For better or worse, I didn't have a whole lot of time to worry. When I wasn't terrified about nailing my on-screen performance or trying to stay in touch with my staff back home, I was totally lost in the excitement of it all. I was learning so much. Not only about making television, but about my culture and myself—something that has become a major theme in my life over the nearly two decades since. TV has been a source of income, of promotion, of branding—a big part of my career, no question. But it has also been an indispensable vehicle for me to learn about the world. In being a conduit to teach viewers, I've had so many of my own mind-expanding experiences. That trip was just the beginning.
We traveled all around Mexico during those weeks, and I soaked it all up. I learned about the food, of course, but also the customs, the people, and the country itself as a deeply textured mosaic of historical influences. I could see the Spanish architecture and the colors of the royal guard—the red and blue everywhere—and I started to understand the Spanish conquest and its impact on the way people prepare their meals today.
Above all, I started to grasp the amazing diversity of Mexican cuisine, and how and why it varied from region to region. I met tons of home cooks, and for the first time, I encountered true experts on food. Before then, a culinary school degree, or a seasoned chef who could execute every technique in the book, was my bar for epicurean authority. But this was a whole new level—people who dedicated themselves to understanding the intricacies and intersection of history, culture, and eating. I decided then that this was what I wanted to do. To become extremely good at my craft, but to also understand food in a deeper way, to know where it comes from and what it means in a broader context. The traditions and customs. The mindset and purpose behind a plate of food.
Día de los Muertos was a major lesson in that relationship between food and cultural philosophy. Growing up, I was aware of the celebration, and we observed it at home and in my mom's restaurant—it was a good reason for her to change things up, bring in some cool dishes and traditions. But to experience it in Mexico is something else entirely, and I understood the idea in a much more profound way. I finally grasped why in Mexican culture, death is not a somber topic. As far back as the Aztec civilization, there was an acceptance of dying as a natural part of the life cycle. You wake up, you make your way through your day, you go to sleep. You are born, you make your way through life, you are laid to rest. It's important not to linger in grief. Some people actually fear their dearly departed would take offense to such mourning. Others are more concerned that sadness could cause more logistical problems—a river of tears would make a perilous and slippery journey for spirits crossing into unfamiliar territory. (Mexican people are nothing if not pragmatists, even in their mythologies.) But they also believe that death isn't the last time they'll get to interact with their lost loved ones, as long as they remain in their memories. So, each fall, a special three-day ceremony is held to invite them back to the living world and keep that memory alive. This is Día de los Muertos. And since no Mexican is ever okay with missing out on a fiesta, rousing the dead from eternal slumber to come party with their people seems perfectly natural.
In homes, altars called ofrendas are built to honor the dead. At my restaurant in New Orleans, Johnny Sánchez, we construct a brilliant ofrenda every year, in an effort to share a little bit of Mexican culture with our guests along with the food. Traditionally, it's decorated with photos and personal effects, candles, statues, and incense. Corn kernels and gold marigold petals are sprinkled along a path to a family's front door, a breadcrumb trail for souls to follow from mictlan back home, where families leave their doors open for easy entry. The first day is for the angelitos, or the spirits of children. The second is dedicated to deceased adults. People host huge gatherings and play games. There are parades and processions, prayers and offerings. Loved ones sit around and tell stories and anecdotes about the people who have left their worldly posts. It's about sharing a drink and a laugh, and remembering loved ones as they were in life.
And just as in celebrations among the living, above all, there's food. In Mexico, cooking for someone is the ultimate gesture of love, so what better way to draw your brother back from the dead than with his favorite earthly delights? Each home is a little different, because offerings are tailor-made for the spirit they're trying to attract. But tamales and tortillas and pillowy, eggy pan de muerto are traditional, and there are always tons of confections. Sweet fruits and cookies and candied pumpkin, cups of atole--a drink that's a little like hot chocolate, but spiced and thickened with masa—and of course, those iconic sugar skulls now so popular even in American culture. To see families gathered around plates of mole poblano, on porches decorated with multicolored papel picados (confetti), to hear the sounds of their music and laughter in this celebration of death, is the strongest proof that Mexican culture is so vibrantly full of life.
When I was thirteen years old, living in New York City with my mom and my brother, my dad died back in our hometown of El Paso, Texas. Somehow this made Día de los Muertos even more mysterious to me. Losing him was such a crushing blow, so exquisitely painful every day, that I couldn't possibly understand how anyone would want to celebrate such loss. I grew almost resentful of the practice, as if that would be no way to honor the man I so desperately missed and wished were still on earth with me, not on some ofrenda or in a grave surrounded by dancing and dining on tacos and corn
But that day in the Oaxacan cemetery, watching everyone around me remember the people they'd lost, I realized it wasn't at all a disrespect of the dead. On the contrary, these parties were thrown out of respect for the lost souls' memories by celebrating their lives. I considered the funeral traditions of the United States, in which tears and sober silences, and the utmost levels of decorum, are imposed on people at their most vulnerable. In contrast it seemed totally inadequate.