WHAT IF EVERY YEAR, you could count on spending an entire weekend in joyous celebration of your dearly departed? Día de los Muertos observances provide just such occasions of festive remembrance, replete with edible delights, including some for the loved ones whose souls or spirits are said to be visiting.

Not the least bit sad or scary despite all the skeletons, the Day of the Dead tradition in Mexico has a pre-Columbian history. The Spaniards who arrived in that country tried to eliminate it, without success, but managed to merge it with their Catholic All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. Its imagery and traditions have been widely adopted into the culture of New Mexico, where it is celebrated with gusto.

Day of the Dead interests me greatly because of Mexican culture’s comfortable recognition, and acceptance, of the circle of life. I also love the many artist renditions of skeletons (calacas) and skulls (calaveras), and even fancy ladies (Catrinas). Catrinas usually take the form of statuesque skeletons in elegant dress, their skulls sporting feathery chapeaus. Today’s figurines often pay homage to the style of Jóse Guadalupe Posada, the famed Mexican artist, satirical cartoonist, and pamphleteer whose political and social commentary—often using skeleton figures—took Mexico and then the world by storm in the days leading up to the 1910 Mexican Revolution.

I also relish the strong culinary focus of the celebration, especially the sweet anise- and orange-scented pan de muerto, a balloony loaf adorned with bread “bones.” Sometimes it will have the departed’s name, or a sentiment like por mi gordita inscribed in bread dough as well. I love the three-dimensional sugar skulls with frostings and frippery, and the more contemporary, wildly decorated sugar skull cookies. These items and special savory dishes like mole may be eaten in the home and placed on the special altar (ofrenda) for the returning spirits. In Mexican towns like Pátzcuaro and Oaxaca that have an especially strong history of Día de los Muertos commemorations, people decorate altars with miniature plates of enchiladas or bowls of mole or baskets of fruit made out of the same sugar paste that forms the many decorative skulls.

An altar should also have a glass of water to refresh the spirits after their long journey, and salt, the spice of life. An altar must be festooned with bright marigolds and candles, and needs to reflect the personality of the person or people being remembered. Along with a photo or portrait of the deceased, the altar should have examples of things they loved, perhaps a favorite book or sports memorabilia, and a bottle of tequila or beer and a favorite snack. I once saw an altar being carried into a Mexican cemetery covered with dangling bananas. Mirthful skeleton figures, sometimes engaged in the profession or favorite pastime of the deceased, are also a must.

An altar must be festooned with bright marigolds and candles, and needs to reflect the personality of the person or people being remembered. Photograph courtesy of Adobe Stock.


Albuquerque and Mesilla/Las Cruces have the state’s most established community Día de los Muertos traditions, and Santa Fe has picked up on the idea in more recent years. Albuquerque’s Marigold Parade has been a part of South Valley heritage for more than two decades. This year, the parade will fall on the actual Day of the Dead, Sunday, November 2. Maria Brazil, one of the parade’s volunteer co-directors, is justly proud of this grassroots annual celebration. More than 5,000 people attended last year’s parade, which had over 80 floats, some made by families or groups of friends, others by community organizations and school groups.

“Anyone can be in the parade, as long as they paint on a skeleton face and have marigolds, either paper or the real thing,” says Brazil. “Even our neighborhood firefighters take part, with their faces made up.”

You’ll see bicyclists, motorcyclists, Rollerbladers, and a few folks on horseback, interspersed with lowriders, decorated trucks, vintage cars, bands, and dance troupes. Bright paper flowers adorn everything. The parade travels a mile-long route from the corner of Centro Familiar and Isleta Boulevard SW to the Westside Community Center, at 1250 Isleta SW. After arriving at the community center, the celebration continues for the rest of the day, with an auditorium full of ofrendas, live music, and vendors selling Mexican and New Mexican food specialties.

Also in Albuquerque, the Golden Crown Panaderia, famous otherwise for its green chile cheese bread, gears up for Day of the Dead. It will offer at least three different sizes of pan de muerto. Owner Pratt Morales advises that you place your order early, because each one is a work of art. “You might not believe how much demand we have for these loaves. Many schools buy them as an edible centerpiece for students’ study of Día de los Muertos. We do a lot of them for private parties, too, some very elaborate. I’ve done large breads with a whole cemetery scene, headstones and all.”

Down in Mesilla, the entire plaza is taken over from October 31 through November 2 for a weekend filled with Day of the Dead festivities. Beautiful altars are the backdrops for dance performances, live music, storytelling, food vendors, a juried fair of muertos artists, and more. Check out the sponsoring Calavera Coalition’s Facebook page for more details, including the timing of the procession to the historic San Albino Cemetery. Just around the corner from the plaza, La Posta de Mesilla restaurant creates an ebullient altar in honor of its founder, Katy Griggs Camuñez Meek. Look for the altar’s plate of enchiladas and a cup of coffee, Katy’s favorite meal.

In Las Cruces, the NMSU Museum will host its annual sugar skull decorating event on Saturday, November 1. The staff premakes scores of skulls that can then be adorned in icing by kids, families, students, and anyone else who wants to stop by for the free activity. Also in Las Cruces, Casa Camino Real, home of the Border Book Festival, will celebrate Día de los Muertos with a Traveling Altars exhibition, potluck supper, and celebration on Sunday evening, November 2. The festival’s casa is an 1850s-era adobe on the historic Camino Real, near the original Las Cruces townsite (learn more at mynm.us/crucescasas). Anyone may exhibit an altar ambulante honoring an ancestor or deceased friend. Esteemed Las Cruces–born author Denise Chávez conceived the idea behind the exhibition, for which she is preparing an altar based on her late mother’s suitcase. She suggests others consider bringing a family trunk, a father’s shaving kit, or a favorite pet’s carrying case, decorated in Día de los Muertos style. Anyone who would like to attend the evening event is asked to bring a dish to share that honors their ancestors.

In Santa Fe, there’s no more perfect spot to participate in Día de los Muertos goings-on than the Museum of International Folk Art. The education staff hosts an array of activities both Saturday and Sunday, November 1 and 2, which include building an outdoor community altar at twilight on Saturday, and sugar skull decorating, pan de muerto tasting, and more on Sunday afternoon.

These are just a few examples of local festivities. Why not start a New Mexico Day of the Dead remembrance at your home, joining the celebration of lives well lived? We’ve got a menu of traditional foods for the joyful occasion. Just add skeletons.

Traditional to parts of Mexico, this salad became a part of the repertoire of New Mexico families after supermarkets popped up in our cities, making the tropical ingredients easier to find. Mayonnaise is a contemporary addition, a twist on the crema, or creamy fresh cheese, used more commonly in Mexico. This version comes from Chimayó’s Jaramillo family, the owners of Rancho de Chimayó. The salad dressing can be prepared a day ahead. The jícama and oranges can be mixed together anytime earlier in the day you plan to serve the salad.


  • 1 medium lime
  • ¼ cup mayonnaise
  • 2 tablespoons honey or agave syrup
  • 1 tablespoon cider vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon ground dried New Mexican red chile
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • Salt


  • 4 large oranges, peeled and sectioned
  • 12 ounces jícama, peeled and cut into matchsticks
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
  • 2 romaine hearts, cut into thin ribbons
  • Seeds of 1 pomegranate

Serves 8 or more

  1. Prepare dressing. Using a zester or paring knife, remove green portion of lime’s peel in very thin strips. Cut lime in half and squeeze juice from both pieces. Combine lime zest and juice and remaining dressing ingredients in a blender until smooth. Refrigerate until ready for use.
  2. Prepare salad. Cut the orange and jícama into bite-size chunks. Mix together in a bowl and refrigerate at least 30 minutes. Just before serving, toss with three-fourths of salad dressing and cilantro. Toss romaine with remaining dressing. Arrange a bed of romaine on a serving platter. Mound salad over romaine. Scatter with pomegranate seeds and serve.

I love the opportunity to make a true Mexican mole from scratch, toasting and roasting some two dozen ingredients and making a day of the preparation. Since I manage that only once every couple of years, I figure we all can use a shortcut for a celebration menu. For this dish, I use a New Mexican mole mix from North of the Border, based in Tesuque. The company’s mole mix has a good proportion of New Mexican red chile in it, in addition to the anchos and pasillas more common south of the border. You can order it by mail from them (800-860-0681; northoftheborder.net), pick it up at the Santa Fe School of Cooking (505-983-4511; santafeschoolofcooking.com), or find it at many grocery stores and specialty food stores in-state and nationally. You can substitute another mole, from a jar, made from paste, or even homemade, if you wish. The rich sauce gets spooned over petite skewers of chicken, which is grilled or oven-baked. Both the sauce and the skewered, uncooked chicken can be prepared a day ahead.


  • Minced zest and juice of 2 large oranges
  • Minced zest and juice of 2 large limes
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon Mexican hot sauce, such as Cholula (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 6 medium boneless, skinless chicken breasts, or a combination of breasts and thighs, cut into ¾-inch cubes (2 to 2½ pounds)
  • 2 tablespoons lard or vegetable oil
  • 1 small onion, chopped fine
  • 3.5-ounce package North of the Border powdered mole mix
  • 4 cups reduced-sodium chicken stock
  • 1 ounce sweet Mexican chocolate (with cinnamon and almond), such as Ibarra (optional)
  • Several tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted in a dry skillet until fragrant Smoked salt (optional)
  • Lime wedges

Serves 8 or more

  1. Prepare marinade, combining ingredients in a large zippered plastic bag. Add chicken cubes to marinade, seal, and toss back and forth to coat chicken. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to a couple of hours.
  2. Meanwhile, prepare mole. Heat lard in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir in onion and sauté for about 5 minutes, or until soft. Stir in mole mix and cook until fragrant, about 2 more minutes. Pour in stock and, if you like, add the chocolate for a deeper, darker mole. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer and cook for 15 to 20 minutes, until the consistency is like gravy.
  3. Fire up the grill to medium heat or preheat oven to 375° F.
  4. Drain chicken, discarding marinade. Place 5 to 6 cubes of chicken on metal or soaked bamboo skewers. If baking chicken, place skewers on greased baking sheets.
  5. Grill chicken uncovered over medium heat for about 10 minutes, turning regularly to sear on all sides. Chicken should be opaque throughout but still juicy. If baking chicken, plan on a cooking time of about 12 minutes, turning once halfway through baking.
  6. Serve chicken skewers plated, after spooning mole over them. Garnish with sesame seeds and, if you wish, a sprinkling of smoked salt. Place a lime wedge on each plate.

A little gooey and a little crunchy and altogether scrumptious, these quesadillas go quickly, so have plenty of the ingredients on hand. Use the quantities as a guideline more than a strict recipe. I pick up wonderful freshly made corn tortillas at Alicia’s Tortilleria (1314 Rufina Circle, Santa Fe; 505-438-9545). I like to keep summer sweet corn from our farmers’ market in my freezer for dishes like this, but Trader Joe’s and some other supermarkets sell already roasted corn kernels in their freezer section. If you have a number of children in your group, or folks who aren’t accustomed to New Mexico chile, you can offer it separately rather than mix it into the corn. These can be made a few at a time on a griddle or in the oven, as you wish. Keep them warm for up to 30 minutes in a 275° F oven.

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 4 cups roasted corn kernels
  • 2 cups chopped roasted New Mexico green chile
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt or more to taste
  • 2 to 2½ pounds queso Oaxaca, asadero, or Monterey Jack cheese, shredded
  • Vegetable oil spray
  • 36 corn tortillas
    Mexican hot sauce such as Cholula, Búfalo, or Valentina (optional)

Makes 18 quesadillas

  1. Warm butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add corn, green chile, and salt, and sauté for about 5 minutes, until everything is heated through. Keep warm over very low heat.
  2. Spray a griddle or large heavy skillet with oil, just enough to coat surface. Warm it over medium heat. Cover a tortilla with a few tablespoons of cheese and a tablespoon or two of the corn-and-chile mixture. Top with a second tortilla. Repeat with as many more quesadillas as will fit on griddle. Cook, turning once, until cheese has melted and tortillas are lightly browned and chewy-crispy, about 1 minute per side. Slice into quarters and serve.

The best-known food associated with Day of the Dead is this slightly sweet and fragrant loaf. Typically formed into a round and decorated with additional dough rolled out to resemble bones, it is offered on altars for returning spirits as well as consumed by anyone involved in the holiday celebration. I asked a Santa Fe friend, Bill Ackerman, for his recipe because it’s the best I’ve tasted in either the United States or Mexico. Here’s his wonderful rendition, enhanced with anise oil and orange oil, which add much more flavor than the often-called-for aniseed and orange zest. All are available from online sources.


  • 4 to 4½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • ½ teaspoon table salt
  • 2 packages instant dry yeast
  • ½ cup water
  • 2 large eggs
  • 4 large egg yolks
  • 2 tablespoons orange blossom water
  • 1 teaspoon orange oil
  • ½ teaspoon anise oil
  • 1½ sticks (12 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted and cooled but still liquid Additional butter for greasing bowl


  • 1 large egg
  • 2 tablespoons cold water
  • ½ cup granulated sugar

Makes 1 large round loaf, enough for 8 to 12 people

  1. For bread dough, first sift together 3 cups of flour with sugar and salt. In bowl of a stand mixer with paddle attachment, combine yeast, water, eggs, egg yolks, orange oil, orange flower water and anise oil. As soon as it’s blended together, pour in melted butter and continue mixing until completely blended. With mixer running, gradually add sifted dry ingredients ¼ cup at a time. Switch to the mixer’s dough hook. Add additional flour, ¼ cup at a time, allowing each addition to be incorporated, and scraping down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed. Add flour only until dough comes away from sides of mixer bowl and forms a ball around dough hook. Knead in mixer for 6 minutes, adjusting the speed to ensure hook is kneading dough rather than just pushing ball around bowl. Slower is usually better. The dough should become very soft, smooth, and not sticky.
  2. Place dough in large buttered bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and set aside to rise in a warm spot until doubled in size. This can take several hours. Punch down dough. Pull off ¾ cup dough to decorate top of loaf later, wrapping tightly in plastic and placing it in the refrigerator. Form remaining dough into a very tight ball. Place dough ball on parchment paper on a baking sheet, cover with a damp towel, and let rise in a warm spot until doubled in volume. Allow a couple of hours again. Patience here is key to a light, soft crumb.
  3. Place oven rack in lower third of oven. Preheat oven to 375° F.
  4. Shortly before the dough has fully risen, remove the reserved dough from the refrigerator to make the decorations. Remove a small piece and shape into a 1-inch ball. Flatten bottom and place this gently on top center of the bread. Roll out remaining reserved dough into a cylinder and cut it into 8 pieces. Form each piece into a bone shape. Carefully place bones on dough in whatever pattern strikes your fancy.
  5. Mix glaze, combining egg and water in small bowl. With pastry brush, apply a very light of coat of glaze over dough and decorations. Use only about half of glaze. The lighter the coat, the more delicate the crust. You will need to apply more halfway through baking. Sprinkle sugar evenly over entire surface, saving a little for the second glaze.
  6. Bake bread for 10 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350° F and bake for an additional 10 minutes. Briefly remove bread from oven, apply egg wash to any unglazed surfaces created by expansion of dough, apply sugar to those surfaces, and return to oven. Bake for another 20 to 25 minutes, until internal temperature of bread, measured on an instant-read thermometer, is 185° F. If browning too quickly, place a sheet of foil on top of loaf for the last few minutes of baking. Cool pan de muerto on a baking rack. Serve in wedges or simply pull loaf apart and enjoy.

Decorating sugar cookie skulls can be a lively part of a Day of the Dead party for kids of all ages. To expedite cookie decorating, it makes sense to prepare the dough, roll out, cut out, and bake the cookies one day, then decorate the next. If you want people to engage in actually rolling and making the cookies, perhaps roll out and bake a portion of the dough ahead, so that at least some of the group can begin decorating. In either case, you want plenty of work space, covered with plastic, or easily washable tablecloths. The number of cookies you can make will vary greatly with what kind and size of cookie cutters you use. You can get at least five dozen three-inch skull cookies out of this recipe. You can halve the recipe if you’re not making cookies for a large event.

  • 7 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 pound unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 4 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 2 teaspoons real vanilla extract
  • Additional unbleached all-purpose flour
  • Royal icing (see recipe below)
  1. Stir together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a bowl. Cream together in a stand mixer the butter and sugar over high speed for 5 minutes, until mixture is light and fluffy. Reduce mixer speed to medium and pour in half of the eggs. Stop mixer and scrape down sides of bowl. Add remaining eggs and vanilla. Pour in half of flour mixture and continue mixing until combined. Stop mixer and scrape down sides. Pour in remaining flour mixture and beat again at medium speed just until combined. Divide dough into four balls, cover them with plastic, and refrigerate at least 30 minutes. (The dough can be made a day ahead. It will need to sit out again at room temperature at least a few minutes to soften enough to roll.) Preheat oven to 400° F.
  2. Sprinkle flour on a work surface and rolling pin and roll out first ball of cookie dough ¼ inch thick. Form cookies with cutters. If you are using the cookie cutter stamps that leave decorative lines in the dough, be sure to get a good, deep impression when forming each cookie. Lay cookies on an ungreased baking sheet with at least ½ inch of space between them. Take each ball of dough out of the refrigerator as you are ready to use it. As needed, sprinkle more flour on the work surface and rolling pin.
  3. Bake cookies 7 to 9 minutes, until just set and before they begin to brown. Cool on baking sheet for about 5 minutes, then transfer with a spatula to baking racks or absorbent paper. You can reuse cookie sheets, but each will need to cool before using again. High-Altitude Adjustments At Santa Fe’s 7,000-foot altitude, use ¾ teaspoon baking powder and a very scant 1 teaspoon of baking soda. Add 1 tablespoon of water to the eggs when whisking together. At altitudes in between, split the differences.


On September 7, 14, 21, and 28 and October 5, 12, and 19, make ofrendas, sugar skulls, paper flowers, and more at free Marigold Parade workshops, from 1 to 4 p.m. at Los Jardines Institute (803 La Vega Dr. SW). On November 2, the Marigold Parade begins at Centro Familiar and Isleta Blvd. SW. Shuttles are available from Gateway Park, Bridge and Isleta, 100 Isleta Blvd. SW, and 418 Isleta Blvd. SW. 2–6 p.m. On Facebook.
During the Día de Los Muertos week (October 26–November 2), pan de muerto is available at Golden Crown Panaderia in at least three sizes, priced between approximately $15 and $35; it must be ordered ahead. Special sizes and requests may be available for an additional charge. Call for details. 1103 Mountain Rd NW; (505) 243-2424; goldencrown.biz

Mesilla Plaza’s Día de Los Muertos celebration takes place October 31–November 2 (mynm.us/mesilladotd). Attend a free sugar skull decorating event at the NMSU Museum (Kent Hall, at the corner of University Ave. and Solano Dr., Las Cruces). 1–2:30 p.m. Free. (575) 646-5161; univmuseum.nmsu.edu

The Museum of International Folk Art, on Museum Hill, offers a free celebration featuring a community ofrenda, Mariachis Buenaventura, and refreshments, November 1 from 5 to 7 p.m. On November 2, from 1 to 4 p.m., enjoy sugar skull decorating, samplings of pan de muerto, a performance by Aztec dance troupe Danza Mexika, live music, and more. Free to New Mexicans on Sundays. (505) 476-1200; internationalfolkart.org