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Food to Die For 

All Soul's food at neighborhood bakeries

On the far right hand side of the bakery case in Odalys Bakery on Independence Boulevard is a bakery sheet of round yeast buns, the size of a salad plate, with an appliqué of dough shaped to resembled bones, then sprinkled with granulated sugar. These Pan de Muertos, or Bread of the Dead, are appearing in Latino bakery cases around the city as a prelude to Dias de los Muertos, which is Spanish for Day of the Dead.

While in English, "Day of the Dead" conjures up devilish B movie scenarios, the reality is that this celebration is actually a Memorial Day or an "All Souls' Day," which sounds more, well, angelic.

In the Spanish/Portuguese-speaking New World, Days of the Dead, is still a vibrant part of the culture. Rather than macabre, this time of year is a celebration of life, and the eternal circle of life. In Mexico, the customs associated with Day of the Dead seem to be a commingling of ancient Aztec rituals with the Christian belief system perpetuated by the Spanish Conquistadors.

The Aztecs believed that after death, the soul passed through nine levels before arriving at Mictlan, the land of the dead. Death was very much a part of daily life among the Aztecs; in fact, two calendar months were devoted to it. For seventeenth century Spaniards, praying for ancestors on All Souls' Day aided in their reprieve from Purgatory.

Historically Christian cultures reserved days to memorialize the ordinary dead, as well as political or religious leaders, and warriors. The Christian holidays of All Saints' Day fell on Nov. 1 and All Souls' Day on Nov. 2. All Saints' was a celebration for lesser saints (those without feast days devoted to them), while All Souls' served as a day to pray for dead family and friends.

Unlike the way death is viewed in America today, where funeral services and obituaries serve as a way to pump up and glorify the dead, in the past the jury about the ultimate outcome (heaven or hell) was still out. All Souls' Day allowed prayer to influence that outcome. Some of the food traditions of All Souls' Day give evidence to this: Drinking cold milk on All Souls' in eastern European countries was thought to cool those waiting in Purgatory.

In other European countries, special foods were prepared for All Souls Day. In Italy, monks offered Fave dei Morti, Beans of the Dead. In time wealthier Venetians invented small, hollow, round pastry puffs colored blue, red or yellow to serve on that day. Another Italian cookie traditionally baked and eaten on All Souls is Ossi dei Morti, or bones of the dead. This brittle cookie's recipe is included in Alice Waters' Chez Panisse Desserts. In Mexico, the leavened Pan de Muerto, linked to the Spanish tradition of begging for souls, is not only left at the gravesite, or an in-home altar, but is also given to visitors. Some Mexican bakers also make these buns to resemble children and adults.

In Ecuador, families share a sweet drink, colada morada, made from flour and fruits while in Portugal, a traditional All Souls' feasts occurs at the gravesite. In central Europe, dirge cakes, or doughnuts -- the edible wreathe -- are thought to have been baked to represent eternal life and eaten or placed on graves in honor of the departed.

In England and Wales, small soul, or souly, cakes, or buns, were baked. Originally, these cakes were shaped like men and women and were given currants for eyes; in much the same fashion gingerbread people are made. Many All Souls' food traditions in Europe centered on the belief that the soul returns to earth on Nov. 2. In many countries a place was set at a table or food was left at the gravesite, door stop, or window for the wandering spirit. In Poland, liquor was poured under the dining table as an offering to the dead.

Sugar skulls, not unlike the hard sugar Easter egg confections, are also made at this time of year in Mexico and some regions in Italy. Typically these have funky designs with the name of the deceased inscribed across the face. Perhaps these skulls and the skeletons associated with the Mexican Day of the Dead have confused the meaning of the celebration since the use of skulls in America had an altogether different meaning. In the 1700s pirates flew flags with skull and cross bones (Jolly Roger), to intimidate and inform other ships whether or not prisoners would be taken (black field) or slaughtered (red field). Yet, long before the advent of pirates, the skull, one of the last bones to deteriorate, served as a reminder to ancient Romans and early Christians that death is an equal opportunity vendor and that, indeed, life is short.

In Charlotte, Pan de Muerto ($1) is available at all Odalys bakeries and sugar skulls (some with eyeglasses) can be purchased at Pura Vida for $5. Pura Vida is also hosting a Day of the Dead event mingled with the Celtic festival of Samhain (meaning Summer's end) on Saturday, Oct. 27 at 7 p.m. The event is free.

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