11/01/2010 05:20 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Día de Los Muertos

So my deceased mom's soul is hanging out in a place called Mictlan, the underworld of Aztec Mythology, and on November 2nd of every year she comes back to celebrate with the living, at least according to ancient beliefs.

Day of the Dead. Sounds a little spooky doesn't it? It's actually one of the most colorful and joyous of Mexican holidays. Taking place on both November 1st (for young children) and 2nd, the Day of the Dead is a holiday created by many Mesoamerican cultures to remember, celebrate, and honor those who have departed. Some people visit their loved one's gravesite (me and my family skip this part) or build an altar displaying cempazuchitl flowers (yellow marigolds, believed to represent death), papel picado (folk art of colorful paper-cutting), sugar skulls and skeletons (there to poke a little fun at death), along with items specific to the loved one who passed away: Favorite foods, personal things, and even some tequila are traditionally placed on the altar to entice them to come back and celebrate close to the living on this one special day. Although this celebration has been around for centuries, it was tweaked a little by the Spaniards who came over in the 16th century in an attempt to convert the Indians to Catholicism. (What they really wanted to do was eradicate the pagan ritual not tweak it but the Aztecs just weren't having it.) So the Day of the Dead holds both centuries-old indigenous traditions as well as Roman Catholic ones; in fact, the pagan festivities were moved from summer to early November to coincide with All Saints Day.

In doing a little research for this here blog (Northern Mexican traditions often differ from those of the rest of the country--and I wanted to make sure I wasn't leaving anything out), I ran across a post that said something like "Mexicans react to death with mourning along with happiness and joy..." Um, no. Not really. While most of us do believe that the place you go to after you die is way better than what we've got going on here, believe me, when my mom died a few years ago, there was no happiness or joy anywhere to be found for quite some time. We're a family with a pretty light sense of humor but, still, on the anniversary of my mom's passing we don't feel like getting "colorful" and remembering her favorite foods. Every March 5th, the anniversary of her passing, we go to church and are sad for pretty much the rest of the day. But on the day of the Dead, that's a whole other story, and that's what I love about this holiday.

We skipped the altar the first year; it was too much and too close to her passing to do it. But on the second year, my sister and I went to the orphanage where my mom had been a volunteer (yes, she was a saint and she was perfect, as most mothers are) and the office had built a big, beautiful altar to commemorate la Senora Valladolid. Keeping with tradition, there was a photo of her. A ceramic dog was placed on the altar (to guide her on her way back to Mictlan after the celebration) and a glass of water in case she got thirsty. My sister, Carina, and I added a can of Mountain Dew, our mother's obsession. There were the traditional sugar skulls and marigolds alongside some of her personal items: her Nextel phone, reading glasses, and wallet with photos of all six of her grandkids. There is Pan de Muertos, a round, anise-flavored yeast bread, kind of like panettone, with shapes of bones on top, popcorn (another personal favorite), tamales, and chicles Pal (mexican bubble gum) on the altar. All of this was meant to entice mother's beautiful soul to come back and listen to us pray for her and remember the things about her that made us laugh and love her so much.

When I was younger and in school in the Colegio La Paz in Tijuana, every year our history teacher, Mr Wulfrano, who was in charge of the altar/display in the school hall every November, would make us write calaveras, or poems--kind of like satirical obituaries--for Mexican historical figures, like Benito Juarez. I've yet to write a calavera about my mom, maybe I'll do that this year. Maybe I'll build an altar in my home in San Diego for her and maybe I'll cook a Salmon Coulibiac, her absolute favorite dish.

I was in the car the other day with my son, Fausto, and he threw one of his philosophical curveballs. He does this every once in a while. He said, "Mom, this is all a dream and one day we're all gonna wake up." I kept on driving, thinking about how my six-year-old had just, in a nutshell, described the life philosophy of Mesoamerican cultures. They didn't fear death; they embraced it and that's what the Day of the Dead is all about. So come November 2nd, build an altar, make some mole and tamales, and celebrate a deceased loved one because maybe Fausto and the Aztecs were right and this is all a dream and the fun is yet to come.

Warm Winter Margarita
Serves 4

Perfect for a cold day. This drink is full of flavor and makes the tequila blend smoothly.

28 oz apple juice
1 cinnamon stick
2 cups dried fruit of your choice
2 tbs granulated sugar
6 oz Silver Tequila

Method of Preparation: Combine apple juice and cinnamon in a heavy pot. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove cinnamon stick carefully. Add sugar, dried fruit, and tequila. Mix well. Serve warm.

Courtesy Recipe by Marcela Valladolid

7 cups corn kernels, from 7 ears of corn

6 oz unsalted butter, at room temperature

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1 egg

1/2 tablespoon salt

1/2 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 cup Corn flour (harina de maiz)

20 Dry Corn Husks, hydrated

Add corn kernels to a blender and puree until smooth.

In the bowl of an electric mixer cream butter and sugar until pale. Add egg, salt, and baking powder. Mix to incorporate. Add flour and corn and process until well incorporated.

Place a corn husk lengthwise in front of you with the wide side closest to you. Spread 3 tablespoons of the dough all over the bottom half (wide side) of the corn husk, leaving about a 1-inch-wide border on the left and right sides.

Pick up the two long sides of the cornhusk and unite them. Roll both sides of the corn husks in the same direction over the tamal. Fold down the empty top section of the cornhusk and secure it by tying a thin strip of corn husk around the tamal (the top will be open).

Repeat this process until all the corn husks or tamal dough are used up.

Create a tamal steamer by crumpling a large piece of aluminum foil into a large ball. Place the foil ball in the center of a large saucepan and arrange the tamales "standing up" around it. You can stand tamales in front of each other; just make sure that the open end of the tamal is facing upward.

Pour in 1/2 inch of water. Cover tightly with a lid and simmer for 1 hour.