Few people in English North America are aware that the celebration of CINCO de Mayo commemorates the Battle of Puebla against the French, and not the Mexican Independence from Spain. Although a celebration in its own right, it is definitely not as important for Mexicans as the celebration of Las Fiestas Patrias in September.
Some of you might be wondering how the French came to invade Mexico and how, in just a few years, left their mark in our cuisine. It is always a surprise when in my cooking classes, I sometimes include crepes as part of the menu. It is hard to associate the very French crepes with Mexican food, until I mention that I grew up having savory or sweet crepes as part of our meals.
It all began with napoleon III, Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew who as soon as he was settled in his role as Emperor of France, began to dream about creating an empire in Mexico. That exotic and far away country seemed like the perfect place to appoint a catholic European prince.
In Europe at the time, according to many Mexicans living there in exile, the current Mexican government had not been functioning well as a republic, proof of which was the civil war that had devastated Mexico for almost 40 years. In their mind Mexico needed a change and a monarchy appeared to be the perfect solution to end the war. After all, Spain had ruled Mexico for more than 300 years.
It was not only the French who had their eyes set in Mexico, but the English and the Spaniards as well. They all had their own reasons to invade Mexico and in January of 1862, the first naval squadron landed in the port of Veracruz, only to find the Spanish flag in the fortress of San Juan de Ulúa.
Meanwhile back in France, it was not very difficult for Napoleon III to find a suitable regent for the soon to be conquered Mexico. Ferdinand Maximilian of Hapsburg, the younger brother of Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria, whom simply seemed to be a liability to his brother and did not have an appropriate position in the courts, was the perfect candidate.
The Archduke Maximilian was married to Charlotte, daughter of King Leopold of Belgium who had her own dreams of becoming an empress herself. Their idle life in the castle of Miramar had become boring and they both began to entertain the idea of ruling a country, far away from the intrigues of the European courts.
Soon after, Spain realized that her hopes of recovering their former colony was starting to vanish pretty quickly, and the English who were merely trying to collect a debt, had lost interest as well. The French army was at this point, free to invade Mexico, but as soon as they started to trek into the hills, the tropical climate of the state of Veracruz began claiming the lives of the soldiers. The beautiful city of Orizaba, a beautiful hill town between Veracruz and Mexico City, with its coffee plantations, tropical gardens and the majestic Pico de Orizaba, proved to be a most welcome sight. However, along with the warm climate came malaria and other illnesses that were not part of their master plan.
Nevertheless, the army continued its incursion into Mexican soil, arriving at the city of Puebla where each church had become a fort and where more that 4,000 Mexicans in shabby uniforms fighting with obsolete guns, defeated the finest European soldiers on the famous battle of CINCO de Mayo, 1862. Unfortunately, this glorious moment was short lived, and the French army continued towards Mexico City where President Juárez had already fled the capital.
The French army commanded by General Achilles Bazaine entered Mexico City on June 7, 1863. By this time the people were tired of the uncertainty prevalent in those days and welcomed the French troops with marked enthusiasm. Soon after, in August of 1863, the Mexicans accepted an empire, and the following year Maximilian and Charlotte landed in Veracruz in May of 1864. Maximilian and his 23 year old wife Charlotte ruled Mexico until February of 1867, when Maximilian fled the capital for Querétaro, and was later executed as a foreign usurper, on June 19, 1867.
The events that led to this tragic moment in the history of Mexico are too long to tell in this article and should be told in greater detail.
The French intervention had a strong influence on everyday life. It created a new and enriched cuisine, especially in the capital of the country. Many years passed before people went back to serving indigenous ingredients such as the very Mexican nopalitos (cactus pads). This cactus leaf is nothing short of a miracle plant, as nutritionists and scientists have since discovered astounding characteristics in this unpretentious vegetable. Extensively and imaginatively used in prehispanic and contemporary Mexican cuisine, there are now more than 150 different ways of cooking nopalitos. Please see the recipe below for a delicious
Cactus Pad Soup or Sopa de Nopalitos
2 large ripe tomatoes, seeded
1/4 medium onion chopped
2 large cloves garlic, peeled
1 tbsp. vegetable oil
1/4 cup tomato sauce
1 tbsp. chicken bouillon mix
Two – 15 oz Tender Cactus Nopales jars
1 cup corn kernels, fresh or frozen
1 to 2 canned chipotle chiles,
1 tsp. chipotle adobo
1 cup cubed Oaxaca or Monterey Jack cheese
In a blender or food processor, combine the tomatoes, onion, garlic, and process until puréed. In a large saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat and add the tomato mixture, tomato sauce, and chicken boullion. Bring the sauce to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer for 5 to 8 minutes, or until the sauce thickens slightly.
Add the broth to the tomato sauce and correct seasoning. Add the cactus pads, corn kernels, chipotle chiles, and the adobo. Simmer for 3 to 4 minutes, and serve hot with the cubed cheese.
Maria Elena Cuervo-Lorens is the author of Mexican Culinary Treasures cookbook. She takes you back to her childhood, spent around her grandmother’s table on a shopping expedition with her mother to Mercado La Merced, and for a merienda (snack) of café con leche and biscochos (Mexican sweet rolls) at a bakery in downtown Mexico City. The authentic Mexican recipes she shares with us include tacos, quesadillas and enchiladas. The nouvelle cuisine of cosmopolitan Mexico City, such as cuitlacoche (huitlacohe) crepes, oysters with chipotle chile,