Friday, April 25, 2014

Why We Celebrate Cinco de Mayo, Pt. 1

Cinco de Mayo is coming up and Americans are already salivating over all of the tortilla chips, salsa, margaritas, and gooey cheese and refried beans to be consumed on May 5. We're lucky enough to know a few experts on Mexican cuisine; Diana Kennedy, Lucinda Hutson, and now Chef David Sterling have all published authoritative books on the best Mexico has to offer the global palette. Chef Sterling, author of Yucatán: Recipes from a Culinary Expedition, really knows his Mexican cuisine and his history, so we asked him to give us a primer on Cinco de Mayo.

'Conflict and Cuisine: Picking Your Battles Over Dinner'
By David Sterling


Eating special foods to celebrate Victory is nothing new. Dormice dipped in honey and rolled in poppy seeds were a perennial favorite at the feasts following the processions of the famed Roman Triumphs. Closer to our own era, the rather more plebian hot dogs, hamburgers and cherry pie appear annually on the Fourth of July; ratatouille and crêpes Suzette honor Bastille Day festivities; and buñuelos, churros, “puffy tacos”, and other Spanish-American foods are devoured during the remembrance of the heroes at the Alamo in the annual Fiesta San Antonio. And where would Cinco de Mayo be without Tex-Mex enchiladas drowning in chili and molten cheese, washed down with a river of beer and Margaritas? 

What we consume serves as a vivid metaphor of our political and cultural selves; the very zoetic act of ingesting and digesting delicious food is a flamboyant - and pleasurable - way of thumbing one's nose at the vanquished. And for those of us not on the battlefield, our full stomachs and alcoholic buzz are vicarious ways of participating in the victory.

One thing quickly becomes clear from the above menus: you don't have to be French - or Mexican or American - to celebrate and enjoy these victory feasts and their foods. Francophiles around the world rush to purchase the best macarons for their guests on Bastille Day, and college fraternity brothers crowd bars from Seattle to Syracuse to down numberless Coronas and gloopy nachos on Cinco de Mayo.

But once we have gobbled the last crumb of our victory meal, do we really know what we have just been celebrating while we chewed? Probably most people know at least the basics: that citizens stormed a jail known as the Bastille, subsequently igniting the French Revolution; or that Texas defenders booted out Santa Anna's army at the Alamo, which eventually led to Mexico's surrender of Texas to the U.S. - or something like that. Beyond the highlights, the details become murkier.

I believe that this is particularly true of Cinco de Mayo. Take a poll to enquire what the date represents, and it is likely that most respondents will acknowledge that it is “Mexican Pride Day.” Still others will say that the 5th of May corresponds to our 4th of July - Independence Day. And a handful of others will simply glaze over and head for the party.
An interior spread from Yucatán
An interior spread from Yucatán

Of course, Cinco de Mayo has nothing to do with Mexican Independence. The Battle of Puebla, popularly known as “Cinco de Mayo”, was a battle during Napoleon III's so-called French intervention in Mexico, when on 5 May 1862 a small number of Mexican soldiers defending Puebla defeated a much larger French army. As in all histories, victories can be tenuous: in spite of Mexico's victory in this particular battle, the French indeed went on to conquer Mexico - but in yet another reversal of fortune, they were forced out of the country just four years later. Nonetheless, since 1862 Mexicans have honored the Fifth of May as a day of victory, and therefore of Mexican pride.


Paired with our pardonable muddlement regarding the facts of the history of a country other than our own, a similar confusion sometimes occurs with respect to the foods we choose to eat for our victory dinner: the food and the history don't always jibe. Surely the eater of crêpes Suzette would have been beheaded by the revolutionaries for consuming this aristocratic dessert descended from the haute cuisine of Versailles. And while I can't speak to the appropriateness of the Romans' eating victory dormice, the consumption of German-inspired “frankfurters” and “hamburgers” for our 4th of July leaves one questioning if not hungry. By the same token, why are nachos and other Tex-Mex fare chosen to celebrate the Battle of Puebla and Cinco de 
Mayo, when those could reasonably be viewed as another form of foreign invasion, a culinary heresy that tramples on the tradition of authentic Mexican food? (Apparently, a sort of gastronomical-historical revisionism affects our victory menu choices, too, muddling our understanding of culinary history even more: the first Fourth of July was celebrated with roast ox, and upper class Mexicans reveled in French cuisine on the anniversary of 5 May for a few years immediately following the Puebla battle in 1862.)

Puebla is arguably the soul of Mexico, with its Talavera-tiled adornments and Baroque architecture. Its gastronomy, too, has come to be identified with the height of Spanish colonial food in Mexico, elaborate in its processes and complex in its layering of Old World and New World ingredients and flavors. Chiles en nogada is a Puebla classic (see timeline below): a Moorish meat mixture dotted with seasonal fruits and flavored with exotic spices from the Moluccas - a recipe brought from Andalucía - is used as the stuffing for the very Mexican chile poblano. The stuffed chile is fried, then bathed in a rich walnut sauce and garnished with pomegranate seeds and leaves of fresh parsley.

An interior spread from Yucatán
An interior spread from Yucatán
So, why not eat chiles en nogada for Cinco de Mayo? After all, the dish originated in Puebla, and Cinco de Mayo honors the Battle of Puebla. In fact, some people do eat chiles en nogada on Cinco de Mayo, revealing a kind of unconscious gastronomical anachronism. The dish’s color scheme of red, white and green was chosen to represent the Mexican flag, and in that sense, I suppose, it makes sense to consume chiles en nogada in a show of Mexican pride. But in fact, the dish was created almost fifty years earlier to honor Agustín Iturbide and his successful campaign against Spain for Mexican Independence in 1821. In early September each year here in Mexico, you’ll see practically every restaurant throughout the republic posting signs in their windows promoting this seasonal specialty in honor of Independence Day. (By the way, the dish is seasonal in a botanical as well as a cultural sense: the requisite pomegranates, and special fruits and walnuts are only available in late summer into September – conveniently coinciding with Mexico’s Independence Day on 16 September.) 


And if not chiles en nogada, then why not eat other popular dishes from Puebla to honor Cinco de Mayo, such as mole poblano – the rich sauce of chiles and chocolate – as the people of Puebla themselves do?

Which brings us back to the question: why do so many of us – including many Mexicans – eat Tex-Mex food on the Fifth of May?

To be continued next week...

In the meantime, Chef Sterling put together this timeline cleverly charting the concurrent histories of Mexican gastronomy, history, and the history of the Yucatán region. There's so much to learn and appreciate in this timeline, so click to enlarge it and enjoy!

Click here to view full size.

Continue to Pt. 2!

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