Remembering loved ones with food, gifts and pageantry
Back in October 2011, my research for a Halloween-oriented column for this page resulted in a surprisingly informative - and delicious - lesson in the tradition of Día de los Muertos.
Hosted by none other than Aquiles Demerutis, then owner of the now sadly gone El Dorado restaurant, I was invited to be a part of this Mexican holiday related to the Catholic feasts of All Saints and All Souls. Aquiles was the first to celebrate Día de los Muertos here at the beach, and since then a few of our local eateries have observed this colorful event and the loving traditions that accompany it.
The holiday celebrates the memory of friends and family members who have died. In spite of the sad connotation, the event is actually a celebration, and dates back to ancient Aztec festivals celebrating death. The traditions include altars stacked with the deceaseds’ favorite foods and keepsakes, and often involves cemetery visits where foods, drinks, photos and possessions are joyously presented.
Aquiles started out hawking his unique style of fish tacos from a humble cart in the streets of his hometown of Guadalajara, Mexico. Before he came to Rehoboth Beach, he worked kitchens all the way from Vancouver, B.C., to Baja, California, to the Yucatan Peninsula. If you noticed that his last name doesn’t have much of a Mexican ring to it, you’d be right: His dad is Greek and his mom is Mexican. In our first meeting so many years ago, Aquiles proudly described himself as “Greexican.” The specialty at his wildly popular eatery was, of course, the fish taco. In fact, the restaurant was named after it (dorado means mahi-mahi or dolphin fish).
Demerutis loved to integrate his mom’s Mexican culture into the restaurant, and on Nov. 2, 2011, he pulled out all the stops to bring Día de los Muertos to Rehoboth Beach. Aquiles told me that the holiday actually has nothing to do with Halloween and is more closely tied to the Catholic holidays I mentioned above. When the big night finally arrived, the restaurant was arranged around a ceremonial altar that paid tribute to the memory of his and his employees’ deceased friends and family. Traditional “ofrendas” (offerings) include the favorite foods of the departed, Mexican marigolds (their intense orange hue is thought to attract the souls of loved ones), trinkets for departed children, and bottles of tequila and mescal.
Cemetery visits were not part of the program at El Dorado, but Aquiles cooked up a feast of non-menu items, each of which had special holiday significance. Made-from-scratch dishes included shrimp tequila flambé, fried sweet potatoes dusted with sugar and cinnamon, pumpkin candied with molasses, and smoky hot chipotle peanuts. The perpetually smiling and affable Aquiles narrated the entire event to the totally packed restaurant as we were presented with course after course of traditional food and drink.
So if Halloween night fades into morning and you still haven’t had your fill of the mysterious and otherworldly, add another holiday to your calendar! In spite of the prolonged mandates and stress still being endured by our local restaurateurs, some may choose to brighten this weekend with the colors and tastes of Mexico’s joyful Día de los Muertos.