Celebrating identity with food

Cinco de Mayo is a time to prepare traditional meals

April 30, 2003|By Donna M. Owens | Donna M. Owens,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Growing up in a Mexican-American household in California, Lea Ybarra was steeped in cultural traditions as rich as the flavorful sauces that simmered on the stove.

Especially joyous were holidays like Cinco de Mayo, the yearly celebration of Mexican forces who held off French invaders during the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862.

"We'd have food, music, folkloric dances and other activities," says Ybarra, the daughter of a migrant worker, whose family's roots date back several generations to northern Texas.

"My mother would always make enchiladas on the day of the festivities," she says. "She'd spend hours dipping tortillas in hot oil to soften them, then rolling the enchiladas. We'd have several dozens."

Ybarra is a long way from California. She earned a doctorate degree and is head of the Center for Talented Youth at the Johns Hopkins University.

But when she has time, the north Baltimore resident still prepares the Mexican dishes of her youth, using her mother's recipes. Pinto beans and rice. Tacos. Barbecued beef or chicken, called carne asada. For dessert, pan dulce -Mexican sweet bread.

Such foods represent a strong cultural legacy Ybarra now passes down to her own two children.

"It's part of who we are," she says. "Most of my Mexican-American friends say the same thing. Even for those of us who did not grow up in Mexico, it's very common to keep those traditions."

Cinco de Mayo, a day symbolizing Mexican unity and patriotism, may be more widely celebrated in the United States than it is in the country of its origin.

"It really became popular during the Chicano movements of the '60s and '70s," says Carlos Perez, assistant professor in the department of Chicano and Latin studies at California State University, Fresno.

"Later, the beer companies started to promote it as a holiday. It spread to college campuses. Now it's becoming more of a national holiday in the United States."

Whereas Mexican-Americans were once more apt to celebrate Mexican Independence Day on Sept. 16, that has declined some over the years, Perez says.

"In some ways, Cinco de Mayo has become the holiday that defines us," he notes, while adding that for some, it has become too commercial.

"What's never emphasized is the reason it's celebrated, which is Mexican pride and nationalism," says Perez.

In parts of the country with sizable Mexican American populations, the day is often marked by parades, mariachi bands and food-centered festivals - some lasting several days.

One of the largest is in San Diego's historic Old Town district, which this year will present its 20th annual "Fiesta Cinco de Mayo" during a three-day celebration expected to draw 250,000 people.

Here in Baltimore, despite a significant Latino presence in communities such as Fells Point, large-scale events haven't really taken hold.

But that doesn't mean folks can't enjoy plenty of food, drink and revelry.

From Fells Point to Canton and beyond, many bars and restaurants are running all types of specials.

The Canton Can Company and Austin Grill will hold an after-work party with food, drinks and live acoustic music. At El Salto, a popular family-style Mexican eatery in the North Plaza Mall (another location is on Ritchie Highway), there will also be specials.

And at Blue Agave Restaurante y Tequileria in Federal Hill, known for its traditional Mexican cuisine in an upscale setting, there will be a two-day bash this year.

"For some people, Cinco de Mayo is one of those holidays like St. Patrick's Day, where there's a lot of drinking," says owner and chef Michael Marx.

"That's OK, but I want to keep it more authentic. So we'll have tequila and Mexican beer, but the food is really the best way to let people know what Mexico is about."

The Southern California native grew up minutes from the Mexican border, and frequently visits to sample its vast regional fare.

"Every celebration I've ever gone there is completely focused on food ... and it's glorious food."

He's planned a holiday menu that will include cilantro soup; carnitas, slow-roasted pork; and mole poblano, a thick spicy sauce that can blend dozens of spices, nuts, seeds and chiles.

"Mole is uniquely Mexican, especially in Puebla [where the battle was fought]," Marx says. "It's served over chicken, rice, most anything."

Finally, his fare will incorporate such spices as Mexican oregano, canela (Mexican cinnamon) and the ubiquitous chile - a staple in Mexican cooking.

Marx favors guajillo, anchos and mulato among the countless varieties that register from mild to super hot.

"I am very passionate about this food. I stick to its roots, and try not to vary from the original recipes I learned in Mexico by adding American touches."

Many Mexican-American families will opt to cook at home for the holiday, says Jose Ruiz, owner of El Sol grocery store in Essex.

The business opened about a year ago, carrying specialty products and some produce from Mexico, El Salvador, the Caribbean and Africa.

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