It’s Almost Cinco De Mayo

A Cause to Celebrate 

In general los Mexicanos, y los Mexican Americans  are always down for  a good fiesta. We can lay out a beautiful scene and cook a delicious spread! Verdad? Con mi familia, we usually celebrated the main events like weddings, quinces, baptismals and Navidad and yes Accion de Gracias, can’t leave out Thanksgiving! After that, other federal or famous days went unnoticed with my familia, my apa  worked Monday- Saturday and sometimes on Sunday, all that to say that Cinco de Mayo did not stir up a fiesta around our house. Que si es un poco extraño, strange, because my apa loved to talk about the Mexican history, especially the Revolucion. You know, the Cinco de Mayo story is a great one and I think it should be a national holiday in Mexico, pero no lo es!

A Gringo Celebration?

Do you know why it’s such a happy occasion for us, the Americanos? Pues, I do now. Con mucha pena, as embarrassing as it is, I confess that I just barely uncovered a few of the details. Pero, con mucho gusto I pass along my few history findings on Cinco de Mayo in this short and sweet history lesson.

The Battle of Puebla that affected us

The Battle of Puebla is observed primarily in one city of Mexico called…. Puebla, where the pleito took place. Here in the United States, communities with large Mexican American populations celebrate with an almost Grito zest. However, it is not about Mexico’s independence, but rather, Mexico’s perseverance. The United States was indirectly affected because of Mexico’s small triumph. 

Mexico’s Struggle 

After it’s long and difficult fight for independence, Mexico struggled so much that it became financially bankrupt. Mexico’s presidente, Benito Juarez found a solution by stopping payments going out to their foriegn debtors, que facil verdad?  Nope! It wasn’t that easy, the Europeans wanted their dinero.  Three powers met to see how they would deal with those Mexicanos! Spain, the U K and France devised a plan to invade Mexico. They sent an intimidating military presence to bully the Mexicans into paying their debts. France led the campaign since it had greater aspirations through this attack. Napoleon III was looking to establish a stronghold in North America through Mexico! Esperate! it gets more intense. As soon as the other countries saw his grand scheme, se arrepintieron

 Napoleon Connects with the Southern States

Although Napoleon was now on his own, he was confident that he could easily take care of Mexico and accomplish a French stronghold. But listen, this was only part of the bronca, he had visions to dominate in North America!

 Napoleon had a close connection with our Southern States. He was aiding the Confederacy during the Civil War! Yes,  asi fue, Napoleon supplied them with weapons in exchange for cotton which France’s economy heavily relied on. Imaginate! Napoleon was busy trying to conquer the world while Abraham Lincoln was trying to bring about Emancipation and reuniting the divided nation. 

The Battle in Puebla aids the Civil War Cause

 Yendo al grano. The bottom line is that the battle in Puebla was a classic underdog victory story. My apa loved these kinds of stories! The French were a superior military force, while the Mexicans with their humble state of enlisted and volunteer army had more will and perseverance than might. The French went in confident and well armed,  the battle raged  from sunup to sundown, but neither General Zaragoza nor his men would back down. When the French General realized that more of his men were going down in the battle, he had no choice but to retreat, Victory!  As I write this historic event I can picture my apa telling me  accounts of the Revolucion de Mexico, his eyes always glistened proud when talked about Mexico’s battle for independence. He was an underdog advocate, he strongly believed that one must confront that bully no matter what!  He backed conviction up referring to his own victory against the Bully in his life. 

The victory in Puebla gave Mexico a surge of confidence as it forged on. Napoleon was stopped in his tracks for a moment. He was prevented from helping the Confederacy with relief supplies and weapons while the Union army was able to regroup and gain strength. Meanwhile, en El Norte, established Mexican Americans citizens that lived in free states were relieved for the reprieve because it would indirectly aid in the Civil war cause. The Union could march forward with its vision for Emancipation.

Photo by Ricardo Esquivel on Pexels.com

Sin duda! A good old fashion David vs Goliath victory. It was a cause for celebration. Those early fiestas included honorable mention of  General Ignacio Zaragosa who stood his ground and faced that bully! 

The story may have been forgotten but the fiesta goes on

Through the years the battle in Puebla or it’s historic significance has gotten buried, but in Mexican American communities, Cinco de Mayo is a continual celebration of Mexican culture. Traditions such as Mariachis, Ballet Folklorico and delicious Mexican food are celebrated around our states.

Que Sigue La Pachanga

 However you layout your menu for the day’s festivities make sure to include plenty of salsa and guacamole for all the unavoidable tortilla chips. After that, feasts range from tacos, chalupas, enchiladas and somewhere you’ll see some carne asada on the grill. Of course we cannot enter or leave a Cinco de Mayo feast without having a tamal, verdad? Y acuerdense  “Si se Puede”

Photo by Ella Olsson on Pexels.com

Celebrate with Pozole

What is Pozole?

As simple as it is, Pozole is our go to festive food. If you live in border cities, or states, like California with a high population of Mexicans and Mexican Americans, you will be surrounded, entrenched in Mexican food. With the popular meals like tacos, burritos and the comfort foods of Mexican traditions; like tamales and pozole. Let me make it clear, pozole is a highly celebrated holiday tradition. Pozole for Christmas, pozole on birthdays, and pozole to ring in the New Year!

Is it a soup?

What is pozole? I hate to call it a soup, but Wikipedia and a few others sources called it soup or a stew?!! I feel that judgment from all of those people who put pozole high on their list of  special occasion foods. How could I even write it? There’s more. Out there in the world wide web, I saw it described as a Mexican corn soup (Oh My Goodness! SMH)

(I remember, my son’s teacher warned him about where he got his info, and every time I search I can almost feel her disapproval at my source. Maybe I’ll just stick to my wealth of experience as I write about pozole)

Un Caldo

Pozole is made with either pork, chicken or beef (My friend Inez taught me her recipe that combined all three meats, I do enjoy that three meat pozole, but traditionally most people stick to one meat per pot).

I’m looking around me, a little worried that someone’s gonna catch me as I write, because I have to succumb to that description of pozole, caldo (is that better than the English version; soup?) What would you call pork and grano, that’s the hominy, simmering in a dry California chile sauce and meat broth, sprinkled with spices? It is not a thick sauce, it’s soupy. (Yea, that’s why I’m settling with the soup description) It is another one of those humble meals that goes a long way, our families tend to be big and Mexicans love to feed everybody! 

Tamales y Pozole

Many of our feasts are tamales and pozole (has a nice ring huh? I can almost hear my sons coming up with a little jingle. “Tamales y pozole, tamales y pozole, and a happy new year!) Pozole has a nice aroma as it’s cooking and the sauce, which is a soup apparently, has a nice spicy flavor, garlic and cumin enhance the flavor.  

Still, it must be garnished properly for the full effect. A nice bowl of steaming pozole topped with finely chopped cabbage and cilantro, diced onion and sliced ravanos; something about the after bite that radishes add to the pozole makes them a nice garnish. Sprinkle on some limon y sal, pass the tortillas, y “Entrale!”

Then go back for seconds, mi Ama would have it no other way.

A Well Balanced Tamal

Wrapping up 2020 with another tamal post. ‘Tis the season is it not?

How Much Masa is enough?

Recently my focus on tamales has heightened since it’s Christmas time. One of the great debates about tamales is the masa to filling ratio. While tasty masa is important to the overall quality of a tamal, too much of it can drown out the flavor and spices of the filling. I find myself in a quandary; do I acknowledge the reasonable argument that equal portions lends to a well rounded tamal experience, or do I stay loyal to the tradition of my Ama: Tasty chubby tamales with a savory filling.

California Tamales

I grew up eating my mothers “big fat” tamales that had to be tied at each end to keep them together. Huge tamales with a thick layer of masa filled with chicken cooked in anaheim chiles and strong spices of comino and pepper seasonings. They were embellished with a carrot and potato stick, a sprig of cilantro, a jalapeno strip and of course a green olive embedded somewhere in it. (Try tying one of those Fattys with the wet corn husk ties, my fingers just got stiff with the memory)  l’m not sure if it’s a California, or a Baja California thing. I think it was more like a metamorphosis, as my mother settled first in Mexicali, Baja California from Jalisco Mexico. Then, after thirteen years and four more kids the family came across to the Imperial Co. California. However it happened, so long as the masa was tasty, I didn’t mind the huge tamales, especially the next day and mi ama would fry those tamales in oil and let them simmer until they got a little crunchy. She’d serve the crispy tamal with fried eggs and refried beans. I would top them with her salsa or maybe some jalapenos. This might not sound too healthy, but my taste buds are swelling with delight and my mind swarms with the images of my sweet mama serving her family on Christmas morning.  

A Different Tamal

You can imagine the stiffness I felt as my cunada, an “out-law” (as my husband’s family likes to call all of us in-laws) schooled me on the technique of a thinner layer of masa . She gently informed me that people actually preferred a skinny tamal! “The trick was just enough masa so as to not overpower the delicious meat filling.” 

Of course, in my struggle for loyalty to tradition, and to my mother, I resisted the idea for a time. Could people who made skinny tamales be trusted? Were they not cheating the tamal lover out of the tasty masa? Or worse! Maybe, they didn’t want to bother with making nice, smooth masa?. 

Masa to filling ratio is “just enough tasty masa” to be able to stand alone if it happens to face those taste buds first. Along with the fact that most tamal lovers want to cut into a tamal and see it filled with their delicious filling.

Tradition lives on!!!

I’ve accepted the technique of spreading the right amount of masa and recognize it as a legit method. I appreciate the lesson from my cunada, a true tamalera, who has expanded my horizons as far as making tamales goes. However, my loyalty to mi Ama is fixed. Tradition bids me to also make my tamales gorditos with flavorful masa that has good texture filled with a delicious savory chicken; estilo mi ama. 

As they get eaten, I am glad that my mom’s tamales live on.

Tamale Conversations With My Dad

Good Memories are essential

One beautiful sunny San Diego afternoon, I took Dad out to get his vitamin D; sunshine and fresh air. My apa is 96 years old and suffers from dementia  and needs full time care. This day he was enjoying the birds and the garden. Right there, in the midst of the birds and the butterflies,  all of a sudden, it hit me that I knew nothing about my father’s tamal experiences!

(Ya se, Ya se! I know you’re wondering why tamales are so important. Well because, tamales have become quite relevant to me lately as I’ve discovered “purchasing tamales” I feel your SMH disbelief, for this Mexican American girl, but I’ve become acquainted with Texas Lone Star Tamales, and I’ve tasted and enjoyed the luxury of eating delicious tamales that I didn’t labor over.)

 I had to know something about mi apas tamal experiences. How was that possible? Maiz, masa, tortillas, these were an important part of my dad’s daily life. I’m sure there had to be a tamal story in all those memories.

Traigan los tamales!

I threw the tamal conversation out, pushing dad to unwrap those memories.  

“Apa do you like tamales? Did your mother; mi abuela Rosario, make them?” 

Of course, I knew she had to make tamales, I felt silly to even ask.

 Dad drew his eyes away from the chirping birds to answer the obvious. 

“Yes I do, and she did.” 

He turned his head back to the singing of the birds, I could tell tamales didn’t start up the engine of his memory train, he needed another boost.

“Apa, what was it like?” 

He looked at me like I was from Mars. Didn’t little boys or young men pay attention to the details of making tamales? (Probably not) Weren‘t tamales a big deal in his world? Of course they were! Maiz was an essential necessity for survival still, 1930s in Mexico was exceptionally difficult for raising a large family. (Maybe he just forgot the conversation?)

“You know, what was it like when your mom made tamales? Did you help?”

 “I don’t really know. I remember she was busy. When she made them, she was up and down, kind of everywhere. Look! Those look like crows, chattering away, busy trying to get their meal. Do you hear them?” 

Now what? That was it? If that was the whole tamal story it was pretty bland. What exactly went with all of the busyness he saw during tamal making? Where were all the details? I kept envisioning my own memories, my mother leaning over the olla filled with masa, a huge pot that she was almost too short to stand over. Stirring and kneading as she prepared it. Did the smell of cooking meats fill his mother’s cooking area? 

Tamales Blancos

“Mmmm, what kind of tamales did she make?”

Dad stared at the birds with regret, sad as he remembered his ama.

 “Pork. Well, I don’t really know, maybe chicken, yes there had to be chicken. Definitely she made pork though.”

Now we both listened to the singing of the birds getting lost in those tamal moments.

 “You’re probably right, but maybe she  made chicken tamales like my mom did. Which ones did you like best?”

Now, he seemed to be rebooting those long term memories, evoking those images of his mother making and serving tamales.

Tamales Blancos (Does that mean gringo tamales?)

“ Well, I’m sure they were all very good. But the ones I remember clearly are those tamales blancos for sure. 

Yes! I struck gold! Oooh, my abuela had her own special tamales.

“Oh yea? White tamales. They didn’t have any kind of chile sauce huh? 

My father’s usually serious face lit up with a smirk on his face and a twinkle in his eyes.

 “That’s right. No sauce. No meat. Just the masa, (Wow! What would those “masa to filling” ratio police say to that?!) kneaded and prepared with a perfect amount of salt!”

What?! These were mi abuelas special tamales? These are the ones he remembered most?

“White tamales; plain salted masa salted wrapped in the corn husk. Why did she do that?”

The smile remained on his face as he explained.

  “Those were the ones mi ama made for us kids, a lot of mouths to feed.”

With nine children to feed and wanting to be hospitable to her vecinos she had to stretch the wealth, Ah! my abuelas tamales blancos, were a practical meal that kept everyone fed.

“ Did you like them?” 

Dad looked around and lowered his voice.

 “Not really, but I made the most of it. After all, that was what was offered. She would have us line up to get our meal; in this case our tamal, and we’d go off to eat it”

I was kind of feeling sorry for him, imagining that I probably wouldn’t have eaten them.

  “Doesn’t sound too exciting to eat a cooked ball of masa.” 

“She served them with coffee. (There it is again, coffee for the kids, yikes!) It was the only way I could get it down.”

“Wow dad! So you never had the meat tamales she made?”

Dad’s eyes sparked with mischief and his eyebrows danced as he remembered those tamales. 

“I did. A la desquidada, on the sly, when she wasn’t looking I’d snatch a meat one. It was easy since there were eight other kids distracting her for a tamal. Those were the good tamales. Si, they were pork and I didn’t need coffee.”

Manuel Zepeda (December 1924 – December 2020)

O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?
1 Corinthians 15:55 KJV