Cinco de Mayo (the May 5th regional Mexican holiday) is celebrated next Wednesday and it’s the perfect opportunity for retailers to promote their Mexican line of products, particularly anything having to do with guacamole, salsa and chips. (Take advantage of those related sales!)
It’s also a great excuse to sip tequila and catch up with friends. But what is the relevance of this holiday to Mexicans?
My efforts of late have been to separate the Cinco de Mayo “myth” from the reality. I assumed the holiday commemorated Mexico’s independence from Spanish rule.
Wrong! Mexico asserted its independence from Spain on September 16th, 1810. This is the date that is the equivalent to America’s Fourth of July, and is celebrated as such in Mexico.
According to various web sources, the festivities on May 5 celebrate another major battle for independence; when the outnumbered and out-armed Mexican army defeated the the French in the Mexican State of Puebla in 1862.
Another interesting bit of myth-busting trivia unfolded during my web-browsing. According to the web site Bandarasnews.com, “ Cinco de Mayo is actually celebrated more widely and on a grander scale in the United States than it is in Mexico, possibly due to effective marketing techniques.”
Though Cinco de Mayo is celebrated throughout Mexico, the big celebrations mostly center in Puebla, where the actual battle was fought. If any recipe represented Puebla cuisine, it would surely be Mole Poblano, the inimitable chili pepper, spice, nut, chocolate, and tomato sauce, which is traditionally served with turkey or chicken.
The only time I made a reasonably authentic Mole Poblano from scratch, I spent two days sourcing ingredients, frying peppers and grinding seeds. I morphed into “Tita”, a main character in Laura Esquival’s book “Like Water for Chocolate,” a mystical novel about a Mexican family in the early 1900’s. Initially, I romanticized the event, as I organized the 30-plus ingredients for the recipe.
Hours later, after finally finishing the mole, my kitchen could have stood in as a reenactment from the Battle of Pueblo. This battle-scared warrior is too weary to take on that experience again, even for the sake of authentic food writing. My new quest was to find a “short-cut” mole that could be made in less than an hour. I turned to an expert.
“Mole,” to Graciela Rubalcava , “is important.” The favored mole from Graciela’s home state of Aguascalientes, Mexico, is also the Mole Poblano. She explained mole recipes are a source of great pride to Mexicans; indeed, family heirlooms, passed down through generations. These recipes vary greatly from state, to town and village.
Graciela left her home in Aguascalientes to study at the University of Michigan in the 1970‘s. We “shared a cutting board” while catering a party many years ago, and I remember her deep reverence and love of authentic Mexican cuisine–the food she took for granted growing up. I asked Graciela if she had a really easy mole recipe she could share with us.
“First,” she corrected me, “It’s not pronounced “moe-lay”, with the accent on the last syllable, like “O-lay!” My face burned; I knew I was in deep (bleep!)…er, “chocolate”. “It’s pronounced ‘muh-lay,’ with the accent on the first syllable,” she continued. “The perfect mole is rich, complex and delicious. It’s not sweet-sweet, but has just a touch of sweetness. It’s like an Indian curry, which is spicy with undercurrents of different flavors.”
I recounted my previous mole adventures and asked if she had any easier recipe routes for making a mole. “The markets in Pueblo sell fabulous mole pastes you can purchase by the kilo. Using their mole paste is the best short-cut I know of.”
Not exactly practical for many of us, pressed for time to even shop locally. “Are there any other simple mole recipes you can suggest?” I pleaded. With a sigh, Graciela finally relented. “When I’m short on time, I made a quickie version of mole that my family enjoys”. She opened her cupboard to reveal her “top secret” quickie-mole ingredient arsenal (recipe follows).
“If you’ve the time, Rick Bayliss’ “Mexican Kitchen” has wonderful, elaborate and authentic recipes some readers may prefer. And, of course, you can find dozens of reasonably authentic recipes on-line. ” said Graciela.
This time-starved mole veteran made Graciela’s “quickie” version and it was delicious. Some of the earthy deep resonance of the peppers were lost and dark sublime notes hinting of ground nuts was diminished as well. But I did gain a day to plant my kitchen garden, including hot chili peppers, of course!”
¡Viva Mexico (And pass the tequila!)