The pan de muerto is not only a baked bread; it’s an essential component of the Mexican Day of the Dead, celebrated in Nov. 1 and 2 to honor the memory of the dead. During this holiday, which has ancestral roots in pre-Hispanic indigenous commemorations, Mexicans meet to honor their deceased loved ones, either in their homes or in cemeteries.
Made in a circular shape, the bread symbolizes the cycle of life and death through which every human being passes according to the Mexican culture. In the center of the bread, there is a small “ball” that represents the skull of the deceased.
“It can be made plain or filled with salty or sweet food. The salty one does not have sugar on the outside but has sesame seeds and is filled with Mexican stew,” baker Carla Mantecon said. “The sweet one can be filled with hazelnut jam, dulce de leche, and raspberry cream.”
Mantecon, 38, left her native Guadalajara 10 years ago and settled in Alexandria, Virginia. After months living in the United States, Mantecon said she began to miss Mexico and its traditions. “I slowly began to notice that it was challenging to find the traditional food of my country here, and that’s how I started the idea of my business,” she said.
Mantecon is the head chef of Cocolita Food, a gourmet Mexican food company she founded in 2016, which operates I delivery service and its kitchen is located in Washington, D.C. Her company specializes in pan de muerto and she bakes between 3,000 and 4,000 pieces of bread during October and November to serve the DMV area, including clients in Montgomery County such as Maria Bautista, 39, an immigrant from Honduras.
Bautista says she has always been passionate about cooking and learning about Hispanic recipes. After living in Silver Spring for three years, she said that she heard from neighbors that Cocolita Food had one of the most popular pan de muerto breads in the area and that the cook who bakes them just happened to have her kitchen in the National Union Building, where Bautista works in housekeeping.
One day, to her surprise, Mantecon offered Bautista the opportunity to teach her how to bake pan de muerto and proposed to work with her during her days off. “When she gave me a taste of the bread, I thought it was delicious and I had to learn how to bake it,” Bautista said.
“Baking the pan de muerto, I learned about the importance of this Mexican tradition and that there are different slices of bread filled with sweet and salty fillings,” added Bautista.
The pan de muerto, as an offering to the deceased, is placed on altars. People create a space in their houses where they place photographs of their deceased loved ones and candles, among other decorations.
The last days of October and the first week of November are the busiest for Mantecon, who sells each piece of bread for $2.50. Among the areas where she has the most clients in Montgomery County are Rockville and Silver Spring, where there are not only a large number of Mexicans but also Hispanics from other countries.
“In the last few year’, I’m proud to say that my clients have spread the word and I have a growing number of customers in Montgomery County,” added Mantecon.
Bautista mentioned that during sales, she could hear customers saying Ah esto esta muy bueno in Spanish and “this is very good.” “I feel very proud to be helping with this important tradition. Also, I realized that Silver Spring’s clients are not only Hispanics but Americans too.”
The pan de muerto is more than just a simple bread; it’s a deep-rooted tradition that honors Mexico’s cultural roots.
“With Cocolita, I represent Mexico and my roots” Mantecon said. “Beyond being a business, it’s an honor for me to be able to express my traditions.”
If you want to read this story in Spanish, click here.