Between heaven and earth, a spirited communion on Day of the Dead
I distinctly remember the feeling of an arm clotheslining my chest as I was about to walk into a graveyard. It was the tour guide who stopped me, pointed to an orange Igloo cooler and said, “Grab some of this before you go in.”
A murky, boiling hot liquid was bubbling out of the spigot; it smelled sour and fruity and had the nostril-stinging effect of rubbing alcohol. The spirit seller grinned and laughed in amusement as I took the plastic cup, which was filled with what I was told was tepache, a fermented brew made from pineapple skins, spiked with a healthy dose of agave moonshine for good cheer.
I was entering the Cemetery of Tzintzuntzan, in a small village on the shore of Patzcuaro Lake, which is one of the most famous cemeteries in Mexico for Dia de los Muertos celebrations.
Dia de los Muertos is celebrated across Mexico and throughout the United States (nondenominationally and by Catholics), but full-on parades and lavishly decorated graves are the long-standing hallmarks of celebrations in just a handful of places in Mexico, such as Oaxaca, Guanajuato and Michoacán, the latter home to the Cemetery of Tzintzuntzan.
My tour group entered the cemetery at dusk, just as the festivities were beginning. We walked through the rows of graves festooned with cartoonishly large orange marigold flower arrangements and easels holding improbably weighty ribbon wreaths with deceased family members’ faces at their center. Giant wooden altars, called ofrendas, sat erect over tombstones with plates of frijoles, tamales, mole and loaves of pan de muertos on their terrestrial levels, dinner for the deceased who lay beneath them. We saw families laughing, dancing and praying, heads bowed in unison. The scene was not somber but one of remembrance and celebration.
I took a large sip of the bootlegger’s tepache. The drink’s warm, bass-line burn immediately spread across my chest, and my posture morphed from alert to languid in about 20 seconds. As I looked around, blaring sounds of a prayer spoken in Spanish coming through speakers set up around the graveyard faded away. I was overcome by an eerie stillness. A sea of votive candles covered every square inch of untrod earth, their light, filtered through the marigold petals, lighting the whole football-field-sized area in a haunting orange glow that seemed to shift with the breeze and spiral up toward the starry sky. The drink had worked its magic.
10 minutes, plus 2 days. Makes 8 cups.
If you have a fermentation crock or kombucha jar, use it for this recipe, since it’s made to accommodate fermented liquids like this. But also, you can use a large pitcher and cheesecloth over the top like I do and it will work just as easily. If you plan ahead, you can save the peels from the next time you buy a pineapple and keep them in a plastic bag in your freezer until you’re ready to make this drink.
- 8 cups filtered water, room temperature
- 6 ounces piloncillo, finely chopped, or ¾ cup packed dark brown sugar or granulated sugar
- 2 sticks canela or cinnamon
- Peels and cores (not the top and leaves) from 1 medium pineapple (about 1¼ pounds)
- Pour the water into a large pitcher (at least 3-quart capacity) or blender and add the piloncillo. Stir or blend until the sugar dissolves.
- Meanwhile, heat the canela sticks in a small skillet over medium-high heat until they smell fragrant and nutty and start to unfurl, about 3 minutes. Place the hot canela sticks in the pitcher along with the pineapple peels and cores and give everything a stir.
- Drape a piece of cheesecloth over the top of the pitcher and secure it with a rubber band or kitchen twine. Set the pitcher out on your counter in an area that gets no sunshine or place it in a cupboard with plenty of ventilation. Let the brew sit for 2 days.
- When ready to serve, use a spoon to skim off and discard any white scum floating on top of the liquid (there might not be any). Pour the brew through a fine strainer into another clean, large pitcher. Pour as much as you want to drink in a small saucepan and heat it over medium heat until hot. Pour the tepache into mugs and serve warm. Refrigerate any leftover tepache for up to 5 days.
- For spiked tepache: Stir in 2 ounces mezcal or tequila to your mug of warm tepache.
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