Every year on Day of the Dead (November 1 -2), people in Mexico, Guatemala and other Latin American countries set up ofrendas to honor those who came before. Ofrendas are kind of like altars, set up in households, that hold photos of, and articles beloved by, those who’ve died.

A few years ago, recognizing that many family and friends have passed in recent years, we set up an ofrenda in our house. We put up photos of the deceased and positioned comestibles near them that reflect the tastes of the people pictured: my mom, for instance, has a bar of chocolate near her photo, and my dad a bottle of whiskey (he was a very circumspect drinker, but he did enjoy a dram now and again).

Years ago, I was on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula during Day of the Dead, and on ofrendas and gravesites, people put had carefully placed food (frequently tamales), liquor (almost always tequila), cigarettes, toys for children and other articles enjoyed by the deceased during their lives.

The food, drink and other items, including the customary marigolds, are intended to help guide the dead back to the world of the living, if only for a few hours…then they go back to where they came from and wait to return next year. The idea is that the dead “consume” the offerings left to them, which is why it’s believed that food left on an ofrenda will be rendered tasteless because it has, in some way, already been enjoyed by the dead.

Years ago, when I first heard about Day of the Dead celebrations, it seemed a bit odd to be so, as it seemed to me then, morbidly fixated on death. I have since come to realize that this was an unfair and incorrect interpretation. People in Mexico and elsewhere take the opportunity on November 1-2 to celebrate life and defuse the sting of death with, for instance, candy skulls and somewhat comic representations of skeletons laughing, dancing, and cavorting. If you’ve seen the Disney movie “Coco,” you know what I’m talking about.

Compare this relatively celebratory attitude towards death and the dead to the inarguably morbid approach to the holiday taken by those of us who decorate our front lawns with cemetery stones, ghastly monsters with blood-stained fangs, and make-believe severed appendages and heads. Now who’s morbidly fixated?

Ofrendas are an excellent way to rekindle memories of those who have passed in a respectful and loving way, and it’s become a family tradition for us, even though none of us are of Latin American origin.

I guess the charge could be made that our setting up an ofrenda is an act of cultural appropriation, but my belief is that if you make use of elements of another culture with respect and as much understanding as you can muster, then it’s cool to adopt worthwhile traditions, including culinary traditions, that are not strictly part of your own cultural  heritage.

It’s not too late to make your own ofrenda: clear a table, put up some photos and, of course, some of the dearly departed’s favorite food and drink.



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David Hammond

David Hammond, a corporate communications consultant and food journalist living in Oak Park, Illinois, is a founder and moderator of LTHForum.com, the 8,500 member Chicago-based culinary chat site. David...