We love our tricks and treats (and terrible puns) at Halloween, but it's not the only holiday we love around this time of year. The Mexican holiday of Día de los Muertos is taking center stage in a growing number of celebrations across the U.S. and for good reason: the U.S. is a nation of immigrants, and Mexican Americans make a huge contribution to our cultural fabric. And any holiday centered around food, music, and visual spectacles in honor of our lost loved ones and the cycles of life feels like one worth celebrating.
This coming month, we're debuting two new flavors celebrating the season and flavors of Día de los Muertos, developed in collaboration with our friend Paola Briseño-González. Paola is a cooking writer, recipe developer, and cultural curator. Her recipes can be found in L.A. Times, Food and Wine, and her newsletter Substack, Fresca!, where she publishes an original recipe every week.
For Paola, building a career in food, writing, and cultural curation is a result of her immigration story. Emigrating to the U.S. in 2007 to study design and urban planning in Portland, Oregon, Paola grew homesick living in a place without family, friends, or a working proficiency in English. It wasn't long before she was calling her mother for family recipes. "This is how I learned to cook. My mother would tell me how to make something and then I would spend the next six hours in the kitchen!" Born into a family of restaurateurs, Paola began to use cooking as a way to stay connected with her friends and family in Mexico and make cultural connections with people in her new home, many of whom were also immigrants. Living so far from home allowed cooking and food culture to bring shape to Paola's vision. Oregon is also where she first connected with Tyler Malek and the Salt & Straw team.
Growing up in Puerto Vallarta, Paola celebrated Día de los Muertos like many families have for thousands of years; spending hours in the cemetery where her relatives were buried, cleaning graves, building altars with candles, photos, foods, and other offerings, reciting poems, and playing music. The mood is tinged with reverence and also humor; rather than a sorrowful commemoration, it's a day to memorialize passed loved ones and playfully acknowledge the inevitability that bonds everyone on the plane, our mortality. After all, death is the one and only guarantee in life!
After five years in Oregon, Paola moved to Southern California in 2012 and encountered a Día de los Muertos celebration unlike any she had ever been to. Held at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery since 2000, it's now one of the largest indigenous celebrations in the U.S.. Shaped by the diaspora of Mexican, Central and South American, and indigenous immigrants, the Día de los Muertos celebrations happening around Los Angeles have become legendary, with processions, catrina costumes, and of course lots of calaveras. The L.A. celebrations have shed light on Día de los Muertos on a global scale, even shaping how it's now celebrated in Mexico.
And like Hollywood Forever's Día de los Muertos celebration has reframed an ancient tradition, Paola's collaboration with Salt & Straw sheds new light on some culinary traditions of the Mexican holiday and allows them to be appreciated anew. Paola started by selecting seasonal flavors and preparations that would be found at a traditional Mexican Día de los Muertos celebration. Native to Mexico and so integral to the culture, cacao was a form of currency. In the colder months, right around the time of Día de los Muertos, a masa-thickened drinking cacao called champurrado is often served. Sesame seeds also show up as a seasonal flavor, generously coating pan de muerto. Evoking the experience of dipping sesame-laden pan de muerto in warm champurrado on a chilly November day, Paola worked with us to create Chocolate Champurrado with Sesame Toffee, using Cloudforest chocolate, masa, and mixing in shards of sesame seed palanqueta (traditional Mexican-style sesame toffee).
Another delicacy savored during Día de los Muertos is tamales de zarzamora: sweet masa tamales punctuated with tart bursts of blackberries. These delicate tamales, hailing from Michoacán, are light and delicate and worlds away from the savory meat-filled tamal we are accustomed to. Paola helped us develop these flavors as a blend of two vegan flavors: coconut cream masa sherbet, and tart marionberry sherbet.
There's a popular saying during Día de los Muertos, "Donde comen dos, comen tres," translated to "Where two eat, three can eat." Those who have passed are always here to be remembered, and those among us are always able to share with others. Thank you Paola, for sharing your cultural knowledge and creativity with us!