San Diego-based superstar, “Top Chef” alumna, and member of our 2021 Chefs’ Collective Claudette Zepeda grew up celebrating the beautiful Mexican holiday of Día de los Muertos. Here, she tells her favorite food traditions, explains how she sets up her ofrenda (altar), and her favorite part of the holiday, plus what most of us get wrong!
What’s one thing people in the US don’t know or get wrong about Día De Los Muertos?
Some people wear masks of calaveras or calacas (skulls) on their faces. Although now it’s done with makeup, traditionally these masks were carved from wood. This practice is done to make a mockery of death. We see this as a stage in life and aren’t afraid of it. But it’s a culture, not a costume. La Catrina, who is an icon of Día de Los Muertos, is a woman dressed in regalia, but underneath it all she is still a skeleton. It’s a great reminder that even with all of our luxuries on earth underneath it all we are all made of bones and all have the same destiny.
Personally, what’s your favorite part of celebrating Day of the Dead?
My favorite part is building the altar. It’s ritualistic and it brings new generations into the fold. It’s similar to decorating a Christmas tree, with family heirlooms and mementos. During the time we build our altar, I love sharing stories about my grandparents with my nieces who never met them but through these stories are able to know them. We share their likes and dislikes, and through these moments we also teach our younger generations the love and respect for family. We believe our ancestors will be waiting for us on the other side.
What’s on your ofrenda this year?
My ofrenda doesn’t change much. It’s heirlooms and photos of our late loved ones and things that they loved. It’s there to honor them and filled with an abundance of cempasuchil (marigolds) and candles so that they can find their way back home to us. The food, drinks and additional decor of the altar are always evolving. This past year, I visited my grandmother’s hometown and brought home some textiles to add as a table runner to the altar.
What are some of your other Día De Los Muertos traditions?
I call it Tamalefest. Which is really a lead-in to Tamalegate, which happens during Christmas festivities. But yes, we make tamales and pan de muerto for about a week prior to Día de Los Muertos. There’s nothing better than some warm atole (a corn-based drink) and hot tamales while waiting for the stroke of midnight in a candle-lit house filled with aromas of cempasuchil.