With another Cinco de Mayo celebration just around the corner, visions of guacamole, tamales, cold beer and hot tortillas dance through my head. However, I tend to associate most holidays with some type of culinary delight….
But, for many Americans, this annual somewhat raucous celebration has become synonymous with tequila shots, Mexican fare, mariachis, sombreros and margaritas. It begs me to question, why do WE celebrate Cinco de Mayo and what is its’ historical significance? This date seems to be like so many others – another way for industry to capitalize and commercialize on a holiday – without many of us knowing the rhyme or reason as to why we are really celebrating.
Well, I thought it high time to uncover the truth and delve into the historical significance and the culinary ties that exist. It’s quite an interesting story actually, where the “underdogs” achieve an unlikely victory.
On May 5, 1862 in the Battle of Puebla, the under-equipped and outnumbered Mexican army fought the imperialist French (who hadn’t lost a battle in almost 50 years) – and WON! The improbable victory was short-lived, but highly celebrated – obviously – considering we are still celebrating today. This is all fascinating, but WHY do we now honor this day in the good ol’ U. S. of A?
According to a paper published by the UCLA Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture, the modern American focus on the date started in California in the 1860’s with the celebration of victory over the French by Mexican miners. The holiday has been acknowledged here ever since, but really came into vogue in the 1940’s with the Chicano movement. During the 1950’s and 1960’s, the festivities began migrating east across the States, and by the 1980’s, marketers began capitalizing on the date (not necessarily the event).
So, now that we all have a little slice of history under our belts, it’s time to consider the culinary angle…
Perhaps we should consider looking into some traditional dishes from Puebla to honor the day – Mole Poblano or Chiles en nogada? Maybe try your hand at a batch of Chalupas – believe it or not, Chalupas are NOT actually the Taco Bell Version. This typical Mexican “street food” usually comes in a batch of four lightly fried corn tortillas topped with a red or green salsa, onion and shredded chicken or beef.
Or try one of my veggie favorites, Rajas Poblanos – Our Executive Chef Howard shares this decadently delish recipe here:
2 pounds fresh large poblano chiles
1 onion, quartered, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch slices
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 ear of grilled corn
1 Tbsp. EVOO
1 Cup Water
2 teaspoons dried oregano (Mexican if you can find it)
3/4 cup Mexican Crema or Crème Fraiche (Sour Cream can be substituted if needed)
3/4 cup Oaxaca Cheese (Monterey Jack can be substituted if needed)
Build a medium-hot fire in a charcoal grill, or heat a gas grill to high. Place chiles directly on grill grate. Roast, turning occasionally, until tender and nicely charred all over, 15–20 minutes. You can grill the corn at the same time, it will take about 10 minutes to get nice color on all sides. If you don’t have a grill, you can use the oven set to “Broil”. If broiling, place chiles on a rimmed baking sheet – cook for 15-20 minutes and corn for 10 minutes – rotate both to ensure even cooking.
Transfer chiles to a large bowl; cover with plastic wrap and let steam for 15 minutes. Peel chiles. Halve lengthwise; discard seeds. Cut crosswise into 1/4-inch strips.
Cut corn off cobb
Heat a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat with EVOO. Add onion; cook, stirring often, until beginning to char, 6–7 minutes. Add garlic; cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add oregano and 1 cup water; simmer until onion is tender and water has evaporated, 5–7 minutes.
Add chiles and corn (save some corn for end garnish); cook until flavors meld, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat; stir in crema and cheese. Add water by table-spoonfuls if mixture is too dry. Season to taste with salt.
Another inspiring angle to consider might be to champion an “underdog” ingredient in honor of the Mexican Army. What is an item in your pantry or fridge that often gets over-looked or left out? Can you create a dish that features this ingredient so that it becomes the shining star of the meal? Take black or red pinto beans for example – often a side dish or condiment – how can you highlight the bean to make it the hero? Perhaps try your hand at a Black Bean Cake with a Mango Lime Crema….
While I will be celebrating with a stereotypical Margarita with chips n’ salsa, I will also feel a little more informed and a little more inspired in the kitchen. I hope you do too! Happy Cinco de Mayo Everyone!
This is all just a little food for thought.