TOLUCA, MEXICO – Death and sugar naturally intertwine for Norma Lara Hernández.
“She began to get sick she loved them so much,” says Hernández about her mother’s diabetes and health issues. Nevertheless, her mother delighted in her work, which supported eight children. “She was exquisitely sweet, as a person and in what she ate.”
With that legacy in mind, Hernández carries on the family culinary tradition today at the Feria del Alfeñique, a nearly month-long event offering Day of the Dead specialties. She sells treats like tiny sandwiches and pastries made of pumpkin seed paste and of course, calaveras, skulls traditionally composed of hardened, molded sugar or amaranth.
She was exquisitely sweet, as a person and in what she ate.
The Feria takes place in Toluca, a medium-sized city near the capital. There are 84 stands, many of which offer figures of lambs, rabbits and fish made from the fair's namesake product, “alfeñique,” a white mixture of sugar and almond oil.
In 1630, local man Francisco de la Rosa began preparing alfeñique treats in the city, and his influence has trickled down through the generations, according to fair coordinators. For the last 60 years, candy-makers have lined up their products in Los Portales, a historic yellow building in the heart of the city.
Most vendors recall coming here as children, when their parents manned the stands. But the array of treats has evolved since grandma and grandpa’s era, says Armando Ferreyra, a candy-maker.
“This is modernity,” he says, pointing to a panoply of chocolate items, “It’s how we keep selling.”
Although the fair didn’t begin until early October, Ferreyra says he finishes his earliest batches of treats in April or May normally. He first makes tamarind, coco and chocolate calaveras, then stores them in “a place that’s very dry” until fall.
Many sellers insist they personally produce everything in their stalls.
“I didn’t make the plastic tray,” says vendor Julio Gomez Gúia, pointing to what he gives to customers while they’re plucking their purchases. But another seller mentioned that merchants exchange goods to broaden their selections – which seems more likely.
Similar to many of Mexico’s culinary traditions, the Day of the Dead treats reflect a hybrid of Pre-Hispanic and Hispanic holidays and customs. Before the Spaniards arrived, indigenous people created figures using beans, amaranth and honey for their religious ceremonies.
When the Catholic Church established itself in Mexico, it declared November 1 and 2, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day respectively, and those holidays blended with the pre-existing rituals honoring Mictecacihuatl, a goddess of death.
After selecting their calaveras, the customers often ask the vendors to write their deceased loved ones’ names on the heads. During Day of the Dead, people place these skulls and other favorite snacks and dishes on altars dedicated to these family members.
Many people eat the treats after the holiday is over. But in Hernández’s case, she packs up most of them. Her mother liked so many sweets, it seems wasteful to display all new items annually.
“We eat the fruit,” she says.
Ruth Samuelson is a freelance writer living in Mexico City. She can be reached at email@example.com.