Chef Shaw Lash, below XOCO restaurant in Chicago

Having drinks last month with Shaw Lash, a Chicago chef, after a steller meal at Frontera Grill (Shaw works for executive chef Rick Bayless, renowned Mexican cuisine authority), and the subject of Cinco de Mayo came up. Shaw, who had a few month earlier showed me how they make their own chocolate, above, shook her head and said, “Don’t get me started.” But she started anyway. I said, “Want to write a guest post for my site?”

Just after Shaw sent me her post below this advert dropped into my mailbox. It seemed appropriate to lead with here. I'm actually a fan of Fox and Hound, where we play pool weekly.

By Shaw Lash

I grew up in Texas, a state that shares a 1,200-mile-long border with Mexico, and “carne asada” and slushy-swirled margaritas were as ubiquitous as longhorns and oil rigs. As a family, we’d take vacations as far past the border as we could get in a comfortable day’s drive.  We’d walk across the bridge, never with passports, to shop, eat, drink and enjoy just spending an afternoon in one of the warmest, friendliest nations I’ve had the pleasure of visiting.

In Texas, Cinco de Mayo is, of course, the most important national holiday for all Mexicans—right? By the end of April, all of my favorite dive Tex-Mex joints would have proudly unfurled their Mexican pride banners, sponsored by Corona, Bohemia or Tecate, and fervently covered every surface in the red, green and white.

So, when I moved to a small mountain town in the state of Guanajuato a few years ago to work as a personal chef and writer, I was confused when the end of April rolled around and it was a footnote in the local newspaper, a mention on the evening broadcast.  A remembrance of a battle for Puebla?  What battle for Puebla? Sure, if you lived in Puebla, you were probably well-schooled on La Batalla de Puebla, and the “David versus Goliath” nature of the Mexican army’s victory over Napoleon III’s troops in 1862, but I hadn’t. I thought of the holiday as the best day to score drink specials on pitchers of frozen margaritas and frosty micheladas.

Turns out the “battle” was and wasn’t important—it was important if you consider the odds the undermanned, outgunned Mexican army overcame to defeat the most powerful army at the time, yet it was also irrelevant if you consider the Mexican army later lost to Napoleon and was ruled briefly by French-appointed Emperor Maximilian I (who was summarily executed several years after that by the Mexican army, so who really won?). But the significance of the “holiday” grew when major beer companies and tequila brands successfully capitalized on the joyous, celebratory nature of “being Mexican.” Cinco de Mayo was first celebrated in California the year immediately following the battle by migrant farm communities longing for a piece of home—but there are now over 160 different “official” celebrations in over 20 states.  Why do we care?  More importantly, should we care?

We care because we aren’t lucky enough to be in Mexico.  More to the point, we care because we long to be in Mexico.  I challenge you not to smile if you see jolly, round mariachis break into “La Cucaracha” and call for rounds of tequila shots, or feel euphoric if someone invites you to join in a home-cooked mole feast—and packaging and selling that rush of serotonin isn’t rocket science.  If you know the nature of the campaign, it’s actually quite clever, brilliant even.

Beer companies, tequila distillers, tortilla makers, every family-owned taqueria from East Los Angeles to Hoboken rides the wave.  Longing to be in Mexico is big business—and I’m just as much a follower as the next.  I feel fortunate enough to have lived and worked in Mexico for a couple years, in the central highlands where national pride and a strong sense of cultural identity runs high, but millions of workers in the United States leave their homeland for most of their adult lives, and only come back when they’ve “made it.”

To be at home in a foreign country isn’t easy.  And more to the point, a foreign country that is increasingly seeking to criminalize or question your commitment to earn that living that you’ve left your family to seek.  You kind of need Cinco de Mayo to rally around, I suppose.  A day to feel celebrated and embraced, a day to focus on making a pot of pollo con mole and sharing it with anyone you meet, as I used to do in my hometown in Mexico.  A day to sell the feeling my family was seeking when we walked across the Rio Grande in Texas all those afternoons, to eat enchiladas and relax in a plaza for hours over a café con leche.  So by all means, embrace it. Just appreciate it for the two things it is. A celebration of being Mexican.  And a brilliant marketing gimmick.

Shaw Lash is the Research and Development Chef for Frontera Grill/Topolobampo/XOCO in Chicago.  She lived briefly in the state of Guanajuato before being invited to join Team Bayless, and still always considers Texas her true home.

If you liked this post on Cinco de Mayo, check out these other links:

© 2012 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2012 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved

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44 Wonderful responses to “Cinco De Mayo—Should It Be “Celebrated””

  • Austin Val

    Like most everything else, cinco de mayo (not capitalized in Spanish) has become commercialized. But consider the parallels to the Battle of the Alamo, which makes the battle of Puebla particularly poignant to those of us who wrote reports on it in our Spanish classes in the ’70s in San Antonio.

  • Natalie Luffer Sztern

    If we were to stop celebrating all the commercialized holidays then what would happen to christmas, kwanza and god forbid nobody willingly puts themselves through eating boxes of matzo ….

  • DiggingDogFarm

    Yes, what ‘holiday’ hasn’t become commercialized and tainted by marketing gimmicks? Even President’s Day is a time for big sales!!! LOL

    Make the best of it!

  • Kathy

    O…kay? I’m not trying to be argumentative, but I kind of don’t get the point of what she’s trying to say. That Cinco de Mayo has become commercialized? Are there people who don’t know this? I live in Texas too, and around here it’s kind of like the Mexican version of St. Patrick’s Day. On St. Pat’s you eat colcannon (and/or corned beef, if you insist) and drink Guinness. On Cinco de Mayo you grill fajitas and drink margaritas or a Bohemia. On Fat Tuesday you eat red beans & rice and drink sazeracs. I guess I fail to see the problem here.

    • Kyle

      I’m with you Kathy. I fail to see any point in this post. I, like you, am from a border state (San Diego, CA) and don’t know a single person who doesn’t realize that Cinco de Mayo is an over-commercialized “ethnic” holiday a-la St. Patrick’s Day. People just want an excuse to eat (hopefully) great food and drink festive drinks.

    • ruhlman

      I think that Shaw (not to mention her boss) care about authenticity and knowledge and appreciating our varying cultures and the fact the the frigging Fox and Hound, a sports bar in Cleveland is advertising it is a sign that the holiday no longer means anything at all! (Nothing against fox and hound, I play pool there weekly and drink our local Great Lakes Dortmunder.) Did either of you know why it was celebrated in the first place? I didn’t, but again, I’m from Cleveland. Our memories go back mainly to John Elway and Mean Joe Greene.

      • chinos

        what’s this obsession with authenticity? if you enjoy the holiday, keep at it! in a cosmopolitan society, no one should claim ‘ownership’ over a holiday or tradition so as to upbraid someone else’s enjoyment of it.

  • Rich

    Don’t wait until cinco de mayo to celebrate Mexico. There is a lot of great food in Mexico as Ruhlman experienced in Ixtapa and Bayless shows in Baja California on his TV series One Plate at a Time. If you can’t make it to Mexico, then go to your local hispanic grocery store and get all the stuff to make tacos and throw yourself a little fiesta. ¡Órale!

  • Brian

    I lived in Mazatlán for 6 years (got married, started family, we came back to the states, etc.). There are many observed holidays – September 16th and November 20th being the biggest non religious days. Almost no one even knew about cinco de mayo. Some thought it was an american holiday when we go out to eat mexican food and drink cerveza or margaritas.

  • Allen

    I too saw the CNN post about Cinco de Mayo, never met anyone who actually knew what the day was celebrating, but like all of the fiestas I’ve been to in Texas, does it really matter?
    To me it’s about the start of a new growing season when garlic is starting to let you know it’s been hiding in th ground since fall and all the greens are in abundance. And is throwing a Mexican theme on anything culinary ever a bad thing? I made 3 different kinds of chorizo and salsa width some very fresh veggies and the some of the chorizo was from Rick’s show on chorizo (green chorizo), using the Spanish paprika drippings to sauté more veggies. And of course pear mezcal margaritas.
    So if you want to celebrate the true Mexican Holliday, make it Sept 15…or is it Sept 16? Who the hell cares, make it Sept 15 and 16! Like they do in Texas, any reason to celebrate and put a Mexican theme on it with friends and family is always a good thing!
    Thank you Shaw and Rick for all the good things you’ve taught us from south of the border.

  • Tags

    Is Corona Rita the new blue-faced, guitarra playing mascot of Cinco de Mayo?

  • BJ

    The unfortunate part is that we celebrate a certain holiday with the excuse to eat and drink. Like we can’t eat fajita’s any other day? Do you even know what cinco de mayo is about? How about St. Patrick’s Day ? What else did Patrick do beside rid Ireland of snakes ? I see commercialization taking over with green hats, greens t-shirts, sombrero S&P shakers, etc. Do a little research, folks. I wouldn’t expect everyone to be a book of knowledge, but have an idea what you are helping to celebrate or honor. The commercialization just makes it another shallow observation fed by making money selling useless junk that often has no association with the holiday itself.

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  • Randy Martinez

    Shaw, you really should have talked to some Mexicans. The roll out of the banners for Cinco De Mayo is not for Mexicans. It is for Americans and Mexican Americans (the third and fourth who never go to Mexico) who want to get shit faced at the local bar. The real holiday for Mexicans is 16th of September. And for the Mexicans who do celebrate the holiday, it is a holiday, like Super Bowl Sunday (yes, it is a National Holiday). Secondly, what you described as Mexican Hospitality is like that EVERY DAY. For a gringo like me who married into a Texas hispanic family, that is the first thing that I learned. If a Mexican family invited you into their home, you are going home with between one and three plates of food no questions asked. Mexican people are the most kindest, open hearted people out there. They do not need a holiday to celebrate family. I am sorry ma’am-I do not get the point of your article.

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  • Goober

    The fuddy-duddies have started a war on cinco de mayo.
    Someone alert Bill O’Reilly.

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