It was early evening on the first night of El Dia De Los Muertos when I met Tatiana Garcia near the subway stop in Jackson Heights, Queens. Tatu, as she goes by, has a quick laugh and a preference for Gothic attire and elaborate rings. She works in the film world in New York now, but owned restaurants back in her native Mexico.
The Day of the Dead, is that truly Mexican of holidays in which families honor those who have past, many times with mezcal or tequila, but more importantly with the beloved treats of the deceased placed on an ofrenda (altar).
When I asked Tatu about the significance of the holiday while growing up, she described lively artistic competitions in school on which class could build the bigger ofrenda. When she hit her teens her relationship with the holiday became in Tatu’s word, weird. She had, you see, got into brujeria, witchcraft, with a chumon, a medium between the living and the dead. El Dia de Los Muertos was not about cut-outs of paper ghosts anymore.
Back in Jackson Heights, we stood in front of a large grocery store that caters to the dizzying range of culinary needs for neighborhood whose residents span from Bogata to Banagalor.
We grazed the aisles for the flavors of Mexico: the chilis, the cilantro, the limitless limes; the tastes of home for Tatu, all of which would give character to the multi-course feast to be spread out on my dining room table the next night.
Contemplating a pile of cactus leaves Tatu remarks, “A thing about Mexico is that we accept the dead as part of the culture and are comfortable with that. For one day we will sit with the dead. Both sides of family. Death and spirits are close, passing back and forth.”
A little later, walking past the butcher counter, she paused to ponder the soul of Mexico. “We are people of nostalgia. It’s a burden too.”
The next morning I received a text from Tatu. “Please let me know if I can take a nap or something…I am exhausted, slept at 4am, cooking.
Tatu had been up all night braising the chicken and the beef so that when she arrived to my loft six hours ahead of guests, she could cook these meats once more with the fresh marinades we would prepare.
A hallmark of Mexican cuisine and what makes the flavors so complex and delicious are the many stages of preparation that are involved in each dish. Even your simple truck taco has several rounds of toppings applied to it before the wrapped tortilla is handed to you. Your favorite dishes: cochinita pibil, tacos al pastor, carnitas; all of that meat has gone through a gauntlet of stewing, boiling and then another round of frying or braising . No short cuts.
Tatu adds beef stock to Pollo y Res Entomotato.