I have a modest personal mission to eat all things strange in Mexico. So far I’m doing pretty well – aside from strange delicious things like Chiles en Nogada, I’ve had strange nasty things like Tacos de Sesos (brain tacos), Chapulines (fried crickets), and chicken-spine soup. I haven’t yet tried Tacos de Cran (cow penis) and I’m not sure I will.
Eating strange things is like the old philosophical idea about knowledge: the more you acquire, the less you realize you actually know. I’ve already given up my hope of eating strange things from all around the world, though I’ve done pretty well so far with Balut in the Philippines (a duck embryo inside a fertilized egg), San-Nak-Ji in Korea (still-living, moving octopus tentacles), and raw jellyfish in China.
The Day of the Dead takes place on November 2. Mexicans remember their dead relatives by placing a shrine in their homes full of fruit, sweets, and sometimes booze. If Grandpa used to like a special tequila or whiskey, then in the shrine it goes, along with Grandma’s favorite snacks and candies.
“We don’t cry. It’s a celebration,” says Pedro, a friend and excellent classical guitarist. His family decorates the graves of their ancestors with candles, photographs, and yellow and orange flowers. They tell stories about and to the deceased, informing them of what’s new in their lives. Pedro just got engaged, so he will tell this to his grandmother.
Many people drink beer, tequila, or mescal, tequila’s cheaper cousin. If they drink, then they share with the dead, splashing a little on the ground now and then. All night in cemeteries across Mexico there is light, music, singing and praying.
But I’m interested in food. Here in Toluca, about a hundred vendors set up in the Portales, a pedestrian mall and series of arches downtown, and sell all things related to the holiday. This is the Feria del Alfeñique, a great way to sample skull-and-bone-shaped Mexican candies.
Big sugar skulls called calaveras are the most representative candies of the Day of the Dead. The image, with its colorful trim and toothy, laughing mouth, can be seen everywhere – on plastic banners for restaurants advertising their special meal, cut out of decorative pastel paper, and on sugary candy of many sizes.
You can also buy shiny green candied nopales, large cactus leaves. It seems like anything can be candied: limes stuffed with coconut, sweet potatoes, and even whole pumpkins.
Aside from sweets you can get little handicrafts for your shrine. My favorites are the calavaritas, little skeletons at work, such as doctors, teachers, musicians or strippers. They are great gifts – buy the one with the same job as your friend. Last year I bought a taco cook for a friend who’s a chef, and for a friend with an office job, a little skeleton in a suit with his skeleton secretary on his lap. They cost only a few dollars, a great deal for being handmade.
Toluca is a little off the tourist track, but being close to Mexico City it’s an easy trip. November 1 or 2 is the day for a cemetery visit, but if you come to Toluca anytime during the month before the Day of the Dead, you can get a taste, literally, of the tradition right here in the center of town.
Ted Campbell left the US ten years ago to pursue a life of adventure, first in Asia and now Latin America. He writes about travel, music, culture, food, and mountain biking. He lives in Mexico, travels as much as he can, and writes a blog called No Hay Bronca.