Wednesday, April 28, 2010
Why Cinco de Mayo is celebrated
The history behind this Mexican holiday might surprise you as much as it did this food columnist.
Food writer Lindsey Nair
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One of my pals loves Mexican food and culture so much that she decorated her kitchen with chili peppers and often suggested we catch up over margaritas and Mexican cuisine.
Before she and her husband moved away from Roanoke, I always looked forward to their annual Cinco de Mayo potluck, which fell on or about the date that is the holiday's namesake, May 5.
We visited, we drank homemade margaritas and we gorged on the huge spread, which ranged from authentic (fresh pico de gallo, enchiladas, tostadas) to decidedly inauthentic but still-so-good (jalapeno poppers, queso dip made with Velveeta, chocolate-banana "dessert burritos").
I never thought to ask the hosts if they knew the history behind this Mexican holiday, or whether anyone else at the party knew. I was certainly ignorant myself.
Because Cinco de Mayo falls exactly one week from today, I set out to educate myself. I started with an oldie but goodie, the Encyclopedia Britannica (a 1987 edition, but 19th-century Mexican history hasn't really changed since then), then talked to Enrique Lamadrid, chairman of the department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of New Mexico.
What I learned left me thoroughly surprised.
A source of pride
In America, it seems, there are some big misconceptions about Cinco de Mayo.
Misconception No. 1: Cinco de Mayo celebrates Mexican Independence Day. Not true; Mexico declared independence from Spain on Sept. 16, 1810, a full 50 years before the event that Cinco de Mayo commemorates.
Misconception No. 2: Cinco de Mayo is a big holiday in Mexico. In fact, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated more heavily in the United States than it is in Mexico, with the exception of the state of Puebla, which is located east of Mexico City.
On May 5, 1862, a historic battle took place in Puebla between the Mexican Army and French troops, who had invaded the country and were trying to drive toward Mexico City. Napoleon III thought if his men could capture Mexico City, he could take the country.
Although the ill-equipped Mexicans were outnumbered by at least 1,000 Frenchmen at the Battle of Puebla, they still forced the French to retreat. Napoleon III would soon marshal 30,000 additional troops and capture Mexico, but the victory at Puebla was still a source of great pride.
Antonio Lopez, who works at Alejandro's Mexican Grill in Christiansburg, is a native of Puebla, Mexico. He said to this day, residents of the state put on a big celebration with a parade, a battle reenactment and food and drink.
Lopez's boss, Alejandro's owner Moses Nucamendi, remembers being a child in school in Mexico City. On May 5, he and his classmates sang the national anthem, then went back to lessons. No big celebration.
When Nucamendi moved to the United States in 1989, he was surprised and a little amused to find that Americans loved Cinco de Mayo.
"I was amazed how they celebrate here when I came to America," he said. "I didn't know. I was like, why do they celebrate that?"
In San Marcos, Texas, an organization called Viva! Cinco de Mayo organizes a huge celebration every year with a parade, a Little Miss Cinco de Mayo pageant and a state championship menudo cookoff, where contestants show off their recipes for a classic Mexican soup enriched with tripe and hominy.
Similar festivities occur in San Antonio, San Diego, San Francisco, Denver, Phoenix, and Chicago. Even Omaha, Neb., and Kansas City, Kan., throw big Cinco de Mayo parties.
One explanation is that these are cities with big Mexican-American populations, but that's not the whole story.
Lamadrid, the University of New Mexico professor, explained that word of the Mexican Army's victory at Puebla spread quickly to New Mexico in 1862, and residents there, who were dealing with their own occupation by the U.S., were thrilled to hear that the Mexicans had kicked out imperial armies from France.
In addition, a huge population of miners from Mexico, who had settled in San Francisco during the California Gold Rush of the late 1840s, heard the news and were similarly excited.
Later, when the Hispanic population of San Francisco, which was made up of natives from various locations in Mexico and South America, tried to decide on a date for an annual ethnic celebration, they agreed on May 5, Lamadrid said.
"Everybody could get on board with that," he explained, because they reckoned "not everybody is Mexican, but everybody hates Napoleon."
Cinco de Mayo thus became a symbol of patriotism and anti-imperialism.
Over the decades, the holiday's popularity has gradually spread throughout the United States, but the historical significance has been forgotten in many circles.
Still, we Americans love an excuse to throw a big party. We celebrate St. Patrick's Day, Oktoberfest and Chinese New Year with similar gusto even though many of us have no Irish, German or Chinese ancestry.
Our country is, after all, known as "the melting pot." Which is making me think about that queso dip all over again.
Now that we know the reasons for celebrating Cinco de Mayo, let's get back to my purpose here: food.
According to Lamadrid, a truly authentic Cinco de Mayo party should include the dish invented by Puebla cooks to honor the significance of the Battle at Puebla.
The dish, called Chiles en Nogada (chilies in walnut sauce), consists of poblano chilies stuffed with a sweet and savory meat filling, then topped with a creamy walnut sauce and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds.
The green chilies, white sauce and red seeds represent the colors of the Mexican flag, Lamadrid said.
Lopez, the Puebla native who works at Alejandro's, remembered some other dishes from the Cinco de Mayo celebrations of his childhood, including pozole, a soup made with pork, hominy and chilies.
I'm going to share recipes for both of those dishes here, along with my favorite easy margarita recipe. This year, when you sip that cold, citrusy beverage to calm the riot of flavors inside your mouth, remember the melee that really started Cinco de Mayo.
Lindsey Nair's column runs in Wednesday's Extra.
For more authentic Mexican recipes for Cinco de Mayo, check out the Fridge Magnet blog at blogs.roanoke.com/fridgemagnet/