Posted by: Hil | November 2, 2009

Dia de Los Muertos


Happy Day of the Dead, everyone.   This year, I had two main venues for celebration:  a public party thrown by a student organization at the law school, and a smaller more personal celebration at home.  For me, public Day of the Dead celebrations are such happy events.  It’s hard to explain how a holiday about death can be such a joyful event, but it is.   This year, the organizers helpfully put up a display explaining the history of the holiday for the students who hadn’t heard of the holiday.


Every year, people bring enough pan de muerto to share with everyone at the school who wants some, which never ceases to amaze me.  There is nothing like giving away free food and and drink to set the holiday spirit.


Of course I had to have a piece, along with some coffee.  This pan de muerto was covered with sesame seeds instead of cinnamon sugar like the one we baked–different but also delicious.


Our home celebration was also a happy event, but was more bittersweet.  Last night and tonight, we made dinners full of foods that reminded us of relatives who have died.  We sat and ate and remembered and told stories.  Food has the power to evoke such strong memories.

In Memory of Aunt Buzzy:  Aunt Buzzy’s Tofu and Mimosas

Last night, we had a dinner in memory of my Aunt Buzzy.  Aunt Buzzy was my grandma’s youngest sister and was very close to my mother.  Aunt Buzzy got her nickname in childhood when some set of exasperating younger sister antics provoked my grandmother to call her a buzzard.  Aunt Buzzy was delighted and asked to be refered to as “Buzzard” from then on.  Eventually their mother found out and laid down the law:  my grandma simply could not call her sister “Buzzard,” even with permission.  “Buzzy” was settled on as a compromise option.


Aunt Buzzy fought cancer for many years before eventually dying of it, with periods of remission in between.   I am particularly thankful for her last period of remission, because it meant that I got to spend some time with her as a relative grownup.  I remember driving with my mother to see her and eating brunch at a restaurant called Zachary’s.  For some reason, I associate those brunches with mimosas.  I was too young to legally drink at the time, and I honestly don’t remember if someone let me share from the communal pitcher or if I just eyed the drinks longingly.  Either way, I think of brunch and mimosas when I think of Aunt Buzzy.


Aunt Buzzy loved gardening and healthy cooking and was always making dishes with many types of fresh chopped vegetables.  One dish that our family stole from her was a method of preparing tofu and vegetables.  As a child, I always thought of this dish as a stir fry, but it isn’t that at all.  I’m still not sure how to label the cooking method, but it results in tofu with really deep, delicious flavor.  The dish works well with whatever seasonal vegetables you have on hand.


To make Aunt Buzzy’s Tofu:

  • Drain a package of tofu, then cut it into very small, thin pieces.  Part of the magic of this preparation is how the flavors really soak into the tofu, and you want to create as much surface area as possible.
  • Put a pan over medium heat.  Add olive oil and soy sauce to the pan to create, in my mother’s words, a “nice slurpy mess” in the bottom of the pan.  Add freshly grated garlic and ginger and minced scallions (whites only) to the pan. Stir and let the ingredients cook until everything starts to smell toasty and good.
  • Add the tofu and stir well to coat.  The bottom of the pan should still be a bit wet when you are done stirring.  If needed, add more liquids to the pan.  Let the tofu cook until it begins to brown just a bit and the flavors have been absorbed.  
  • A few minutes before the end, add whatever fresh vegetables you have on hand.  I like to use broccoli and red bell pepper, and I also added some spinach for this batch.   
  • At the last minute, drizzle with sesame oil.  Serve hot or cold, garnished with the greens from the scallions if you like.  This is even better the next day.

The Grandfather Dinner     

The Lemonator and I have each lost a grandfather, and tonight we made a dinner in honor of them.


In memory of Opa:  fisch stebschen unt pomme frites  (French fries and fish sticks).  This is the Lemonator’s food memory, so I asked him to write about it:

Lemonator Here.  You’d think that the food I would remember when thinking of my Opa would be something… well… German.  But instead, what I most remember eating with him are fish sticks and french fries.  Eating those minced fish sticks (I got good quality ones as it seems all food in Germany tastes better) takes me immediately back to my grandparent’s home when I was little, running downstairs and tackling my grandparents and asking them for my favorite meal… which would promptly be made and devoured in short order.

Its been seven years since my Opa died, literally the week before I went to college my freshman year… it threw our plans all out the window, and as a result… I never really had the time to grieve.  It took me many years to come to terms with the whole thing, and this year was finally the first year full of happy memories and only a little sadness.  Hil and I laughed that our grandfathers are probably getting a talking to by God about why other people’s grandkids can be ‘the best’ as well.

In memory of Pum Pum:  Artichokes with lemon mayo for dipping

I never called my grandfather “grandpa” or “granddad” or any of the other normal names.  As a baby, my best approximation of those names was “Pum Pum.”  This name suited him, and it stuck.

Pum Pum loved rich, fatty food.  He liked sandwiches that involved combinations of incongruous fatty ingredients, things like peanut butter, avocado and mayonnaise or peanut butter, bacon and mayonnaise.  He hated broccoli and was suspicious of most green vegetables, but he liked artichokes.  He used to tell the story of when an old war buddy came over to his house for dinner and artichokes were served.  Pum Pum loved artichokes, but his friend had never seen one before and declared that he would not eat “that prickly cactus.”  So artichokes and mayonnaise seem like fitting foods to remember him by.

Of all of the people we remembered tonight, Pum Pum died the most recently–summer of last year.  As I’m sitting at the keyboard, it’s so hard for me to write about him because the feelings are still fresh.  Everything I’m typing feels paltry and inadequate as a memorial to a person who I love so much and who is gone.  Part of me still hasn’t accepted that he is gone.  But one of the beautiful things about this holiday is that it puts grief in perspective.  I know how deeply the Lemonator felt the loss of his Opa.  I remember the times when we tried to talk about Opa and he got too emotional and choked up to continue.  I see how tonight, his sadness was softer, and the memories were mostly happy ones.  And I know that as time passes, my grief will be the same way.



  1. I know what you mean about celebrating Dia de los Muertos. It’s a little bittersweet but steeped in tradition across various cultures. I really liked your spread. My mom and I asked my godfather to place some flowers at my grandma’s gravesite in honor of her and the day. We are in TX, she is buried in Costa Rica.

  2. That tofu looks great! Thanks for sharing the recipe 🙂

    I’ve been looking for an easy an delish recipe for stove top tofu. I have no patience for baking.

    That’s great that you celebrate Dia de los Muertos! I remember learning about it and thinking how awesome it would be to celebrate it some day.

  3. Those are all great stories! I love that you remember mamosas from your childhood! I remember my Mom having a glass of wine at dinner one night when I was 7 or 8. It seemed so special and grown up to me.

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