Sunday, May 13, 2012

Cinco de Mayonesa: The 5th of May in Denver on the 6th

A few weeks ago a friend of my wife called asking for advice. My wife's friend had just been asked to throw a "traditional" Cinco de Mayo party for her entire office, and she had no idea what that meant.  My wife and her friend were both born and raised in Mexico--and as most of you know (especially if you read this blog), most Mexicans in Mexico do not give much more thought to the 5th of May than they do to the 4th or the 6th.

In fact, a “traditional” celebration would likely have to involve some sort of drawn out re-enactment of the Battle of Puebla itself, not unlike our country’s own tradition-clinging Civil War battle stagings—that is to say profoundly boring and a little weird. Or if in Puebla itself--where the event has been modernized over the years-- it also might involve copious fireworks and parades to rival our own 4th of July displays. Needless to say, unless our friend’s boss liked to dress up and play war (or wanted to shoot off fireworks from the roof of the office building), that is probably not what he had in mind.

Cinco de Mayo in the US is a great holiday—as good as they come no doubt-- a day to celebrate all things that might possibly be thought of as Mexican, Chicano or even just Latino. Of course there are one-too-many intoxicated frat boys in sarapes and sombreros (note: one is too many); and then there is the commercialization and arguable exploitation of an identity (or better, stereotype) by businesses and companies—some that on the other 364 days of the year might otherwise shun those for whom the holiday pretends to honor.

On Cinco de Mayo, giant inflated Mexican beer cans are a must

But I digress, and to clarify, I love the blurring of cultural lines, the questioning of tradition and the redefining of authenticity that holidays like Cinco de Mayo bring. And this year, like many others we found ourselves amongst the crowds at Denver’s own 5th of May celebration.

The Civic Center Cinco de Mayo celebration is much like any other event in our city center though with more Mexican music. There were also more luchador masks as well as an en masse Zumba class—vying to be the largest single aerobic-reggaeton gathering ever (if that doesn't sum up all the good and bad of a Cinco de Mayo event then I don't know what does).

The food is also slightly more Mexican than the typical Denver-fest, though there are still the omnipresent turkey leg and Kettle Corn vendors. This year I was thrilled to see El Divino on the list but was disappointed to pass by and find that they did not bring their spit.

We walked right by El Divino and headed to a place called Mama Tere. We got some pastor and carne asada. It was not pastor from a spit but the guy out in front of the booth kept yelling in my ear about how good it was—how it had been soaking in chiles all night. It was a nice, tender pork taco—but it could hardly be called pastor.

The carne asada at Mama Tere had a strange texture and was chewy. It might have fallen into the category of “not quite sure if that is beef”--and could enter into the meat debates I have been having as of late. My wife and I ate it (they weren't cheap) but were glad for the thorough salsa bath to make it more palatable. I gave some to my boys and after sucking off the salt, they promptly spit the meat into the grass. 

Next door to Mama Tere was a vendor selling elote, Mexican style. This corn-on-a-stick is a favorite of my wife's and is one of those nostalgia-inducing foods that bring a smile to her face every time she sees it in the US. The corn is roasted then lathered in mayo and dusted with chile powder and finely grated cheese. A clear step up from butter and salt, and it still counts as a vegetable.

Now feeling slightly healthier with a full serving of veggies in me, I needed our next bite to be a lot greasier and meatier. That was no problem, as just a little further down Bannock someone was selling Mexican hot dogs. Wrapped in bacon and grilled I could not think of many other better foods to represent Cinco de Mayo. This version came with grilled onions and a huge jalapo. I splashed some yellow mustard on top, sprinkled on a little cheese and bit into hot dog heaven.

Fatty, thick bacon is such a natural complement to a hot dog. It seems so obvious but took a Mexican-inspired culinary stroke of genius to realize it. Though a Chicago hot dog purist myself, I readily admit the Mexican hot dog is a clear step up for this processed meat treat.

Our last stop was at a Navajo Taco stand. The "tacos" didn't even look all that good, but in the spirit of Cinco de Mayo I thought I should support this culturally mixed-up food stand.

Indeed it was the silliest and least tasty of the three meals we had that day. The Navajo fry bread was great, as was the slow-cooked barbeque pork. But it combined so poorly with the chile con carne and the neon cheddar cheese that it was like three different meals all in one bite—not necessarily in a good way. Again, I love re-defining tradition and mixing cultures, but it isn’t always pretty.

Cinco de Mayo or not, any day is good when I end up eating tacos and hot dogs within a one hour of each other (the next day isn't always as good) and today was no exception. As for our friend's Cinco de Mayo party? She ended up giving her office just what they all expected (no fireworks and no staged battle scenes), though it was clearly her that learned the most about a new cultural experience. 

1 comment:

  1. My husband and I hosted our own gringo-style Cinco de Mayo party, the mishmash of culinary strains you refer. But the margaritas were strong, lots of beer cans were popped and nobody complained. Most popular dishes were the nachos, the home-made guac, the white chili and the cold Mexican-style shrimp. We still have some Cinco de Mayo cocktail napkins left, so I guess we'll have to do it again next year. :-)



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