La Calavera honors Mexican baking traditions

A labor of loaves

Photograph by Kaylinn Gilstrap

Bread bakers rarely get enough sleep. Working in the Decatur commissary kitchen he rents, Eric Arillo, owner of La Calavera Bakery, doesn’t look especially bleary-eyed. But he casually mentions that he sometimes manages to catch only four or five hours of shut-eye over a three-day period. And every Friday, he pulls a twenty-four-hour shift to be ready for the farmers markets where his nutritious, deeply satisfying breads and Mexican sweets are growing more popular by the week.

Arillo works alongside his wife, Dale Ralston, who acts as Arillo’s miller and sales force while also pulling part-time shifts at the Porter Beer Bar. The labor for their products is intensive and achingly old-fashioned. Were it not for the presence of two hulking stacked gas ovens and a behemoth electric mixer, one could easily believe that nothing has changed since the Middle Ages in the baking business. Arillo shapes the bread by hand and uses all-organic flour, some of which is made in-house by sprouting, dehydrating, and grinding grains and pulses—including wheat berries, lentils, millet, azuki beans, and spelt—with the help of a small WonderMill home appliance. For the sourdough loaves, Arillo uses a starter he created by harvesting naturally occurring yeast from organic apple skins.

Calavera means “skull” in Spanish, but the bakery’s name isn’t meant to be sinister. To Arillo it symbolizes the cultural values attached to Dia de los Muertos (or Day of the Dead), the holiday held on the first two days of November, when the faithful believe that the spirits of the deceased visit their living families. During all of October, Arillo honors his heritage by baking pan de muerto in the form of skulls and bones. “The holiday epitomizes the Mexican attitude toward food in general, and bread specifically, as more than just nourishment,” he says. “We see it as a focal point around which celebrations, family gatherings, grief, loss, and day-to-day meals are shared.”

The couple may open a retail bakery next year. For now, you can find Arillo’s sweets—such as orejas (palmiers), conchas (sweet dough covered with a shortbread-like topping), and marranitos (molasses cookies)—and his tangy, complex loaves at farmers markets in Decatur, East Atlanta, and Morningside, among others. Check for the bakery’s complete schedule at

This article originally appeared in our November 2013 issue.