There's a trio of cartoon skeletons dancing on the window of a bakery on Brooklyn's 4th Avenue. Just inside the door, you find an elaborate altar decorated with sugar skulls, comic skeleton figures, bottles of tequila, photographs of deceased relatives, candles, crosses, and round loaves of sweet bread decorated with bone designs. This is how the family that owns Don Paco Lopez, maybe the city's oldest and certainly its best known Mexican bakery, celebrates the lives of its ancestors.
"We believe that on the Day of the Dead the souls come back to Earth," says Miguel Lopez. "That's when we can give them the things they liked when there were alive--cigarettes, drink, and their favorite foods." The sugar skulls, skeletons, and sweet loaves both represent the dead and celebrate their lives with a typically Mexican mix of sweet and sad, gruesome and comic imagery. The remembrances begin in late October and culminate on the night of November 1st, the Day of the Dead, when Mexicans commune with their ancestors at their home altars and, back in Mexico, at the village cemetery.
The Lopez family opened their bakery back in 1991 when a small Mexican community was beginning to form in Sunset Park. The family patriarch, Paco Lopez, was the best known baker in Acatlan de Osorio, a town in the region of southern Puebla that has sent tens of thousands of immigrants to the New York area. As the Mexican population has expanded, the Don Paco Lopez bakery has grown with it, moving from a tiny side street storefront to bigger quarters on 4th Avenue and opening a second branch in East Harlem. It has also broadened its offerings from just bread to excellent tacos, tortas, tamales, and the like. However, the family has never forgotten its roots. Don Paco Lopez's traditional breads are crucial ingredients of New York Mexicans' celebration of festivals like Three Kings Day and the Day of the Dead.
The bakery produces three varieties of pan de muerto, the "bread of death." The first is the mona, which is popular in Mexico's towns and villages but not in the big cities. "Mona" means female monkey or woman drunkard, but the bread resembles nothing so much as one of those ancient Venus figurines from prehistoric Europe. It's a highly stylized rendering of fecund female form, made from unsweetened white flour dough and coated in a crunchy crust of red sugar. Next, the bakery makes two versions of the classic sweet pan de muerto, both flavored with cinnamon or anise. They are both small boules decorated with "bones" made from dough across the top. One version has a yellow tinge from extra egg in the batter and a glossy crust sprinkled with sesame seeds. The other, my favorite, has a whiter batter and a sugar-covered crust.
Beyond festival days, Don Paco Lopez is known for the classic rolls produced by every Mexican panaderia. Almost all of these are sweet and meant to be eaten with coffee for a light breakfast or dinner. (Lunch is the big meal in Mexican culture.) Customers get a round pizza tin and pair of tongs at the door and then go to the cases to select from the wide assortment of evocatively-named breads. These include the hatched concha (shell), the worm-shaped gusano, the elote (ear of corn), rough-textured piedra (rock), ladrillo (brick), jam-filled beso (kiss), and so on. Then they buy a cup of café con leche at the counter and walk out onto the streets of Brooklyn carrying a little bit of Mexico.
Don Paco Lopez
4703 4th Avenue, Brooklyn NY 12200 (map)
2129 3rd Avenue, New York NY 10035 (map)
About the author: When he isn't pounding the bakery beat, Andrew Coe can be found eating Chinese food in Queens, Manhattan, and Brooklyn. He's the author of, among other books, Chop Suey, A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States.