by David Cecelski
Durham ’s Latino bakeries were filled today with the aroma of anise seed, the traditional flavoring for pan de muerto, the bread of the dead. They are getting ready for the Day of the Dead—El Dia de los Muertos— and anticipating shoppers looking for the sweet egg bread that has been part of the holiday for centuries. Many will use the bread as an offering, or ofrenda, to be placed onaltars built in remembrance of loved ones who have passed away. Others will carry the bread to the graveyard and feast, literally, with the dead.
Pan de muerto is a light yeast bread, sweet, but not too sweet, and very eggy. It’s nearly always flavored with anise seed, sometimes with lemon or orange zest, or even orange blossom water, and, occasionally, a little cinnamon or vanilla.
Bakers shape the bread into figures—rabbits, humans, and skulls are especially common. The bread’s origins are ancient: it’s generally supposed that pan de muerto dates to the Aztec empire long before Columbus. These days, though, it’s a central part of the holiday’s festivities not only in the old Aztec parts of Mexico, but in much of Latin America.
. This morning I explored Durham’s panaderias in search of pan de muerto. I found it first at Panaderia y Pasteleria Dos Hermanos, a Mexican bakery on Roxboro Street, just south of the Wal-Mart shopping center. The proprietor had some wonderful loaves in the shape of rabbits and men, most of them dusted with red, green or white sugar, but one or two with sesame seeds. I also found some lovely round skull-loaves with the most extraordinary flavor of anise that I’ve ever tasted in a bread and little ridges in the shapes of bones.
Over in East Durham, I found more pan de muerto at Panaderia y Tortilleria Pahuatlan (1715 Holloway St.). The chief baker and his wife were very busy making tortillas for the weekend crowds, but they paused long enough to show off their breads for Day of the Dead. They were mostly small loaves in the shape of a frolicking red-eyed dancing man—or maybe it was a dancing ghoul. The bread’s texture wasn’t as light as the other breads that I tried today, but it had a very nice, delicate taste of lemon zest.
Then there was Panaderia La Loma (2908 Hillsborough Rd.). I was completely taken by this little bakery. A native of Puebla, the baker had soulful eyes and a playful heart—his pan de muerto was in the shapes of owls, elephants, chickens and other creatures, all rendered whimsically and decorated with colored sugar.
His breads seemed perfect for the first day of the Day of the Dead celebration, the 1st of November. It’s sometimes called El Dia de los Innocentes (Day of the Innocents) or El Dia de los Angelitos (Day of the Little Angels), and it’s dedicated to the remembrance of deceased children. I bought a bagful to carry to kids in my neighborhood.
I liked all those Mexican bakeries very much, but I found my favorite pan de muertoat a Salvadoran bakery called La Estrella (1839 Liberty Street). When I got there, they were still preparing their first batch of bread for the holiday. They told me that I could return later in the afternoon and the bread would be ready. When I asked the woman if they were going to make any special shapes that might entice me back, she said, in Spanish, “What would you like? We’ll make it.”
That got me all excited. Imagining what my son might like, I told her, “Something scary—a skull and bones maybe?” “Una calavera?,” she said, “No problema.” And when my son and I returned to La Estrella late this afternoon, her husband led me into the bakery’s kitchen to see several hilariously wicked calaveras that they had made for us. We loved them. We gave our other loaves to friends and neighbors, but we kept one of those to take to the graveyard.
Finally, the pan de muerto at a panaderia called La Favorita de Oaxaca (2022 Chapel Hill Road) seemed to get close to the soul of the holiday in a different way. The couple that runs the bakery led me back into the kitchen to see the bread as it came out of the oven. They were long loaves of a Oaxacan bread called pan de yema (egg yolk bread) the rest of the year, but recognizably human in shape, with feet at one end and a face at the other. Overall, the shape of the loaves evoked that of an open casket.
The faces were hand painted, probably with meringue powder, a mix of dried egg whites and colored sugars. There was nothing generic about them: they were quite particular, each being very recognizably the face of a man, a woman or a child, all with distinctive features. This pan de muerto—this bread of the dead—was beautiful and fanciful, as well as delicious, but also left me with a deep and haunting feeling of the sacred.