You can’t get much more American than the Fifth of May, better known as Cinco de Mayo. Cinco de Mayo’s origins are not surprisingly Mexican and come from the State of Puebla, where they celebrate on May 5: El Día de la Batalla de Puebla, commemorating the Mexican army’s victory over the French in 1862 at the Battle of Puebla. As many of you know by now, Cinco de Mayo isn’t Mexico’s independence day, let alone national holiday – yet here in America it has grown into a holiday not just for Mexicans in quite an American way. The origins of the American celebration go back to the year after the battle, with Mexicans and Latinos living in California being the first to celebrate in the US. What has followed is what happens to most things that get tossed into the cultural blender that is the United States – mutations and mixing ensue and what emerges is wholly American. So instead of some tame holiday remembering a battle, what we now have is a day for Mexican restaurants to make out like Irish bars (and every other bar) on St. Patricks day. Cafeterias get to serve tacos, bars stock up on tequila and in general a lot of people get to have a good time.
This isn’t that different that what has happened with what we think of as Mexican food has gone through. This past week the NY Times had an article (How the Taco Gained in Translation) discussing a new book Taco USA by Gustavo Arellano about how Mexican food became part of the mainstream American cuisine. I haven’t read the book yet, some of the authors ideas I think I am going to disagree with (he has a problem with Diana Kennedy and Rick Bayless – without having read all of what he says about it yet I think I am going to disagree there – as I think educating Americans on non-fusion, regional Mexican cooking is a good thing). The book still does sound interesting for its accounts of how Americans (primarily white Americans) have been able to take Mexican ideas and turn them into successful American staples (fritos, tortilla chips, salsa and of course Taco Bell).
As we continue to fuse more and more cultures and cuisines into our repertoire (think Korean tacos, Califonia rolls and all our sushi with cream cheese, Chinese American food and heck spaghetti and meatballs) and continue the melding of older ones. The new Taco Bell Doritos Locos Tacos – which despite what I may thought about the thing based on their advertising- is apparently doing amazingly well and may be a bit more complicated in its origins than I would have guessed. Soft tacos from Mexico turned into crispy fried tacos and tortilla chips here in America, where years later down in Tijuana street food vendors turned Tostitos corn chips into a dish called Tostilocos: a base of Tostitos chips covered with things like jicama, pickled pig skins, tamarind candies, peanuts, cucumbers, fruit, chilies or anything else one could think of (See Tostilocos, Tijuana Street Food, Hits the Mainstream – NY Times). That kind of miss mash then turns around and comes back to us as Locos Tacos as Taco Bell.
So this brings me back to Cinco de Mayo and what made me think of all this in the first place – the following ad I saw from Donatos. What could be more American?