Today is Cinco de Mayo (“Fifth of May”), a celebration in the United States and in Mexico, primarily in the state of Puebla, where the holiday is called El Día de la Batalla de Puebla (“The Day of the Battle of Puebla”) The date commemorates the Mexican army’s unlikely victory over French forces at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, under the leadership of General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín. In the United States, Cinco de Mayo is sometimes mistaken as Mexico’s Independence Day—the most important national holiday in Mexico—but this is celebrated on September 16. Cinco de Mayo is a much bigger deal in the U.S. than in Mexico.
Cinco de Mayo has its roots in the French occupation of Mexico, which took place in the aftermath of the Mexican–American War of 1846–48 and the 1858–61 Reform War. The Reform War was a civil war and it pitted Liberals (who believed in separation of church and state, and freedom of religion) against the Conservatives (who favored a tight bond between the Roman Catholic Church and the Mexican State). These wars left the Mexican Treasury nearly bankrupt. On July 17, 1861, Mexican President Benito Juárez issued a moratorium under which all foreign debt payments would be suspended for two years. In response, France, Britain, and Spain sent naval forces to Veracruz to demand reimbursement. Britain and Spain negotiated with Mexico and withdrew, but France, at the time ruled by Napoleon III, decided to use the opportunity to establish a Latin empire in Mexico that would favor French interests: the Second Mexican Empire.
Late in 1861, a well-armed French fleet stormed Veracruz, landing a large French force and driving President Juárez and his government into retreat. Moving on from Veracruz towards Mexico City, the French army encountered heavy resistance from the Mexicans close to Puebla, at the Mexican forts of Loreto and Guadalupe. The 6,000-strong French army attacked the much smaller and poorly equipped Mexican army of 2,000. Yet, on May 5, 1862, the Mexicans managed to decisively crush the French army, then considered one of the most organized and powerful armies in the world.
The victory was a significant morale booster for the Mexican army and the Mexican people at large. It was not a major strategic win in the overall war against the French, but it bolstered the resistance movement against France. It was a bit of a David and Goliath affair that helped establish a sense of national unity and pride for a time. But a year later, with 30,000 troops, the French were able to defeat the Mexican army, capture Mexico City, and install Maximilian I as emperor of Mexico. The French ascendancy lasted only three years, however – from 1864 to 1867. By 1865, with the American Civil War now over, the U.S. began to provide more political and military assistance to Mexico to oppose the French. Napoleon III, facing a persistent Mexican guerilla resistance, the threat of war with Prussia, and the prospect of war with the United States, retreated from Mexico starting in 1866. The Mexicans recaptured Mexico City, and Maximilian I, fighting a rearguard action, was apprehended and executed, along with his Mexican generals Miramón and Mejía, in the Cerro de las Campanas, Querétaro. On June 5, 1867, Benito Juarez finally entered Mexico City where he installed a legitimate government and reorganized his administration.
Had the French succeeded in creating a stable French state in Mexico, it is conceivable that they would have sided with the Confederacy and changed the course of the Civil War in the U.S. They were anxious to open Southern ports from a Union blockade and resume trading with the South. Much better for Lincoln to have a (passive) ally to the south.
The observance of Cinco de Mayo in the United States first started in California in the 1860s when, upon hearing the news, Mexican gold miners initiated a grand celebration with songs, fireworks, and speeches. The holiday did not gain much traction until the 1940s with the rise of the Chicano movement, and then spread slowly from California to the rest of the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. It was still not particularly big and did not become popular until the 1980s when marketers, especially beer companies, capitalized on the celebratory nature of the day and began to promote it. As such Cinco de Mayo has two rather divergent qualities. In places with large Mexican-American populations, such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and San Jose, it became an opportunity to display pride in Mexico and Mexican-American heritage. In other places it’s become an excuse to drink quantities of Mexican beer and tequila.
In the United States Cinco de Mayo has taken on a significance beyond that in Mexico. On June 7, 2005, the U.S. Congress issued a Concurrent Resolution calling on the President of the United States to issue a proclamation to the people to observe Cinco de Mayo with appropriate ceremonies and activities. Many communities display Cinco de Mayo banners, while school districts hold special events to educate students about the day’s historical significance. Special events and celebrations highlight Mexican culture, especially in its music and regional dancing.
On May 9, 1862, President Juárez declared that the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla would be a national holiday regarded as “Battle of Puebla Day” or “Battle of Cinco de Mayo.” Although Mexican citizens feel very proud of the meaning of the Battle of Puebla, it is not observed as a national holiday in Mexico today. Nonetheless, all public schools are closed nation-wide in Mexico on May 5, and it is an official holiday in the State of Puebla, and in the neighboring State of Veracruz.
A few other locations around the world tip their hats to Cinco de Mayo. For example, in the Cayman Islands, in the Caribbean, there is an annual Cinco de Mayo air guitar competition. Love it !!
The great hangover cure in Mexico is tripe soup, known in Spanish as menudo or mondongo depending on the region and style of cooking; welcome for the morning after a night of celebration like Cinco de Mayo. I am rather curious about the fact that menudo is legendary as a hangover cure – very common dish in Mexico on New Year’s Day. My curiosity stems from the fact that the same claim is made of tripe-based soups found in regions as far flung as Romania, Turkey, Korea, and Greece. As a professional anthropologist I have to wonder about such a phenomenon. Did people in the Americas, Europe, and Asia all discover the same wonderful fact independently? Or is this a significant case of cultural diffusion from a single source? Maybe I’ll devote my next research grant to discovering the truth.
The Puebla region specializes in green (verde) menudo, but other parts of Mexico have red (rojo) and white (blanco) versions. So let’s have a three-fer today to celebrate the colors of Mexico’s flag.
Menudo Verde (Mondongo con Salsa Verde)
3 lbs cooked beef tripe (lime juice, garlic and onions)
1 green bell pepper
2 hot green peppers (such as serrano, jalapeño or habañero)
1 large bunch of cilantro
2 garlic cloves, peeled
¼ onion peeled
Chop all the ingredients, except the tripe, coarsely and blend to a fine purée using around a cup of broth. Vary the chiles according to taste.
Heat the blended mixture to boiling in a heavy pot over medium-high heat with another cup of stock. Cover and cook maintaining a steady, but not vigorous, boil for about 30 minutes. You can do this the day before if you like and refrigerate overnight.
At this point you have a choice. If you want to serve this as a soup (menudo) you can simply add the tripe cut in bite-sized pieces and warm it through. If you want to serve it as a main course (mondongo), reduce the liquid until it is thickened, add the tripe to warm through, and serve with rice. Either way serve it with corn tortillas.
This recipe comes from Sonora but you can also find it regularly in New Mexico. I practically lived on it when I lived in Santa Fe in 1993/94. This menudo is called “white” because it lacks the red or green chiles and vegetables that give other menudo styles their fiery complexity and color. In some respects it is the most basic of all menudos: just a light broth with tripe and white hominy with garnishes for extra flavor. This recipe is loosely based on a classic from The Art of Mexican Cooking by Diana Kennedy, very much modified by me over the years.
2 lbs honeycomb tripe
1 beef or calves’ foot
1 small head of garlic
1 medium white onion
1 tablespoon coarse salt (kosher or sea salt)
½ lb dried hominy (or 4 cups canned)
3 tsps powdered lime (for dry hominy)
1 crumbled chile piquin
1 finely chopped white onion
roughly chopped cilantro
Chop the calves’ foot into 3 or 4 chunks with a heavy cleaver (or have your butcher do it for you). Do not peel the head of garlic, but cut it in half horizontally. Coarsely chop the onion. Put these ingredients in the bottom of a large saucepan along with half the salt. Lay the tripe on top and sprinkle on the remaining salt. Cover with water and bring to a very low simmer. Cover and cook on low heat until the tripe is tender (1 to 2 hours depending on the heat under the pot). Remove the tripe with a slotted spoon and cut it into 1 ½” squares. Remove the calves’ foot pieces, take out the bones, and coarsely chop the meat. Return the tripe and calves’ foot meat to the cooking broth.
Meanwhile, if you are using dried hominy you will need to cook and flower it. Put the hominy in a large enamel pot and add cold water so that the corn is covered by about 2 inches. Put on a burner set to medium heat. Add ½ cup of cold water to the powdered lime and add the mixture to the pot by passing it through a fine wire strainer, pressing the lumps through with a wooden spoon. Let the whole pot simmer until the hominy skins slide easily off the kernels (20 to 30 minutes). Take the pot from the heat and let it cool to room temperature. Drain the hominy and rub the kernels between your fingers to remove the skins. Place the corn in a colander and rinse thoroughly in cold water. Remove the pedicels (tough base of the kernels) with a sharp knife. Discard the skins and pedicels, and return the corn to the enamel pot along with enough cold water to come 3 inches above the kernels. Bring to a simmer and cook until the kernels pop open or “flower.” This may take 2 hours or so. I’m a coward and use canned most of the time.
Add the hominy and its cooking liquid to the pot containing the tripe with its broth. Cook over a very low flame for about 1 hour. Serve in large, deep bowls accompanied by the garnishes and warm flour tortillas.
This style of menudo is ubiquitous in Mexico. I got this recipe from a Mexican friend, Trini, living in Santa Fe (plus a big bowl as a treat on New Year’s). For the simmering stock I use red Fresnos or chiles de arbol. For the chile paste it is customary to use a relatively mild and flavorful red chile such as Anaheims, but I prefer something a bit hotter.
3 lbs tripe
1 calves’ foot
4 cloves garlic
2 small hot red chiles
1 large onion
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
2 tablespoons dried Mexican oregano
2 teaspoons cumin seed
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 lb frozen or canned posole (white hominy)
1 red Anaheim pepper
2 cloves garlic
pinch cumin seed
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 teaspoon Mexican oregano
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tbsp tomato paste
hot red chile flakes
Cut the tripe into 1” squares and drop them into a large pot of boiling water. Scald the tripe for a few minutes and then drain. Split the calves’ foot and add it to the pot along with the tripe. Cover with cold water and bring gradually to a simmer. Smash 2 garlic cloves with the flat of a large cook’s knife. The skin will shred easily away. Add the smashed cloves to the pot. Slice the onion thinly and add it along with the small red chiles. Put the bay leaf, black peppercorns, 1 tablespoon of oregano, and 1 teaspoon of cumin seed into a mortar with a pinch or two of coarse salt and give it a good bashing with a pestle until the peppercorns are cracked and the whole is beginning to give off a rich aroma. Add these spices to the pot. Cover and let everything simmer gently for an hour or so, checking periodically to make sure that the tripe does not overcook. As always, you are looking for a nice al dente texture. Remove the bones from the calves’ foot, chop the meat, and return it to the pot.
If you are using frozen posole put it in a large saucepan and cover with water. Add a crushed clove of garlic, bring to a gentle simmer and cook for about 2 hours, or until it is tender. If you are using canned, all you need to do is heat it through in boiling water. Drain, but keep the posole warm.
Put the Anaheim peppers in a large heavy skillet over very high heat and toss them until they start to take on some color. Remove the stems. Slit the pods open and remove the seeds. Place the peppers in a large bowl, cover with boiling water, and let them steep for 20 minutes or so. When they are soft, scrape off as much of the skins as you can. Place them in a blender or food processor, along with the other chile paste ingredients (garlic, cumin, vinegar, oregano, salt, tomato paste and sugar), and process to a smooth paste. You can make this paste in any quantity you want and keep it in the refrigerator. It matures well over time.
Finishing off the menudo is a matter of personal taste. You can vary the proportions as you wish. Here is my suggestion. Place 4 cups of tripe and broth in a heavy saucepan. Add three cups of drained posole and 1 tablespoon (or more) of chile paste. Top up the mixture with broth. Bring to a simmer. Add 2 garlic cloves finely minced, 1 tablespoon of vinegar, 1 tablespoon of oregano, and 1 teaspoon of cumin seed. Let the soup simmer gently for about 20 minutes, to allow all the flavors to marry. Serve with the garnishes on the side for diners to help themselves.
OK, that’s satisfied my tripe fetish for a time.