El Dia de los Muertos and THE BEST Lemon Roasted Chicken

As we all feverishly prepare for Halloween, there is another holiday hot on its heels that most don’t really understand; El Dia de los Muertos or The Day of the Dead.  Years ago when I lived in Santa Cruz California I visited the home of a friend around this time of year to find her living room festooned with what would be best described at playfully animated skeletons in papier mache.  They seemed to be gawking at me with their guitars and exotic dancing attire.  I didn’t get it.
She was the first to introduce me to the Mexican holiday of The Day of the Dead which is honored on November 1 and 2 (usually November 1 is for honoring passed children and November 2 adults).  Unlike Halloween which is about ghouls, goblins and the departed coming back to haunt us all, El Dia de los Muertos is a festive, celebratory occasion believed to be a homecoming of our beloved passed.  Candles are lit to guide their way back.  Parties are thrown in their honor featuring their favorite objects, food and drink all with brightly colored decor.  What I first encountered as ‘taunting’ skeletons are threaded throughout the holiday in the form of gorgeously decorated sugar skulls and animated adornment, all with a backdrop of bright, lively colors sure to keep one’s spirits high.
Elaborate altars are constructed with photographs, beloved objects, bright colors and joy.  Gravesites are visited and spruced up, often with special foods of the occasion such as Pan de Muerto (special sweet bread baked for the holiday).  Encountering this tradition was transformative for me as I’d only looked at the loss of a loved one as just that; a loss. This is more than a celebration of their lives, a welcoming them home and an embracing of their essence which is never lost.
A hop north of me is the small, charming Longmont Museum that hosts a El Dia de los Muertos celebration annually.  It is free to the public and hosts almost 5,000 patrons throughout the varying installations, classes and events.  It is held on the weekend preceding the holiday.
The central portion of the museum houses elaborate and intricate mega altars constructed by artists and families along with various skeleton figures signifying the dead living on doing ordinary things.  The altars are beautifully layered with artifacts bearing symbolism.  Marigolds whose strong scent are believed to allow the departed to find their way home.  Candles to light their way.  Sugar skulls representing the soul of the departed.  Flowers which remind us when cut life is short.  Also in this section of the museum is an Arch of Compassion where notes to loved ones maybe written and interwoven in an arch between rooms. 
There is a belief that the monarch butterfly symbolizes the soul of the departed and thousands migrate annually between the U.S. and Mexico.  There is a wall dedicated at the museum of monarch stickers on which the named of loved ones can be written.  One can decorate sugar skulls, make brightly colored paper flowers, Mexican food is served, and there are dancers.  It’s a rich, vibrant and joyous celebration.
Being one who feels food and drink are the thread that weaves us all together, whether together or not, the tradition of making a loved one’s favorite foods speaks to me as no better way to honor one or celebrate them.  For me there are loved ones who are always with me on this holiday and this year another bright star joins them for whom I will celebrate.  This dish was a favorite of his as it has been for years for my family and I’m delighted to share it with all of you.
There is no question why this dish becomes an instant favorite.  It is perfect every time, succulent, flavorful with a light taste of lemon.  The skin is crispy but not dry and the meat juicy.
Adapted from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking
·         3 ½ to 5 pound chicken
·         1 large lemon cut in half or 2 small lemons
·         Sea salt
·         Pepper, freshly ground
1.       Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2.      Remove any giblets and rinse chicken inside and outside with cold water; pat dry.  Liberally salt and pepper the internal cavity and outside (rub salt and pepper into the internal cavity).
3.      Puncture half lemon skins or 2 small lemons several times with a toothpick or thin skewer.  Place lemons into internal cavity.  Truss or secure the legs together with kitchen twine in their natural position (do not over tighten or close the opening to the internal cavity).
4.      Place chicken in a roasting pan or baking dish with breast side down.  Place in upper third of oven for 30 minutes.
5.      Turn chicken over to breast side up, being careful not to puncture the skin.  Cook an additional 30 minutes.
6.      Increase oven temperature to 400 degrees.  Cook an additional 20 minutes.  Total cooking time should be 20-25 minutes per pound of the chicken so lengthen time at this step to ensure that cooking time. 
7.      Chicken can be served immediately.  Clip the trussing of the legs and quarter or carve the chicken.  Also great chilled.
This post is dedicated with love and joy to Layne Weinberg.  A person who never knew a stranger.  Whose warmth could melt an iceberg.  Who shone his light at all times.  We celebrate you.  1987-2011


  1. says

    Toni, what a touching end to this post. I wasn't that well versed about “Day of the Dead” until I read this. I knew a little bit about it. My son has an Art Gallery in the Santa Fe Arts District in Denver … he's currently hosting a Day of the Dead show. I've been wanting to get over there and see it.

  2. says

    Lovely post and very touching tribute to Layne. I believe like the Day of the Dead better than our Halloween. The chicken looks moist, and I love lemon with chicken.

  3. says

    What a great idea to celebrate loved ones with food and to not mourn our losses but celebrate lives. A great informative post. Many years ago some college chums and I visited Santa Fe for fall break (mid October). Being from the middle of the country, we had never heard of Day of the Dead and I remember that we were a little freaked out by all the festive skeleton decorations.
    Great post!

  4. says

    Toni, I love Dia De Los Muertos. In San Francisco, we have a huge celebration in the Mission District where you can bring photos of loved ones who have passed for a huge altar. It is a gorgeous tradition. It is really lovely that you've chosen to make an altar of sorts here for Layne. It's terrible to lose one so young. Sending you love from SF. PS, love that roasted chicken too.

  5. says

    What a beautiful post! It's funny, but I think we all celebrate Dia De Los Muertos on various days of the year because as you said, food weaves us all together…even for those who are no longer with us. I find myself eating special foods on my dad's birthday or father's day…just to honor him. Such a lovely post and reading it was a great way to start my day. Will pick up the ingredients for your lemon chicken today…it looks fabulous!

  6. says

    Toni, that is a very touching post. And, yes, I totally agree, I also remember loved ones through the food they liked.
    In Germany we celebrate All Saints Day on Nov. 1st. It is an official holiday. You visit your loved ones at the cemetery and light a candle at their grave. There are no skeleton dolls involved. I find them very different, too.
    Lemon chicken is also one of our favorite dishes.
    Great pictures, like always!

  7. says

    I'm not sure why but Halloween is one of those holidays I just get through; I enjoyed dressing my girls in the costumes I made for them but now it's sort of a meaningless day that I neither hate or love but am always glad when it's over. Is it the orange maybe? 🙂

    I prefer the idea of a day of remembrance and I'll remember my beloved Grandma and make a cake in her honor; that I can do.

    A very sweet tribute to a boy gone too soon.

  8. says

    I also came late to the holiday – which is such a beautiful way to honor those who have passed. Moved to sweet tears. I also feel food and drink binds us – and keeps us from being strangers. Lovely posting.

  9. says

    I love how you are celebrating Layne's life, he was very special to me and all that knew him. His smile was so sincere and I was lucky to have spent time with him. Thank you for sharing this yummy recipe, I will make it and remember sweet Layne.

  10. says

    Lovely post Toni. It is hard sometimes to remember that although very difficult at times, we should celebrate how someone lived not linger on how they died. Remembering lost loved ones through the foods they loved is a very healing process for those of us who love to cook. Everytime I prepare beans and rice I honor my dad.

  11. says

    What a lovely trubute to Laynes life. We American Catholics celebrate Hallowtide aka Days of the dead. It starts on Halloween. November 1 is all Saints day, a feast for all our beloved Saints. Nov 2 is all Souls Day, it commorates our loved ones who have not made it into heaven yet. I love your roast chicken. I also use lemons in mine. Thanks for sharing.

  12. says

    nicely done Toni, not only did you create a wonderful dish, but your tribute at the end was heartfelt.
    I'm sure the family appreciated having you with them at their time of need

    Muchas Gracias from this Mexican

  13. says

    Crispy skin and moist meat…ah, that does sound perfect! I'm so sorry to hear about Layne's passing…especially difficult when it happens to one so young. Special thoughts for you and his family~xo


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