People all over the United States celebrate Cinco de Mayo without really understanding the meaning of the occasion. Many will be asked what are they celebrating, only to be ignorantly perplexed. They will likely raise their drinks and say: Relax! Who cares! Its Cinco de Mayo, have another margarita! But in fact, the question remains: what is this beloved holiday? Is it Mexican independence, the signing of some free trade agreement, the birth of a saint? Mexican history may explain the origin of this festival, but the reason for its popularity in the U.S is really to revel in the three most important Mexican endowments: nachos, tequila and, of course, the Party!
History tells us that Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Battle of Puebla in 1862, a significant victory by the Mexicans within a war they lost against the French. So what is the big deal? The answer is “none”! The holiday was originally intended as a military day of remembrance in honor of democracy and freedom in Mexico, but it has slowly evolved in the US into an excuse for people to party and for giant corporations to sell more beer and more tortillas. Kind of in the same spirit that St-Patrick’s Day is hugely celebrated in America, with its appeal to embody the color green and get wasted when in fact, it is barely observed in Ireland. These festivities can overshadow real history. But enough of the history lesson, let’s get down to the important information.
There is really no need to go all out and try to make your very own party when every street block in America has about three. If you do, however, focus on a few points: decoration, food, and most importantly, drinks!
The right decoration will set the mood. If a crazy festive look is your thing, any craft or party store will do the trick. Make sure to keep it super bright and bold. Fluorescent colors with stripes in everything from plates to napkins and tablecloths to banners will look great. Remember to throw in a couple of Mexican sombreros (those should be insanely colorful too) and try to find a piñata. Of course, if you are able to bring in your very own mariachis to the fiesta, you will have truly outdone yourself. If you are more into the traditional haute couture look, a lighter color palate will better suit you. Try serving drinks in tinted stemware and place food in traditional Mexican pottery, give out some earth-toned party favors like beige straw hats and wooden maracas. Keep in mind, however; that you are trying to celebrate a holiday whose main purpose is to party like crazy, so too much elegance is not necessarily called for.
We begin with food. The idea is not to make an entire meal, but to have an array of bite-size snacks your guests can easily grab and eat while holding a margarita. A common mistake people make when trying to replicate Mexican food is that instead of going traditionally Mexican, most prepare Tex-Mex plates that have very little to do with what the country’s real cuisine is about. Tex-Mex is a legitimate cuisine very popular in states like Texas, Arizona, and California but does not do so well with the natives. Since we are celebrating a Mexican holiday, lets keep it authentic: mini fish tacos with roasted red peppers and salsa verde (make sure the fish is fresh and not fried!), shredded beef or pork with lime and avocado tortillas, cubes of platano asado (grilled plantains), nachos with guacamole (not with cheese!!!), slices of queso fundido (baked cheese), arroz con leche (rice pudding) served in small shot glasses, traditional mini flans, and Mexican half moon wedding cookies are only a few ideas.
Here comes the most important part of the day: the drinks. In fact, if you want to omit the entire party preparations and just stick with the libations, it would still qualify as a full celebration. You could go all out and make an array of traditional Mexican drinks like agua frescas, sangrias, tequila sunsets, micheladas, and Palomas. You can also buy a variety of tequilas if you are catering to a more sophisticated crowd of tasters, but in the end supporters of Cinco de Mayo only want one thing: Margaritas! There is always the classic margarita, usually made with tequila, triple sec, lime juice and salt, or you can shake it up with a range of new flavors like melon, guava, pineapple, blue margarita, or even some crazy new tastes like the lavender margarita (made with real lavender) or the creamsicle margarita made with vanilla ice cream. My personal new favorite (recipe to follow) is the rhubarb margarita.
If this holiday teaches us anything, it is that there are people who enjoy diversity and will join in the festivities of almost any nationality, as long as it includes some kind of preferred alcoholic beverage. But mainly as the world unites in one global village, people will go to any length to come together and find more reasons to celebrate. So make sure to stock up on your tequila. The party lasts until the last drop!
Rhubarb is a beautiful pink stalk that resembles celery and is native to Northern Europe. In my opinion, it gives one of the sweetest, most unique flavors in the world and has been overlooked far too long. The reintegration of rhubarb into the world’s greatest kitchens is mostly owed to chefs like Rene Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen, who have used this wonderful ingredient vastly in his cuisine in an attempt to develop his philosophy of keeping food regional and grounded in its roots. This recipe was taken from Kim Haasarud’s book, 101 Margaritas.
1-quart sauce pan
A jar with a lid
Ingredients [Serves 6]
1 stalk rhubarb, chopped
1/2-cup (120 ml) simple syrup
6 ounces (177 ml) white tequila
4 ounces (118 ml) Grand Marnier
3 cups ice
Basil or mint leaves, for garnish
1. Syrup: Pour the sugar and water into the saucepan and cook over medium heat until the mixture just starts to boil and the sugar dissolves. Turn off the heat. Allow cooling, and then pour into a jar and save for other cocktails.
2. Drink: Cook the chopped rhubarb and 1/2 cup of the simple syrup in the saucepan over low heat until softened, about 5 minutes. Cool. Combine the rhubarb mixture with the tequila, Grand Marnier, and ice in the blender and blend until smooth. Pour into glasses and garnish each with a basil or mint leaf. ■