¡Happy Cinco De Mayo!

Robin Seeley  Culinary Institute of Post Street’s students Leila, Enzo, Julian and Roan show off their piñata cookies, maracas, real mini piñatas and new-found appreciation for Cinco de Mayo.

¡Happy Cinco De Mayo!

 

What do the Parthenon in Athens, Greece and Mexican-American celebrations of the fifth of May have in common? Both commemorate unlikely victories of vastly outnumbered men defending their native turf against powerful invading armies. The Parthenon was built in 490 B.C. to honor the Athenians’ victory at the Battle of Marathon. In that epic struggle, a small band of citizen-soldiers defeated the most powerful military force in the world, the Persian Empire. 

On May 5, Mexican Americans celebrate the miraculous Mexican victory against the previously undefeated, much-better-equipped French invaders at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. Historians say the outcome of that battle may have influenced the American Civil War, which had begun the year before. 

A French victory could have emboldened the French to continue pressing north. The invaders were already motivated to intervene on behalf of the Confederacy in order to keep southern ports open to trade. Indeed, the Union Blockade was an important factor in the north’s victory. After the humiliating defeat at Puebla, the French army had more to worry about than a shipping blockade.

One hundred fifty-four years later, Cinco de Mayo is still such a big deal here in Alta California that many gringos assume it’s Mexican Independence Day. But Mexicans have learned to expect bloopers like that from gringos.
Tip for gringos: To spare yourself ethnic embarrassment, don’t ever confuse Sept. 16 — the day the Mexicans celebrate their Independence from Spain — with Cinco de Mayo.

Mexican Americans in California have consistently celebrated Cinco de Mayo since 1863, after getting word of the unlikely, yet decisive victory at Puebla (General Zaragoza couldn’t tweet about it, so it took a while for the news to arrive!). For the ninth session of the Culinary Academy of Post Street (CAPS), we decided to keep on having that party.

First, we decorated my kitchen with traditional Mexican papel picado (literally, “peckered paper”), brightly colored tissue paper rectangles with vivid images cut into them. After stringing up the technicolor tissue along the ceiling, Leila, Enzo, Julian, and Roan all donned sombreros. Eager to set the right tone, we played Cielito Lindo, a traditional Mexican song. 

None of the kids speak Spanish, but I can confirm that the chorus of “Ai, yai, yai, yai, canta y no llores!” is easy to learn and sing with great passion.

But since we’re a culinary academy and not a kids’ choir, we needed a festive cooking project worthy of the holiday. Nothing says fiesta like bashing a colorful fake animal with a stick, so we decided to make cute little piñatas out of cookie dough and frosting instead of paper maché and cardboard. Whacking our mini-piñatas with baseball bats would have been overkill, so we used spoons instead. Our rainbow-striped donkey cookies had stomachs stuffed full of candy, just like real piñatas! We used mini M & M’s, which cascaded out dramatically once the burro bellies were breached. 

Our educational treats may have been donkeys, not dogs, but the larger lesson of Cinco de Mayo was still clear: sometimes the underdog wins. Although it didn’t end well for the defenseless piñatas in my kitchen, we’ll never forget the example of the brave, outnumbered patriots of Greece and Mexico, who continue to inspire millions to this day.

 

Robin Seeley is head mistress at the Culinary Institute of Post Street.