“Do you have a kiss for grandma?” Yani Medina asks her granddaughter as she reaches out to hold the little girl. Her outdoor kitchen is buzzing with conversation and laughter as family members come and go, checking on the progress of Yani’s preparations for the upcoming family celebration here on Isla Mujeres.
Yani is making the traditional pibe — similar to a very large tamal — for the Mayan Hanal Pixán celebrations, otherwise known as the Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.
Delicious smells float through the warm tropical air, coming from the various pots and pans on the gas stove. Across the street at the middle school the students are boisterously departing for a three-day weekend away from their studies. They carry bunches of flowers and other gifts that have decorated temporary Hanal Pixán altars at the school, honoring their departed family members.
The students will celebrate again with their families on November 1 and November 2, eating special foods and visiting family graves.
By the time we arrived in her kitchen Yani, who with husband Manuel operates a catering business on Isla Mujeres, had already been working for a few hours, preparing the chicken and chopping vegetables. She was ready to show us the more intricate details. First she removed the cooked chickens from the huge pot and then added chopped tomatoes, onions, handfuls of a herb called epazote, salt and a red spice called achiote to the broth.
Using masa, a cornmeal dough that takes time and special techniques to create, she thickened the chicken broth. As she worked her teenage daughter Cristina stopped by to chat, and her mother Norma Figueroa Paz came to check on the proceedings. Then her son Alex dropped in.
Next came older daughter Patricia with her husband Eduardo, and their two sweet little girls. October 30 is granddaughter Luci’s birthday and November 1 is her husband’s birthday so in addition to creating the Hanal Pixán feast, Yani was working on 80 tamales for the family birthday celebration.
As Manuel prepared the charcoal grill to cook the pibe, Yani’s brother Freddy stopped by to add his humorously helpful suggestions. By now there are 11 people, spanning four generations of the same family, supervising, chatting and laughing while Yani serenely carried on with her project.
Stripping the tough outer edges off the banana leaves to use as a natural string for her parcels, she explains in a mix of Spanish and English what she is doing. Next she patted the masa dough into a circular shape and added the upright borders that will contain the yummy mixture of chicken, vegetables and spices.
In keeping with tradition some of the chicken bones are included in the pibe, representing the bones of the departed.
With the addition of the k‘ol – the chicken mixture – more vegetables and a sliced hard-boiled egg, Yani’s creation was finally ready for the top crust. Everything is parceled up with banana leaves and tied securely. It’s a work of art.
She then creates a special birthday pibe for her husband Manuel. He has requested his usual 20 serrano chile peppers and a k’ol mixture including multicoloured xpelón beans. This dish is too spicy for the other family members and he will savor his fiery treat all on his own.
By now three and a half hours have quickly passed. Yani asks us to come back in another hour when the pibe will be ready so that I can see the finished product. She also sends us home with a yummy dish of the chicken mixture and a handful of fire-toasted tortillas to snack on. Oh my goodness, yummy. By the time we drove back to our house the dish was empty.
What a great experience it was, learning a bit more about Hanal Pixán and Día de los Muertos, plus the chance for a personal chat with island friends.
The writers are Canadians who have been full-time residents of Isla Mujeres for nearly 10 years. You can read their blog here.