Every year in early October, chef Hugo Ortega begins decorating his restaurant, Hugo's, for one of the most important holidays in Mexico: Día de los Muertos.
Papier-mâché skeletons hang from the chandeliers in the dining room. Bright, fluffy tissue-paper flowers poke out from behind light fixtures and tools on the bar. Multicolored papel picado falls from the ceiling in undulating waves. And at the front of the restaurant is the magnificent altar -- the most important piece of Día de los Muertos decor, though calling it decor is undervaluing its importance.
Día de los Muertos is a Mexican holiday focused on honoring the dead, and the ofrenda is the primary means of celebrating loved ones who have passed on. Sometimes ofrendas are erected in a cemetery, but more often, they're set up in homes or businesses to welcome the spirits of the deceased, who return to earth on the first two days of November.
The altars hold various objects that were important to the honored person, as well as candles, water, photographs and, of course, food, which any hungry spirit will need after his or her long journey. Mexican families spend weeks preparing the altars and save money for months to be able to afford their loved ones' favorite foods and special meals to celebrate and honor the dead.
Ortega grew up in Mexico and remembers observing Día de los Muertos in his small village. Today he uses what he learned as a child in the festivities here in Houston.
"Everything stops when you're having the celebration," Ortega says, recalling the holiday as he celebrated it in central Mexico. "Every house had an altar to remember the relatives. It's a great tradition, and it goes back to what the country is all about."
Ortega remembers making candles with his grandfather for the altars -- a slow process of dipping string into melted wax. The candle-making day is known as Dia de Veladoras, or Day of Candles, and it includes music and food to celebrate and help pass the time while the candles dry.
Once the candles were made, the preparations for the ofrendas began. And that, says local Dia de los Muertos historian Macario Ramirez, is where the food comes in. Ramirez owns the Mexican import shop Casa Ramirez, which sells many items used in the construction of an altar. He has had his own up for weeks, and has also been teaching classes to help people understand the importance of the ofrenda and the holiday.
"Our feeling," Ramirez explains, "is the loved ones come down, go to the cemetery, and then go to your home and smell and see the things they loved on earth."
Some people will put tequila or cigarettes on the ofrendas, if that's what their loved ones would enjoy. Others will leave fruit or favorite candies. A popular dish that's usually made fresh and added the day before the holiday is mole.
"Mole is a sauce, and then you add chicken or pork to it," Ramirez explains. "Not everybody can afford it in Mexico, but the spirits are coming back, and you'll even go into debt to show that you're thinking about them."
It's a labor-intensive dish to prepare, and some recipes require as many as 30 different ingredients. Making mole for an altar shows dedication and reverence and a willingness to sacrifice time and money in honor of the dead.
The menu at Hugo's contains more than half a dozen different types of mole, and Ortega is expert in making the dish. He learned how to make it from his grandmother, and he still makes this Mole de Xico in his restaurant daily. It contains 19 ingredients, but Ortega insists the most important one is chocolate.
"To make mole, you first have to make chocolate," Ortega explains. "And that's part of the uniqueness of my grandmother's recipe. The chocolate is added to the last portion of the cooking of the mole. Sometimes you put so many peppers or spices in the mole that it's very spicy, so you add the chocolate to give it the balance of sweetness and heat exactly where you want it to be."
Ortega says that Mole de Xico comes from the little town of Xico, near Veracruz, many of whose citizens cannot regularly afford all the ingredients to make it.
"It's something so special when you have mole," Ortega says. "It's just something that we respect so much, and we make it properly, the way it's supposed to be done."
In addition to mole or other foods that were the favorites of departed loved ones, pan de muerto, or bread of the dead, is commonly placed on altars and eaten during celebrations. It's a sweet bread often decorated with rolls of dough on top intended to resemble bones or skulls. Sometimes it's decorated with colored sugar or ceramic figurines, and other times it's simply sprinkled with sesame seeds.
Many families in Mexico make their own pan de muerto, and Ortega says that in his small town his aunt was the baker for the entire area. She would make nearly all of the bread for the celebrations then share it with the rest of the town.
Here in Houston, and in big cities in Mexico, it's more common to get pan de muerto from a local bakery. Ortega recommends El Bolillo, which specializes in Mexican pastries and offered three different varieties of pan de muerto when we went to check it out. Ramirez likes La Victoria Bakery in the Lawndale neighborhood, as well as La Mexicana in Montrose, which he says has a great baker.
Another customary Dia de los Muertos item is atole, a corn-based drink to which chocolate is often added.
"The original recipe -- I'm 100 percent sure of this -- is just masa and chocolate," Ortega says. "And water, because you need liquid. So you combine water and masa, and then flavor with chocolate. It tastes great. In our region we call it champurrado."
Families also prepare café de olla, a traditional coffee drink made with raw sugar, cinnamon and anise seeds, and ponche, a fruit punch with cinnamon and cloves that's served warm. Often, family members will go to the cemeteries together, and since the holiday falls in November they bring warm drinks with them. Some families make far more atole or ponche than they need for themselves, then invite friends in for a rest and a warm drink on their way to or from the cemetery.
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Food is such a large part of the Dia de los Muertos celebration that Hugo's is serving a special menu on October 31 and November 1 and 2 to mark the occasion. The offerings will include tamales and braised lamb in a red mole sauce, in addition to other traditional dishes. Guests are also encouraged to bring their own photos to add to the ofrenda in honor of their loved ones.
If you want to make your own ofrenda this year, it's not too late. Ramirez encourages people to come by Casa Ramirez and inquire about making altars. He carries much of what you'll need in the store, and he'll be able to direct you to other places to get anything else you might desire.
So as you're indulging in mole, tamales or Mexican sweet bread over the coming week, take a moment to remember the loved ones you lost. And if your grandmother's favorite food just happened to be something like chicken pot pie or chocolate ice cream, eat that in celebration of her. What better way to honor the dead than by enjoying the things in life that they enjoyed, too?