You’ll be handling all of the ingredients by hand. Touching them, tasting them, smelling them. You’ll be imbuing part of yourself because this is an offering, this making. You’ll start with the chiles.
Andrea walks me through the mole recipe while I sit on a stool in her kitchen. She makes mole every Monday to serve on her tostadas and tortas at the Pochote Mercado Orgánico the next weekend. She makes it on Monday because she needs at least four hours and the rest of the week she is too busy making guisados, her own quesillo and queso fresco, and, of course, selling at the market.
Andrea’s mole is spicy enough that I don’t add salsa to my tostada piled high with fresh greens, beets, lentil salad, chile de ajo, and requeson de hierbas. But once a year, Andrea prepares her mole de Muertos. On those special days, I order my tostada plain. Just the crispy tortilla and the mole. I go back for seconds, often thirds.
First, blacken the seeds and then cook the chiles in oil. It is a perfume that will cure you. It will also make you sneeze!
Andrea’s mole de Muertos has double the number of ingredients as her usual recipe. More chiles, more fruits, more seeds. She prepares it with her family – her husband, her sister, her daughter, and her son-in-law – and they eat it on fresh tortillas while they prepare their altar. They will eat it for a late-night meal with turkey. They will soak it up with breakfast bolillos.
This year, Andrea’s newborn granddaughter will also be there. “We remember the dead, that is Muertos. But to welcome a new nieta to our family, to our tradition, to bring her to this knowledge, it is everything. This will be my favourite Muertos in a long time.”
We will use the same oil for every layer. It is layer after layer.
Char the onion and garlic. Almonds, peanuts, cinnamon, cloves, and peppercorn. Layer after layer the oil becomes a marriage.
Andrea’s family builds their altar in the week before. It will often take hours as they eat, cut flowers, eat, tell stories, eat, laugh until they cry. “I don’t know what smell of Muertos I love the most. The cempasúchil flower is what greets you as you enter the home. It is a canopy. The copal slips into your memory and all of a sudden you are crying or laughing or angry or just remembering. But the food… those smoky chiles that burn your eyes, the toasting nuts and seeds, the simmering mole. The pan de muerto that smells like yeast, scrambled egg, and sugar… who doesn’t love yeast, scrambled egg, and sugar? The foods. They are the smells that remind you that you are still living.”
Raisins plump in the oil. Day-old bread soaks up all of the flavours. The plantain will add another kind of sweetness. When the sesame seeds start to dance in the oil, I clap along.
Muertos is the busiest time for those in the food or tourism industry but, because Andrea works with her family, she doesn’t mind. They have their family traditions, and then they have their market family. They bend the bamboo to construct the altar frame and wrap it in leaves. A week before, they review photos, wipe down picture frames, remember to go and buy enough chocolate. They find the time. They cross the time, dead parents and baby granddaughters.
And now, cook down the tomatoes, tomatillos, a fragrant mountain of herbs wilting down. We’ll break chocolate into shards. The children will beg for this job and lick their fingers far too often.
In Etla, they walk to the cemetery at dusk. They stop along the way to visit with friends and neighbours. It is a moment to catch up because “we all have our lives and we all say that we will get together more and then… it’s Muertos again. And so we stop at their homes on Muertos… and hope to see them before we arrive at the panteón. Because if they are waiting for us at the panteón, we must find more room on the altar.” I raise my eyebrow at her sly morbid joke and she laughs at my faux morality. She raises her wooden spoon, dripping with tomato juice – she’s been cooking this entire time – and clucks her tongue as her skeleton dances in a stained apron and turban. In Oaxaca, “nos vemos” might just mean “I’ll see you, come rain, shine, or death.”
At the cemetery, there are more layers. This time it’s candles, flowers, food, and drink. Food is carried in Tupperware and there are plenty of tortillas for everyone. Andrea wishes she was more musical but that’s okay because someone will be singing, someone will be playing guitar, there will be tubas and clarinets and more snare drums than one would think is necessary in a cemetery. “When the music really starts, no one tells me to stop singing even though maybe I should.”
When everything has been toasted, charred, blanched, fried, and sizzled, the giant pot will go to the molino. As it passes through the machine, the women crowding around, waiting for their tortilla masa, for their chocolate paste, they will inhale deeply and ask. “How much cinnamon stick? Did you use bread or tortilla? Avocado leaf? Did you roast your own chocolate?”
Andrea shares her recipe with customers at her market stall. There are no secret ingredients. “Muertos is for sharing, remembering, finding more room.”
Andrea blends a little of the mole for us to try. She’ll take the rest of the batch to the molino. I repeat what she said as I decide to eat a little bit more. “Finding more room.”