matrix: Mérida
Feast of the Spirits

FOOD AND DEATH SEEM LIKE SUCH UNLIKELY BEDFELLOWSAnd yet customs around the world have invariably linked the two. People in most ancient civilizations buried grains of corn, wheat or rice, or even entire meals complete with wine, cookware and serving utensils, in the graves of departed loved ones. And even in modern times, it is customary to send food to the mourning family as a token of sympathy.

Hanal Pixán, or “Feast of the Spirits”, poetically combines food and death in an ancient ritual in which ancestors are revered, and everyone – living and dead alike – gets plenty to eat.
Coinciding with north-of-the-border Halloween, and Mexico’s Día de los Muertos, Hanal Pixán is a particularly Yucatecan autumnal rite. How lucky are we who live in Mérida to be able to enjoy these three ghoulish holidays all at the same time! For those of us who deeply savor an annual visit from the underworld, as well as anything to do with food, this is truly a time of riches beyond measure.
Autumn rituals are as old as civilization itself – a time of year when human beings noticed the gradual darkening of the earth, the changing season, the seeming death of trees, plants, crops. The human response to these changes has taken many cultural forms worldwide, but the theme that unites them all is a belief that this is the season when the boundary between the visible world of the living and the invisible world of the dead becomes blurred.
It would be quite a scholarly Rubic’s cube to trace a timeline of modern day Halloween and Día de los Muertos. It would have to include the 2000-year-old Celtic festival of Samhain, when bonfires were lit to scare away the ghosts that appeared to be causing crops to wither and die; and it would naturally include the Roman Feralia festival – a day to remember the deceased. These two holidays became intermingled during the 400-year Roman occupation of England and Ireland. Now add to the cauldron All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day – both appended to the Catholic calendar by papal decree in the first millennia AD, and obviously intended to be specific dates for honoring the dead – and one can begin to see the pale, ghostly image of Halloween start to appear from the shadows.
Even more exotic ingredients were tossed into this bubbling brew when the Old and New Worlds collided in 1492. Europeans were surprised to see that the indigenous peoples of the Americas also honored their dead and watched out for spooks in early autumn. One such festival, held among the Maya peoples of the Yucatán peninsula, was Hanal Pixán. The Spanish observed that Hanal Pixán occupied a week when it was believed that departed ancestors came back to earth. If the souls were propitiated with properly prepared and delicious foods, they returned to the other world for another year, leaving the living alone.
However, similar rituals all over Mesoamerica were considered “pagan” and the process of Christianization began. Images of the saints were disguised in indigenous garb; ancient feast days were aligned with All Souls’ and All Saints’ Day rituals; and soon, Día de los Muertos, or “Day of the Dead”, emerged in Mexico as the first truly mestizo (“mixed race”) holiday.
While cities in central Mexico fell to the Conquistadores within a brief two years, the Maya resisted the conquest successfully for some 170 years. And in some ways, this resistance continues, as the Maya people stubbornly reject foreign influences in order to preserve and protect their traditions. In this way, Hanal Pixán continues to be celebrated much as it has been for many centuries.
The sugar skulls that appear in the Mérida market and on some Hanal Pixán altars during this period are made in central Mexico, and in fact are generally seen as popular icons of Día de los Muertos – a “Mexican” more than a “Maya” festival. But appear they do, and in this way the two cultural traditions peacefully coexist.
What riles some locals, however, is the intrusion of Halloween into the fray. It is viewed as a commercial holiday imported from the United States in order to sell merchandise – and who could argue with this view when starting in September one sees Mérida’s shops and supermarkets crammed with caricature masks of American presidents and polyester superhero costumes? Invariably, each year, local editorials will revile Halloween, and invite school children into the debate, asking their opinion: “Should we celebrate Hanal Pixán or Halloween?” And just as invariably, and not surprisingly, the answers always start out with “Well, we should respect and preserve our local traditions, so, yes, Hanal Pixán – but I also really like getting dressed up for Halloween, too!”

The ancient Maya had a complex relationship with death, and therefore a highly elaborated cosmogony in that respect. The Mayan language, too, reflected this complexity and included words for nuances of death including soul, spirit, ghost, and even for various conditions of the soul such as how it appears moments after death, the soul during the process of preparation for burial, and so on.
Gods and goddesses of death abounded, the most important of which was Ah Puch or Yum Cimil, the Lord of Death. His cult had its own specialized priests, and images of cult activities are depicted on temples dedicated in his honor. His kingdom was Mitnal, the Maya version of Hell, a world of perpetual cold, hunger and terror. The death god known as Kisin is considered by some to be the Maya equivalent of Satan. He lives in ant colonies beneath the earth, and is the god with which humans engage in pacts in return for various favors. Depicted as a skeleton wearing bone jewelry, he is also the most mischievous of the death gods, always playing tricks on unsuspecting humans.
The souls of murder, suicide or accident victims had their own deity – a goddess known as Xtab, who is always depicted drooping from a hangman’s noose. Finally, the ocolpixán, or soul-stealers, hover about when death is near, hoping to snatch a soul for some foul purpose or other. Therefore, the priest must say certain prayers over the dying person in order that the soul can escape through cracks in the ceiling or walls without the god’s noticing.
Buildings in several Maya royal cities, such as the Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque, and the crypt atop the pyramid of Kukulkan at Chichén Itzá, served as burial sites. The more common burial method, however, even for prominent members of society, was to simply bury the body in a shallow grave typically located beneath the family home, or sometimes in the solar, or kitchen garden. Wealthier people were occasionally embalmed. Offerings buried with the body included everything from humble shell necklaces, grinding stones and utensils for eating, to finer things like jade jewelry and ceramic figurines – all depending on the economic means of the surviving family. And it was customary to place a ball of maize dough – the origin and staff of life – in the mouth of commoner and noble alike.
With the arrival of Spanish Catholicism, naturally these funerary customs began to change. However, many so-called “pagan” customs have prevailed and are still practiced today. For example, in some smaller communities, it is still common to bathe the recently deceased in order to wash away his sins. Known as pok k’ebán (or “bath”) the ritual is typically participated in by several members of the family. The water from the bath is conserved and prepared as a soup or mixed with tamales, and consumed by all, the idea being that when shared by so many, the sins become really quite small after all. Cemeteries arrived with the Spanish, and while most Maya burials now take place there, it is still common to see locals placing food and beverages into the coffins for the departed to use in the next life. The dead are watched over for years, as Maya people continue to visit gravesites, clean and repaint the tombs, and periodically remove bones in order to make room for new ones. The old bones are lovingly placed in tin boxes and buried – as in ancient times – beneath the house or in the solar.

Maya peoples past and present are tied to the earth and follow its hallowed rhythms. Feasts and celebrations and rituals mark the passage of time. All of these were and still are celebrated with their own special foods. These foods are prepared both to be offered to deities and to be shared by humans on earth.
These ritual foods are usually considered sacred because of how they are prepared, or because of the ingredients employed, or both. For example, the Christmas-time prayers for rain are honored by a special tamal seasoned with achiote, a condiment symbolizing rain. And hetzmek – a kind of rite of passage for infants, when they change from being carried in the mother's arms to being balanced on the mother's hip – is celebrated with chaya bread (so that the child may learn to eat anything, regardless of how humble) and with spicy cooked chicken (so that the child may also learn to appreciate rich and delicious food.)
Individual families pay homage to their departed loved ones on the anniversary of the actual day of death. It is a time of fond remembrance and festivity. On the first anniversary of a death, a simple dish such as caldillo de ibes (a bean like the lima, cooked in a light broth) is offered, because the soul at this stage is considered too vulnerable to eat anything spicy. By the second anniversary, the soul is more stable, understanding and accepting of its situation. At this point an elaborate meal featuring toasted chile can be tolerated, such that the traditional offering of keken relleno negro (pig in charred chile sauce) is consumed from this time onward. Naturally, foods prepared for the departed are shared with the living, too.
While all of these foods traditionally would have been enjoyed only at the time of a sacred ceremony, the modern Maya may also prepare them for any type of celebration, or even for a casual get-together of friends and family. Even foods traditionally associated with Hanal Pixán are now commonly consumed year ‘round.

Preparations for Hanal Pixán begin around October 25. As anyone would do when expecting visitors – whether from this world or another – families in Yucatán spend a week in advance cleaning the house, sweeping the patio, washing the clothes so that the spirits don’t have to. Also, they make necessary repairs both to the home and to family crypts, and prepare the feast that is to come.
October 31 marks the first celebration with a day of feasting for the Child Souls, or chichan pixán. Breakfast consists of atole nuevo (a porridge made with fresh maize) and freshly boiled maize cobs. Cookies, sweet rolls and hot Chocolate complete the meal. For the midday meal (almuerzo) the preferred dish is chicken or chicken and vegetable stew, with sweetened yuca or papaya as dessert. The evening meal is more frugal: vaporcitos (tiny tamales), bread and chocolate milk. On the dining table will be placed various children’s favorites, such as clay whistles, tops and honey candies.
November 1 is celebrated with the feast of the Adult Souls, or nohoch pixán. Breakfast and dinner are similar to those for children, but the midday meal will be more robust, with dishes like Pavo en Escabeche (turkey stewed in vinegar) or Relleno Negro (turkey stuffed with meatloaf and cooked in a charred chile sauce). A bowl of water is left near the dining table, so that the spirits can wash their hands. And rum or Xtabentún is always nearby for those spirits who wish to imbibe.
November 2 is now celebrated as the day of All Souls, borrowed from Catholic rites.
All the feasts are characterized by flowers, gourds full of chocolate, stewed chickens and the ubiquitous Mucbilpollo- a kind of giant tamal. On the eighth day (biix in Mayan), a variety of tamales is served – most particularly the mucbilpollo – and the spirits begin to depart, carrying with them their portable meals. For these feasts, certain rules must be followed. All foods must be cooked in a pib - the Maya underground roasting oven. And only female chickens may be cooked, because roosters may crow and scare away the spirits.

The category of comida enterrada, or “buried foods” is enormously important in Yucatecan cuisine and takes on many guises – from stews and sweetened fruits, to whole pigs and turkeys. Comida enterrada is enjoyed all year long, but it acquires special significance during Hanal Pixán. Foods that are “buried” and then “resurrected” and ingested carry an obviously symbolic resonance.
This underground cooking takes place in a simple pit known in Mayan as a pib. Its excavation is the work of the men folk, who dig a hole that measures on average one meter long, 60 centimeters wide and a half-meter deep. Firewood is stacked at the bottom of this hole, and stones are piled on top of the wood. The fire is lit; eventually the wood and stones collapse to the bottom of the pit, leaving nothing but glowing embers and super-heated rocks. Foods are lowered into the hole; a covering of thatch, branches or tin roofing material seals all smoke, heat and steam inside. Cooking time depends on the size and quantity of the dishes being cooked. Foods cooked in a pib acquire a characteristic smoky quality.
The mucbilpollo (a composite of the Mayan word mucbil, meaning “buried” and the Spanish pollo or “chicken”) is the requisite buried food for Hanal Pixán. Maize dough (masa) is stained yellow with achiote; the dough is formed into a large round shape with walls around the edge, like a giant pie, then filled with cooked chicken, pork or both, and layered with bright red k’ol – a seasoned gravy thickened with masa – before being sealed with more masa on top. The whole is wrapped in banana leaves and baked in a pib for about two hours, until the exterior of the masa becomes quite dry and crispy. Mucbilpollo is so popular at this time of year that even bakeries and restaurants prepare it on a commercial scale, usually in giant tin baking pans, and sell it by the kilo. People often place orders in advance due to the high demand.
Mucbilpollo is not the only “buried food” consumed at this time of year. Several smaller tamales similar to mucbilpollo, such as chachak uah and pibi uah, are also cooked in the pib. Tuti uah is another tamal variety, this one mixed with beans. A special version of the Pol’kan appears during Hanal Pixán; it is similar to the one made year ‘round, but instead of being fried, it is wrapped in leaves of hoja santa (piper auritum) and interred with all the rest. Even whole unshucked ears of maize (pibinal), as well as squash and sweet potatoes, sometimes in a thick sugar or honey syrup, will be cooked along with the other buried foods.

Most people in southern and southeastern Mexico maintain small altars in their homes year 'round bearing candles and saints and flowers. But during Hanal Pixán, the altars are beautifully enriched and decorated.
What is displayed on the altar varies from pueblo to pueblo and family to family, but several things are common: favored foods of the deceased, photos or paintings of the departed loved ones, flowers, incense and candles. During the Hanal Pixán festivities, the altar serves as a feast table for the visiting spirits. Often, people in the pueblos will line their property with candles so that the spirits can find their way to the feast table at night.
On October 31, the day honoring children, altars are crowded with toys and candies. On November 1, the day honoring adults, these innocent items are replaced by cigarettes and xtabentún (a local liquor) as well as by tamales, chocolate, and of course, mucbilpollo – the large, festival tamal stuffed with chicken or pork or sometimes both. Marzipan candies satisfy the spirits’ sweet tooth, and skulls and skeleton figures tease Death.
It is also customary to create a small altar for el ánima sola – a single spirit who perhaps may not have loved ones to remember her, or perhaps a stranger who died leaving no record of family members. A simple altar is made, dressed with a white tablecloth, a large white candle, a glass of water and a plate of food.

Table covering
Colorful embroidered tablecloth
Favorite foods of the deceased
Gourds (jícara in Spanish, luch in Mayan) full of chocolate, little butter rolls, animal crackers, sweet potato and yuca cooked in sugar syrup, vaporcitos (tiny tamales), marzipan made of squash seeds in the form of colorful fruits, chicken soup “to give the little ones strength”, a glass of water, everything served on small plates and in child-sized portions
Remembrances of the deceased
Photos or paintings, a favorite toy
An assortment of colorful wax candles
Yellow ones like marigolds, purple ones like cock’s comb, fragrant herbs such as rue and basil
Other decorations
Wooden or clay toys

Embroidered white or black tablecloth
Favorite foods of the deceased
Four gourds full of tanchukuá (a maize/chocolate beverage), atole made of fresh maize, squash and yuca cooked in sugar syrup, tamales, mucbilpollo (three for women, to represent the three hearth stones; four for men, to represent the four corners of their milpas, or cornfields), marzipan, pan de muerto, jícama and mandarins, Coca-Cola
Favorite vices of the deceased
Cigarettes, liquor like rum or xtabentún, pack of cards, lottery ticket
Remembrances of the deceased
Photos or paintings, a watch or pair of glasses, a pipe
One white or black wax candle for each deceased adult family member, copal incense, crucifixes, saints
Yellow ones like marigolds, purple ones like cock’s comb, fragrant herbs such as rue and basil
Other decorations
Skulls and skeleton figures
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