Happy Cinco de Mayo! The 5th of May marks the biggest holiday in Mexican culture. Wait, no, that’s not right. Is it…an annual celebration of Mexico’s independence? An annual celebration of….margaritas?
America loves cross-cultural holidays, but we’re not always great with the details.
Like St. Patrick’s Day and Mardi Gras, the real roots of Cinco de Mayo have become a footnote to the fun stuff. The actual story goes something like this: In 1862, the Napoleon-led French army came calling to collect on some unpaid debts, take over the country, and expand their empire. But at the Battle of Puebla on May 5th, the mighty French were defeated by a small, scrappy Mexican army. Though it was just one battle, it was a symbolic underdog victory that boosted morale at home and beyond.
Mexican populations in the Western U.S. territories cheered the win from afar, and the festivities soon evolved into an annual celebration of heritage for Mexican-Americans…and eventually, a celebration of Mexican food for everyone else. These days, Cinco de Mayo is hardly an event in Mexico anywhere other than Puebla, where the battle occurred.
So how did we get from battlefield Cinco to boozy stateside Cinco? Fueled by Americans’ ardent affection for Mexican food, and a little help from savvy alcohol marketers, Cinco de Mayo has claimed a unique place on the U.S. calendar — with varying degrees of authenticity and cultural sensitivity.
Beginning in the border states in the early 20th century and spreading cross-country thanks to Taco Bell, Americans of every heritage have fallen hard for Mexican food. With just a handful of staple ingredients — rice, beans, corn — Mexican cooks create an alchemy of flavor that we just can’t get enough of! Alongside Italian and Chinese foods, it has claimed its spot as one of the most popular cuisines in the country. And even when the food is more Mexican-inspired than authentically Mexican, it all comes from a place of fascination and fervor for the irresistible, flavor-packed creations that trace back to Mexican kitchens.
In honor of Cinco de Mayo, we’re celebrating the rich culinary history of Mexico and its indelible impact on the American palate. Here are a just a few of our favorites, and where they come from:
Jalapeños: The quintessentially Mexican jalapeño tells us where it’s from in its name! The word jalapeño means “from Xalapa,” the capital of the state of Veracruz on Mexico’s Gulf Coast. The pepper is a product of the Aztecs, and these days the pepper is cultivated throughout the country and a common cooking ingredient nationwide.
Tacos: The history of the taco is a bit harder to pin down. Some taco historians (dream job!) theorize that Mexican miners invented, or at least named, the taco back in the 18th century. In mining parlance, the word “taco” meant a type of explosive used in excavation, which miners created by wrapping a piece of paper around a hunk of gunpowder. Though we’ll probably never know its exact origins, tacos are popular throughout the country topped with local specialties, like fish, barbacoa beef, or mole.
Burritos: Burritos are a relatively recent addition to Mexican cuisine. Historians trace their origins to the late 19th century and their American debut to the early 20th century. They come from the Northern region of Mexico, which encompasses the full length of the shared border with the U.S. Because of our proximity, many of the most popular Mexican dishes in this area are also popular in the Southwestern states. There are a million ways to make a burrito, from Mexican-style meat and beans, to Mission-style with rice and guac, to any flavor fusion you can stuff into a tortilla.
Ceviche: Ceviche refers to a method of seafood preparation in which raw fish, shrimp, and even octopus are “cured” by steeping in an acidic marinade. This cooking method is common throughout Latin countries and probably originated in Peru, but it has been part of the native Mexican cuisine for centuries — much longer than the burrito! Ceviche is most common in coastal areas of Mexico where fresh fish is readily available.
Tostadas: What do you do when a tortilla is too stiff to wrap around a taco or burrito? Fry it up! To give new life to day-old tortillas, Mexican families crisp them up in some oil and serve them alongside soups or topped with rice and beans. Tostadas are common throughout the country, but the state of Oaxaca takes them to the next level with tlayuda — the original Mexican pizza! This local specialty starts with a particularly large tostada topped off with a flourish of tasty toppings like beans, cheese, and meat.
Paletas: The icy, spicy paleta is a frozen Mexican dessert made famous in the Bajio region of Mexico, where a local paleteria named La Michoacan popularized the sweet treats in the 1940s. Unlike American popsicles, traditional paletas are fresher and fruitier with a hint of spice, like cinnamon or chile powder. Classic paleta varieties include mango, strawberry, and kiwi, but you might also encounter a few surprising flavors — like shrimp, oyster, and cheese!
Tequila: This potent elixir comes to us courtesy of the state of Jalisco, located along the country’s central Pacific coastline. Made from the blue agave plant that grows plentifully in the area’s volcanic soil, the beverage was first produced in the town of Tequila, naturally. Thanks to designated origin laws, you can trust that every product marketed as tequila was produced in Jalisco.
Chiles rellenos: This cheese-stuffed pepper dish is native to the state of Puebla, the battleground of Cinco de Mayo! It’s traditionally made with poblano peppers — Poblano means “from Puebla” — which also star in the deliciously complex and chocolatey mole poblano. There’s some contention about whether mole poblano was invented in Puebla or neighboring Oaxaca, but either way: we all win. More mole, please.