¡Feliz Día de los Muertos! - A history and recipe for traditional café de olla
Café de olla (pot coffee) is a common ofrenda (offering) to the souls of avid coffee drinkers during Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). This drink is smooth, thick, and rich with chocolate and spices. As background for this authentic recipe, my friend and scholar Roxanne Valle (M.A., Latin American Studies) provided her expertise on the history and cultural significance of these celebrations and café de olla.
A brief history of Día de los Muertos
This celebration is commonly associated with Aztec ceremonies and rituals – but it’s actually rooted in the histories of various Indigenous communities across Mexicothat honored the dead since time immemorial. Another misconception – that Día de los Muertos conflates to Halloween – can be traced back to the Indigenous resistance to colonial powers. During Spanish colonization, priests outlawed Indigenous ceremonies. To maintain their cultures, many Native populations synchronized their ceremonies and rituals with Roman Catholic practices. As a consequence, Día de los Muertos is celebrated in the season of All Souls’ Day and All Saints’ Day. For many, the celebration is a multiple-day event and is connected to an entire calendar year of rituals and celebrations.
Today, celebrations are unique to each family and community – ranging from lively parties to cleaning and decorating gravesites for the spirits’ arrival. In many homes, elaborate altars are crafted with ofrendas such as candles, skulls, flowers, photos, and letters to support loved ones’ souls and to worship divine spirits. A crucial ofrenda is the favorite foods of the deceased, which their families share in a feast. Tamales, tequila, pan de muerto bread, variations of atole, and café de olla are a sampling of the diversity of traditional foods.
The cultural significance of café de olla
Coffee wasn’t always a part of Dia de los Muertos, as itonly first arrived in Mexico in the late 1700s. Back then, Europeans cultivated coffee on their farms with predominantly Indigenous Mexican laborers. A revolution in the early 20th century ignited agrarian land reform, and now, most coffee is produced by Indigenous Mexicans on their own farms.
The origin of this coffee is attributed to the Mexican Revolution in the early 1900s. Female soldiers called Adelitas supported male soldiers, and at the camp, they prepared café de olla in a clay pot to give them energy. The drink was said to be a favorite of Emiliano Zapata, the leading figure of the revolution.
Café de olla became a prominent Mexican drink because it fits into the tradition of preparing food by slow-cooking in clay kitchenware. Today, different recipe variations include only piloncillo (unrefined cane sugar) and cinnamon, while others add spices such as cloves and star anise.
To Valle, the significance of traditional recipes lies in the context of Indigenous knowledge, cultural exchange, social conflict, and generations of familial practices.
“To maintain, share, and educate people about recipes, is to share an expression of love and community, to share a testimony of someone's life through a dish resulting from someone's hard labor in the kitchen to nourish their loved ones while continuing to give life to the foods important in their own culture,” she says.
Preparing café de olla
This café de olla is true to its roots with roasted cacao and piloncillo. It also has health benefits, from nutrients in the piloncillo and cacao to the mental and physical effects of coffee. Usually, it’s made with a dark roast, which has a boldness that supports the spices and sweetness well. You may choose a Mexican coffee, like Las Flores, for authenticity.