Photos by Alonso Parra
While some niños are still separating the best candy from the cheapest, I am savoring a sweet and soft pan de muerto, the sugary bread only available around Halloween.
It is said that los españoles were going crazy when they saw Aztecs sacrificing humans and taking young women’s hearts out of their chest to offer it to the gods. The Aztecs bit the hearts as part of the ceremony, and then buried them in clay pots as an offering. The theory goes that los gachupines exchanged the heart for a warm and sweet bread, and that little by little, the invadidos started using it as an offering to Death.
Nowadays, Mexicans buy pan de muerto mostly to celebrate the Day of the Dead. They offer it as a gift on the altars they build for los que se fueron, and buy it to take to the cemetery, where they share it with their dear ones over a coca or some coffee.
“People buy it to teach their children about our customs,” says Irma Arellano, manager of the legendary bakery La Purisima in Glendale. “They take it to school, they eat it while visiting the cemetery, or just buy it because they like it”.
La Purisima sells over 1,500 pieces of Pan de Muerto on their busiest days, but they start selling it from early October, when people start getting it in preparation for the Day of the Dead celebration.
“It takes two days to make our pan de muerto.” She walks me through the process of mixing the eggs, flour, water, lard, sugar and yeast. The rest is waiting. After the dough is separated by sizes, the panaderos at La Purísima refrigerate it for a whole day before they take it out, glaze it with butter and sugar, and put it in the oven to bake for 45 minutes.
“They come because they are mad at the flour and other waste we drop on the ground. They see shadows, hear noises and sometimes they even say things move”. But the team usually just laughs their fear away, and continues working. “I’ve never seen anything, but they are always talking about los fantasmas”
La Purísima has been selling this bread for 30 years, since the Arellano family started baking in their house and selling it outside churches and tiendas. Now, they employ almost 30 panaderos at their Phoenix and Glendale locations, and they sell over 10,000 panes a day, including empanadas, conchitas and pasteles.
“We start at 9pm, bake through the night until 4am, and then a second shift comes and continues baking.” Irma says that at night, the panaderos have seen ghosts that roam around the building. “They come because they are mad at the flour and other waste we drop on the ground. They see shadows, hear noises and sometimes they even say things move.” But the team usually just laughs their fear away, and continues working. “I’ve never seen anything, but they are always talking about los fantasmas.”
The Purísima staff are hardworking people, but they also like to get down and party. “We have a party for our staff and customers every year, and this year we are celebrating our 30th anniversary on December 8th!” Irma says nobody should miss the shindig, especially because they have free food, baked goods, matachines and live music.
When you drive through downtown Glendale, looking at the panadería reminds you of being in Mexico. Inside, the building smells like warm sugar, freshly baked bread and cake frosting. In silver sheets, there is circular bread sprinkled with pink sugar, and little pieces of dough shaped to look like bones and skulls. In the corner the staff put up an altar with a sample of their pan de muerto, the bread they make “to keep the tradition alive.” Get some pinzas and pick up your favorite pieces, enjoy pan from la Purísima while you are still alive.