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Here Are 13 Interesting Facts About The History And Symbolism Of Pan De Muerto

The yearly calendar for Mexican social life pretty much is dictated by baked goods. You know the year is wrapping up when bakeries and supermarkets start stocking traditional pan de muerto, a type of bread that is placed on altars and enjoyed by families around Day of the Dead. It is a delicious, spongy delicacy that tastes like brioche but has a distinctive smell, product of the orange peel and orange blossom essential oils that the traditional recipe calls for. This is what you need to know about pan de muerto. Hey, if you wanna get on your abuela’s good books this is your chance to impress her. 

1. The origins of pan de muerto seem to go back all the way to Aztec times.

Credit: Instagram / breadpanaderos

Of course, the original owners of the land on which Mexico City exists now did not have wheat, eggs and oranges (the main ingredients for pan de muerto) before the Spanish arrived. Rather, according to chronicles from the time and some historians, they made a sort of cake with amaranth flour. Some believe that this bread contained blood product of human sacrifices and that it was an offering to the gods. 

2. The Spanish conquistadores changed the recipe, as they found this culinary practice violent and barbaric.

Credit: Instagram / chicayeyemx

During colonial times the Spanish learnt of this practice and changed the recipe (it no longer contained actual dead people’s blood!). The amaranth was replaced with wheat flour and the top was sprinkled with sugar turned red with a colorant, which symbolized blood, an echo of the Aztec tradition. Some bakeries still use red sugar. 

3. So what about the circle in the middle of the bread?

Credit: Instagram / pandefuego

The circle represents a skull, and the elongated pieces of bread stand, of course, for the bones. The skull and bones are the most coveted bits of every pan de muerto, so snatch them as soon as you can (although you might get someone upset, as there is nothing worse than finding a boneless pancito de muerto laying around in the kitchen!). The long bones also symbolize the tears we shed for those who have passed away before us. 

 4. So you have noticed the sesame seeds in lieu of sugar in some panes de muerto?

Credit: Instagram / cielorojomex

Well, that reveals that the bread is from the Mexican state of Puebla, where sesame seeds are sprinkled on top. This has to do with the French influence on culinary affairs, and we all know French bakers like to get creative. 

 5. And in Oaxaca pan de muerto has a completely different shape and actually features a corpss. It’s much less creepy than it sounds.

Credit: Instagram / illsaygiselle

Everything is just a little more elaborate in Oaxaca and pan de muerto is no exception. The Oaxacan variety is made with extra egg yolks and has an anthropomorphic design, complete with a little edible doll which represents the dead. They are simply delicious.  

6. BTW, the orange blossom essence in pan de muerto has a very poetic meaning.

Credit: Instagram / gustobread

Orange blossom has a delicate and comforting smell that inevitably takes us back to the Day of the Dead altars that have been important in our lives. The smell is meant to symbolize the everlasting presence of the faithful departed. It is a sweet celebration of the connection between life and death. 

7. Pan de muerto is a perfect example of contemporary Mexican identity.

Credit: Instagram / laotiliamx

This bread is the epitome of the cultural mish mash that defines contemporary Mexican identity. It has a prehispanic origin with religious connotations, but it has developed into a European food (bread is, after all, a product brought by the colonial power). It is also used in a celebration that fuses ancient indigenous beliefs and Catholic tradition.  

 8. It is round, like the circle of life.

Credit: Instagram / _piggy_back

Its roundness is also a reminder of the cycle of life and death, a cycle that has no definite end and no definite beginning. Indigenous cosmology frames life and death as coexisting and complementing realms. 

 9. If the bones form a cross, they stand for the four cardinal points.

Credit: Instagram / catiabril68

The compass directs each arrow, or bread bone in pan de muerto, to a point ruled by the Aztec gods Quetzalcóatl, Tláloc, Xipe Tútec and Tezcatlipoca. 

10. Panes de muerto are placed on altars so the dead can feast.

Credit: Instagram / lacasadelalolas

Of course, come November 3 you can have the delicious pan for yourself, and if you make a traditional chocolate caliente it will be even better. 

11. Of course, as with everything else, pan de muerto has been gentrified. Just look at this delicious monstrosity.

Credit: Instagram / tresabejas

Yes, we gotta admit that this looks absolutely delicious and we don’t wanna get all puritan when it comes to popular culture (which, far from stable, is a mutating thing), but having melted conejitos (a traditional Mexican chocolate) is a bit too much. Is it Day of the Dead or is it Easter? You can’t always have both! 

12. Oh, hipsters, just sprinkling matcha on absolutely everything! 

Credit: Instagram / weeatmx

Yes, perhaps following the gentrifying wave of Starbucks some Mexican bakeries are starting to add green matcha tea dust in with the traditional sugar. Verde que te quiero verde, hipsters seem to recite in unison. 

13. Can everyone just please stop? Is innovation just killing the true meaning of this Mexican traditional bun?

Credit: Instagram / yerliju

We mean, what fresh hell of deliciousness is this? No, seriously, a pan de muerto hamburger is just a tiny bit over the top, isn’t it?

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