One hundred and fifty five years ago today a poorly equipped Mexican army defeated Napolean III’s French troops at the Battle of Puebla.
The victory, part of the Franco-Mexican War, was more symbolic than actual. A year later a French force of 30,000 defeated the Mexican army, captured Mexico City, and set up the short-lived Second Mexican Empire.
The symbolism persisted, though, as Mexicans celebrated Cinco de Mayo (‘Fifth of May’), casting the French defeat as a symbol of Mexican national unity and pride.
All this goes some way to explaining why many people in Mexico’s largest neighbor will spend today eating tacos, drinking tequila, and wearing questionable sombreros. Cinco de Mayo may be a big deal in Mexico, but across the border it’s a wider, and widely observed, celebration of Mexican-American culture.
It’s mostly news to me, of course. I’d been educated on the day by my wife, who grew up in Los Angeles, but I didn’t realize its all-pervasive sweep until I relocated to the States.
Thoughts of Mexico, and food, and the U.S., today bring me back to the first time I visited the country. Back in the 1990s I travelled to San Francisco for a short visit, staying with friends. My lodgings were in the Mission District, and my staple meal was the burrito.
Not just any burrito, mind you. Without knowing its legendary reputation, my friends and I ate daily at La Tacqueria, at Mission and 25th.
The burrito was my one decent meal a day – loaded with rice, refried beans, and meat, and accompanied by a bag of chips, it covered most of the food groups I needed. A steaming, satisfying, beef-laden madeleine, it was so good that I returned with my wife, on a visit to San Francisco years later, to sample it again.
I’m closer to La Tacqueria than previously nowadays, but I’m still a 90-minute flight from that burrito. I also live in a town that offers not just burritos, but burritos and beyond. And so, this Cinco de Mayo, I’ll be doing the (to many) unthinkable – celebrating with a sushirrito.
So, feliz Cinco de Mayo. Or, itadakimasu!