Monday, May 5, 2014

Why We Celebrate Cinco de Mayo, Pt. 2

Happy Cinco de Mayo! Last week, Chef David Sterling dispelled some historical misconceptions about the Cinco de Mayo holiday Americans celebrate north of the Rio Grande. Catch up here. Now that we know the history, our tummies are grumbling for some down-and-dirty enchiladas and margaritas. Chef Sterling is back to walk us through the origins of Tex-Mex food and how its widespread consumption on May 5 may make Tex-Mex the "Switzerland of gastronomy" given the complicated political history of Mexico.

David Sterling's recipes in Yucatán: Recipes from a Culinary Expedition are anything but run-of-the-mill Tex-Mex and that's what we love about it. So explore new flavors this Cinco de Mayo!

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

It is important to realize that Cinco de Mayo is celebrated considerably more passionately in the United States than it is in Mexico – with the possible exception of Puebla, where it remains an important holiday – and it has been so since the early days after the battle. When news of the victory reached Mexican gold miners in California, they fired rifles, sang, and made impassioned speeches. During the American Civil War, Mexican and Union soldiers took the victory as an inspiration for their own battle. Today, there are some 150 official Cinco de Mayo events throughout the United States, as uprooted Mexicans and their non-Latino friends join parades and other displays of solidarity and pride. It is even celebrated in such far-flung capitals as Tokyo and Paris.

Surprisingly, the emergence of Tex-Mex food as a stand-alone cuisine has nothing historically to do with Cinco de 
Mayo, but instead may in fact be tied to a separate conflict almost 20 years earlier: the Mexican-American War, which lasted from 1846 to 1848. At the end of the war, when Mexico ceded almost half of its territory to the U.S., some 300,000 Mexican nationals suddenly found themselves living inside United States borders. And overnight, Mexican food became an important part of American culture. By 1868, Texans of Mexican background were known as “Texicans”.

The U.S. victory in the Mexican-American War is a victory no one wants to celebrate, with or without food. At the time, U.S. opinion was that it was a dirty war, and of course the resolution left Mexicans feeling exploited, ashamed, and resentful. And yet the foods we think of as Tex-Mex could be said to be almost a direct result of the Mexican-American War. Within a few years of the Mexican cession, a proliferation of articles began to appear in publications in the U.S. that recorded a range of Mexican foods or gave recipes for them – some more traditional than others, such as tamales, but also many that were much more recent concoctions such as burritos and chili con carne. The first known recipe for guacamole was published in the United States on the eve of the twentieth century. These represent the first wave in the popularization of what became known as Mexican food in the U.S. – an ironic fusion, or better yet, partnership of Mexican and American gastronomic traditions later nicknamed “Tex-Mex,” a term that appeared by 1914.

There are at least a couple of explanations that may address the ironic choice of Tex-Mex food – a cuisine that emerged after huge tracts of Mexican land were forcibly “incorporated” into U.S. territory – for the celebration of Mexican pride.

An interior spread from Yucatán
First, it is a proletarian food, the food of the people. Surely the original victory dinner of French cuisine would be considered to be too elitist. And even chiles en nogada and mole poblano – while exquisitely delicious – bear too clearly the imprints of Spanish colonial influence, even aristocratic aloofness, in their baroque formulas and exotic and expensive ingredient lists. Tex-Mex food is a great leveler: cheap, tasty, and easy to recognize. I would imagine that most readers have eaten nachos, while fewer will have tried chiles en nogada. (And, lest some readers desperately cling to their culinary snobbishness and sneer at anything resembling Tex-Mex food, I remind you that even “real” Mexicans eat nachos and fajitas, right here on their own soil.)

Another reason why Tex-Mex food may be the cuisine of choice on Cinco de Mayo is that it could be thought of as “generic” Mexican cuisine – all the foods and ingredients we easily recognize and identify as “Mexican”, such as tortillas, tomatoes, chiles, and avocados. Tex-Mex is an uncomplicated cuisine, and immediately telescopes a culture and an identity. It therefore engenders a sense of solidarity among all Latino-Americans regardless of their place of birth or where they live now.

For all the non-Mexicans who want to join the party, this generic Mexican cuisine is particularly salable: the nuances of Mexico’s many distinct regional cuisines remain rather opaque to the uninitiated, and are only recently gaining exposure among the culinary cognoscenti. When we eat chiles en nogada or mole poblano we are soon drawn much deeper into the labyrinth of regional Mexican cuisines, where we are faced with a groaning board of even more mysterious and strange foods: pipián, frijol con momo, chapulines, chilmole, relleno negro, and an endless menu of other delicacies hardly known outside the country, and even within Mexico, often not eaten beyond their region of origin. For party time, best stick to nachos and Margaritas.

Among Latino-Americans, eating Tex-Mex on Cinco de Mayo delicately sidesteps any controversies that might arise from favoring a particular regional food to honor such a pan-Hispanic celebration. Mexico has always been and remains a country of “borders within borders”. In pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, there was never a central ruling government or a single culture; instead, there were many distinct regions, each with its own governing polities, culture and gastronomy. Many of these regions lived in recurrent conflict with one another, and in spite of the map-making of the Spanish colonialists that eventually resulted in today’s United Mexican States, peoples from these still-distinct regions occasionally remain at odds. It would be undemocratic – if not politically unthinkable – to select the cuisine of one of these regions to honor pan-Mexican pride.
An interior spread from Yucatán
The case of Yucatán illustrates Mexico’s historical internecine conflicts, and its unique regional cuisine may serve as a notable example of why Tex-Mex makes sense even to Latino-Americans on Cinco de Mayo. At my cooking school in Mérida, I am perennially faced with the dilemma of explaining to people from north of the border the range and complexity of Mexico’s many diverse regions. My particular specialty is regional Yucatecan cuisine, which is even less known than, say, that of Puebla or Oaxaca. Although in Yucatán we certainly eat many pan-Mexican foods such as tamales (our own unique varieties, of course), and may even enjoy fajitas while vacationing in Cancun, not one dish on the Yucatecan menu could be qualified as a “generic” Mexican food such that it could take its place at the table during the Cinco de Mayo victory banquet.

It surprises many of my students to learn that at least part of the explanation for this gaping hole in the party menu is that Yucatán has been both geologically and politically separated from the rest of the country for centuries – and at many times has fought to maintain the separation. Busy with the affairs of being a sovereign republic, Yucatán was visibly absent during the French intervention, and it notably proclaimed neutrality during the Mexican-American War. Much of this deliberate isolation continues to the present. Conflicts between Yucatán and Mexico have resulted in a culinary border that is crossed only by the most intrepid gastronomes.

The following timeline organizes chronologically the events detailed above, illustrating key conflicts between Yucatán and Mexico, and Mexico and the United States; it also indicates when and where certain foods emerged, and suggests reasons for their appearance. Finally, it paints the backdrop for the drama of the enmity between Mexico and Yucatán, and therefore perhaps suggests why no Yucatecan specialties have been widely embraced in the rest of the country – at least not for national celebrations – and in turn, why no single regional cuisine could serve such broad-based appetites as those we find on the 5th of May.

We would all do well to pick our culinary battles carefully. In its neutrality, Tex-Mex food is the Switzerland of gastronomy. Therefore, on Cinco de Mayo, we here in Yucatán – as well as those in Tijuana and Tokyo and Texas – sit together at the table, momentarily burying our cutlery and wolfing down some nachos, guacamole and Margaritas.
timeline of Mexican gastronomy, history, and the Yucatán 

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