Teach with a Feast: The Festive Family’s Guide to Cinco de Mayo

Cinco de Mayo is an important holiday for citizens of Mexico and the United States. Typically an upbeat party, the Fifth of May celebration is also a great opportunity for parents to help their children learn a bit about Mexican heritage. Consider incorporating some of these ideas into your Cinco de Mayo event.

Battle of Puebla
The Mexican people’s path to freedom was not easy. Although officially a republic from 1821 on, factions within Mexico frequently controlled the country and its populace. By 1862, a group of elitists hoped to secure control of the country by installing a monarch with the help of the French emperor. The strong French army invaded the country at Veracruz and began a march to Mexico City in the spring of 1862.

On May 5, 1862, at the city of Puebla, 6,500 well-armed French soldiers were met by a poorly-armed militia of 4,500 Mexican heroes led by General Zaragoza. Despite being overmatched, the Mexican patriots defeated the French army. The extraordinary Battle of Puebla is remembered because it symbolizes the Mexican drive for liberty and self-rule.

This eventful battle also had a significant impact on the American Civil War (1861-1865). The Confederacy of the southern United States was hoping to have the strong French as its southern ally. The defeat of the French army on that fateful day ruined the Confederacy’s best hope to defeat the Union.

Cinco de Mayo Celebrations
In Puebla, revelers organize parades where people dress up as Mexican and French soldiers and reenact the battle. Vendors line the parade route selling patriotic themed knickknacks, clothing and traditional foods such as tacos arabes and chalupa.

In the U.S., private parties in a home or a restaurant are more common; however, a few cities with large Latino populations, like San Diego, Denver and Portland, promote festivals with parades and other activities. The food is much more likely to be Mexican-American, such as nachos, enchiladas and tacos, as opposed to Pueblan fare.

Throwing a Party
The best Cinco de Mayo parties incorporate the history and traditions of Mexico. Decorating in the colors of the Mexican flag, red, white and green, helps remind revelers of the Mexican people’s long-fought road to independence. Having the kids help by making decorations with some of these great craft ideas will reinforce the culture and history lesson.

The kids will also love to make, and break, a pinata. If you have the space, organize a Mayan Ball Game: Strongly attach a Hula Hoop vertically to a high branch. The game is played essentially like soccer, except the only place for both teams to score is the hoop. Don’t forget to tell the kids that in ancient Mexico, the losers of the game lost their lives!

Music is also important. A selection of songs from Latino artists will reflect the theme. A few not to miss include Los Lobos, The Mambo Kings, Marc Anthony and Carlos Santana.

Most parties serve chips and salsa, guacamole and margaritas. Other traditional foods include horchata and mole poblano.

Horchata (from Ingrid Hoffman) (serves 4)
A delicious non-alcoholic beverage the kids can help make.

Place in a blender: 1 cup long grain white rice, uncooked, 1 qt warm water

Blend until the rice is broken up but not powdery. Let sit in the fridge overnight or at least 6 hours. Strain it through a fine sieve, preferably lined with cheesecloth so all rice solids are removed.

Place the rice water back in the blender with:

  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  • 2 tsp almond extract
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 cup sugar

Blend until smooth and well combined. Serve over ice with cinnamon sticks and a sprinkle of cinnamon.

Mole Poblano (from Tyler Florence) (serves 4-6)
As you’ve probably guessed, Tyler is not Mexican; however, his recipe is clear and easy to follow and, from our research, appears to be authentic.

In a dry skillet over medium heat, tear into pieces and toast until they change colors (about 2 minutes)
2 Ancho chilies, dried, stem and seeds removed
2 Anaheim chilies, dried, stem and seeds removed
2 Chipotle chilies, dried, stem and seeds removed

Remove them to a bowl with 1/2 cup golden raisins

Cover with hot water and let sit for 30 minutes; when the peppers and raisins are soft, drain but reserve the liquid. Put in the same skillet, again over medium heat
1/4 cup almonds, whole
1/4 cup sesame seeds
1 TBL black peppercorns, whole
1 Mexican cinnamon stick, broken in pieces
1 tsp Mexican oregano, dried
4 sprig thyme (leaves only)

Toast for 2 minutes, remove to a spice grinder (or small food processor) and grind until powdery. Next, put in the skillet over medium heat
3 TBL olive oil
2 onions, sliced
3 clove garlic, chopped
2 Serrano peppers, seeds and stem removed

Cook for about 5 minutes or until the onions are browned. Add
6 plum tomatoes, chopped

Continue to cook over medium heat until everything is soft. Place the veggies in a blender with the spice powder, the soaked raisins and dried peppers and

2 oz bittersweet Mexican chocolate, chopped

Blend until smooth, adding some of the raisin/chile liquid until the sauce is smooth. You will have twice as much sauce as you need (4 cups), but 1/2 (2 cups) may be frozen for future use.

In a separate dish, place
1 lg chicken, cut into 10 pieces

Pour over it the juice from 1 lemon. Season each piece with salt and pepper. Heat over medium-high heat in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet

3 TBL olive oil

When warm, add the chicken and brown it on all sides; when browned, remove the chicken to a plate (try to leave as much oil in the pan as you can). Pour 2 cups of the mole into the pan with the remaining oil. Simmer for 5 minutes. Add
2 cup chicken stock

And return the chicken to the pan. Simmer it, covered, for about 20-25 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through. Make a garnish for the chicken by placing in a bowl
1 sm onion, sliced thin
4 radishes, sliced thin
1 TBL lime juice (juice from 1 lime)
2 TBL olive oil

Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Serve the cooked chicken with steamed or pilaf rice, the radish garnish and some fresh cilantro leaves.

Make time this May 5th to truly celebrate Cinco de Mayo and discuss its history and significance with your children. With good food and lots of fun, the lesson of the Battle of Puebla will leave your kids with a lasting impression about how Mexican heritage has contributed to the culture and prosperity of all of us.

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