The Spanish Origins of Bread for Day of the Dead?

Few customs are now more ensconced in Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations than the pan de muerto, the traditional bread, rich in eggs and sugar, and decorated with bread bones, sold in  every bakery and supermarket (though this is my effort, tastes better with real butter and orange flower water and anise water, looks clunkier).

So it was fascinating to run across a fleeting reference in Claudio Lomnitz’s  invaluable Death and the Idea of Mexico (New York: Zone, 2005) to the origins of this bread. According to him (page 430), it appeared sometime between 1930 and 1960. At the time, it was widely criticized as the product of commercial interests, in particular the bakers, who in addition were Spanish and not Mexican. Ah ha, the commercialization of Day of the Dead by Basque bakers in wool vests and berets. I hope Robbie Weiss says something about this in his upcoming book on the history of baking in Mexico.

For next year I want to follow up this and some of the rest of the up and down, tangled history of Day of the Dead celebrations, which have changed even more than those of Halloween, nicely laid out here by  Samira Kawash and reported on Amanda Benson’s Food and Think, an aptly named and always intriguing blog under the auspices of the Smithsonian.

In the meantime, two photographs to illustrate the current stretch of Day of the Dead. The first is of an utterly elegant  and totally modern sugar skull (calavera)  given to us by a friend a couple of days ago and now adorning out dining room. It was made in Irapuato in the state of Guanajuato.

The second shows a cemetery in rural Guanajuato a a few days after the Day of the Dead, the people gone, the flowers fading.

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10 thoughts on “The Spanish Origins of Bread for Day of the Dead?

  1. Betsy

    As always, Rachel, you’ve uncovered a fascinating new twist. I’ll look forward to reading more as your research unfolds.

    Good to know you’re feeling up to baking and typing!

    Saludos desde Santa Cruz.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      The baking was done several years ago! But yes, Im mending more quickly that anyone predicted. When do we meet again?

  2. smrubio

    1930-1960! Woah. I’m curious, though, which variation of pan de muerto is Lomnitz claiming was developed by these Basque bakers? Just the current Mexico City-style bread? What about all the regional variations and other, less famous, day of the dead breads such as gollete and alamar? Could these all be mid-twentieth century developments too, or were they already around? And now I really want to know what José Luis Curiel Monteagudo’s source is when he claims that a version of the bread — leavened with pulque and flavored with orange blossom water — was sold in the Plaza de Armas in Colonial times. Eager to find out more!

    PS Glad to hear you’re healing quickly!

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Steve, the reference to the bread of the dead is just too brief and without reference. But the author is a really well-known scholar and the whole book is referenced very carefully so I trust him on this.

      What do we know about festival breads in Mexico?

      One. In the early 20th century, most of the bakers in Mexico City were from the Basque country and regarded as outsiders. I don’t think there is any doubt about that both from speaking to people who remember the time and from the research of Robbie Weiss.

      Two. Did they invent this bread? If you look at my answer to Sharon you will see that I think this is part of the great European festival bread tradition. It was probably a convergence of breadmaking techniques already ensconced in Mexico with ones that the Basque immigrants brought with them. What exactly did they make? I suspect the commercialized bread was the round bread with little bread bones attached that is the main commercial day at the bread today.

      Three. José Luis is incredibly reliable on the history of Mexican food. I will ask him next time I see him what his source is for this bread. It wet could well have been sold but in a less commercialized way long before 20th century. The

      Four. My suspicion is that all the breads, and the festival itself in its current form, and 20th century. The author of the book I referred to reports how in the wake of the revolution intellectual seized on the day of the dead as an example of the mestizaje that they wanted to believe in and to celebrate as the history of Mexico a theory of post that you know as well as I do is being revised by both Mexicans and foreigners.

      Five. This is not to say that the breads were new. Mexico after all inherited European bread making tradition.

      Would love to talk more about this. Come round and will chat any time you want to. Thanks for the good wishes.

  3. Sharon

    Don’t you think the mix for pan de muerto (pan de yema in the off-season) is very like that for challah, brioche, stollen (excepting the tradition that also kneads marzipan into it), and panettone? Egg- and fat rich, with a soft crumb. I can see the agua de azahar being picked up in Spain from Middle Eastern influence, but that dough? Definitely European, but more northern.

    Very interesting, indeed.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Sharon, thanks for the comments. Yes of course this is clearly part of the European bread tradition.. But why do you think Spain did not have those breads? I am not an expert on the history of Spanish breads. In fact the whole history of European breads still remains to be written. But it seems to me entirely possible, more than possible entirely likely, that the Spanish made egg and milk enriched breads for festival days. If the rest of Europe was doing it, why would they not? I’m not even sure that the orange flower water is going to go back a long way. Clearly it could’ve come with the original settlers as Stephen quotes José Luis as suggesting. But it could have been added much later when the Lebanese immigrants came since that is now way you can buy Orange and Rose water in Mexico. There’s just a whole lot to be done on the baking tradition here as well as in Europe.

  4. smrubio

    Hi Rachel,

    Somehow it took me a year to see your response. Thanks very, very belatedly. I’m back in Singapore now, so that chat will have to wait. Sooner rather than later, hopefully!



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