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Day of the Dead is a Spirited Affair

Day of the Dead is a Spirited Affair

DELICIOUS OFFERING: Honor the departed, then offer up sugary pan de muerto

Amy Scattergood | Los Angeles Times

A mug of warm champurrado, a soul-satisfying chocolate drink thickened with masa. Tamales like cornhusk offerings, wrapped gifts for the hungry guests. Sugar-dusted loaves of pan de muerto, the bread decorated with “bones” formed of dough. A plate of turkey smothered in a spicy black mole, as dense and dark and mysterious as the coming night.

On the altars and dinner tables, Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is about celebrating the spirits of the dead, not running from them. Unlike Halloween, these ghosts don’t haunt so much as visit, returning to a daylight world of incense and bread, chocolate and marigolds.

For Sandi Romero – known to friends, family and tamale lovers everywhere as “Mama,” of Mama’s Hot Tamales Café near MacArthur Park in Los Angeles – Dia de los Muertos is a deeply personal celebration. Personal, but not private: Romero has been hosting parties celebrating the holiday at her home for decades.

In the five years since Mama’s Hot Tamales Café opened in 2003, that party has widened to include not only Romero’s family, but also the chefs and tamale vendors who come through the cafe – which is a restaurant-business training center for the Institute for Urban Research and Development – as well as local customers and tamale lovers who make the pilgrimage to Mama’s from as far away as Australia.

This year, Romero is also cosponsoring the fourth annual Los Angeles International Tamale Festival and Dia de los Muertos, a three-day fair held this weekend in the blocked-off street running the length of MacArthur Park – right in front of the bright, blue awnings of her popular cafe.

Romero’s annual party just got a whole lot bigger.

Feasting on the traditional foods of the holiday (tamales, turkey in mole, pan de muerto and champurrado are some of the most popular) isn’t the primary focus of the day, but a secondary event, something that happens once the altars are built, the spirits remembered.

“You serve them first,” says Romero of the spirits and of the food traditionally placed at the altars and in cemeteries to honor the souls of the dead. “You remember them and then you eat.”

But eat you do, especially if you come to Mama’s heavily laden table.