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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Why Should You Celebrate Cinco De Mayo? You Really Shouldn't

Another Day For Americans To Overindulge And Get Drunk

I'm writing this late on May 5, so by the time you read it, it will already be too late for me to save you from celebrating yet another pointless holiday created by the American advertising industry with the purpose in mind of separating you from your hard earned dollars. I'm talking, of course, about Cinco de Mayo.

Now before you get your feathers in a ruffle, I didn't just spit on the Mexican flag. Largely because if you ask any Mexican you encounter on the street about their so-called “national holiday,” they won't have any idea what you're talking about. Cinco de Mayo is an American celebration promoted mostly by American beer companies in a month that's light on holidays as an excuse to party. Oh, I know May has other holidays, but Memorial Day has already been turned from a day of solemn remembrance to a day of grilling and swilling and who goes out and gets blasted on Mother's Day?

So what, exactly, IS Cinco de Mayo? Well, literally it's the fifth of May. You'd be surprised how many people don't know that. And why, exactly, is the fifth of May a day to celebrate? Well, duh! It's Mexican Independence Day! Isn't it? Isn't it? No,it isn't.

Well, okay, smart guy. If the Fifth of May isn't the Mexican equivalent of the Fourth of July, why do so many Mexicans celebrate it, huh? Why do Mexican restaurants all have big fiestas and Mexican bars all offer two-for-one drink specials, huh? The answer is for much the same reason as “everybody's Irish” on March 17. Except that St. Patrick's Day is an actual holiday in Ireland while Cinco de Mayo is practically non-existent in Mexico.

Here's the deal: Cinco de Mayo started out as a semi-important day to Mexican-Americans living in southern California. The reason why it was a semi-important day goes back to the American Civil War.

Napoleon III was a guy who had big dreams about reasserting French authority in Europe and around the world. And he was big on supporting other people's causes to help him achieve that goal. He allied with the British to defeat the Russians in the Crimean War. He lent his influence to Italian unification and gained some territory for France by doing so. He expanded the French presence in Asia. And he had an eye on Mexico.

See, Napoleon III was a supporter of the Confederacy, or at least of the Southern cotton crop, and he figured that he could give the South a hand by establishing a Second Mexican Empire under French protection. We don't need to go into the whole convoluted political situation. Suffice it to say that on May 5, 1862, a Mexican general by the name of Ignacio Zaragoza put a kink in the conquest by defeating a sizable French force near the town of Puebla. 462 French soldiers were killed while the Mexican army lost only 83. It was a limited victory at best. It slowed down the French intervention, but it was a far cry from Mexican independence, a state that had already been achieved on September 16, 1810 – the real Mexican Independence Day. Within a year following the Battle of Puebla, the French had whomped the Mexican Army and installed their puppet emperor, Maximilian I. Of course, he only lasted a couple of years and then everything went back to as normal as things got in Mexico. In the grand scheme of things, the Battle of Puebla, or Cinco de Mayo, accomplished two things: it showed that a determined “David” could beat a bigger and better equipped “Goliath.” And it proved to be the last time any country in the Americas has been invaded by a European military force. Cinco de Mayo was a minor victory in an obscure conflict that had nothing to do with Mexican independence.

So why do the Mexicans celebrate it? Outside the State of Puebla, they don't. It's not a national holiday, and although there are some observances and celebrations in Mexico and some schools are dismissed for the day, it took the Americans to really make a big bash of the whole thing. And that goes back to Civil War days, too.

California was a free state, a Union stronghold. And the prospect of a Confederate-friendly Mexico was pretty unsettling. There was a real possibility that the French, having established themselves in Mexico, would have aided the South, freed Southern ports of the Union blockade, and bolstered the cause of the Confederacy. So when a little band of Mexican soldiers gave a black eye to the mighty French army, it was a pretty big deal among Mexicans and Mexican supporters in California. They started the “Cinco de Mayo” ball rolling back in the 1860s. It picked up a little steam during the days of the Mexican civil rights movements in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s.

But it took Madison Avenue's “Mad Men” to make it the blowout it is today, especially the ones representing America's beer industry. Never ones to let a good excuse to get Americans falling-down drunk go by, they began capitalizing on the “celebratory” aspect of the day in the 1970s or thereabouts and it was soon added to the official calender of ad agencies everywhere. It has nothing to do with freedom or independence or national identity. Market driven greed and gluttony have made it yet another day for Americans to overindulge and get drunk.

I'm sorry. It just grinds my gears because I'm old. I clearly remember when "cinco de Mayo" was just the day between cuarto de Mayo and sexto de Mayo. It was just another day then and as far as I'm concerned, it's just another day now.

Personally, I'm thinking of writing a letter to Budweiser and Coors and other brewers promoting the Battle of Zorndorf as a candidate for a good beer drinking holiday. It was a little mix up between the Prussians and the Russians that happened on August 25, 1758 as part of the Seven Years War. It was a politically insignificant battle that left a total of nearly thirty-five thousand dead and both sides claiming victory. August is a month bereft of holidays. So I say let's go for it! I hereby nominate "Der F├╝nfundzwanzigsten August" (The 25th of August) for our next pointless holiday. We could all don lederhosen and clank steins of beer as we shout German or Russian slogans. Woo-hoo! I think we've got a winner here!

In the meantime, Happy Cinco de Mayo! I hope the ring the ad agencies slipped through your nose isn't too uncomfortable.

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