A quick history lesson: Cinco de Mayo was born on the fifth day of the fifth month of the year 1862, when General Ignacio Zaragoza, with the support of local civilians and Zacapoaxtla Indians, led 2,000 poorly equipped Mexican soldiers to victory over 6,000 French cavalry and infantrymen at the Battle of Puebla. Though Zaragoza’s success was short-lived — the following year, French forces swept through Puebla en route to Mexico City, where they managed to overthrow the still-young Mexican Republic — his victory lives on in Mexico, where Cinco de Mayo is a minor national holiday, primarily observed in Puebla and Mexico City. And also more obscurely but perhaps more passionately, in the United States, where in recent decades Cinco de Mayo has morphed into a major festival of Chicano culture.
It’s with this latter, domestic incarnation in mind that, for this month’s cookbook recommendations, I have plucked some choice morsels detailing the remarkable contributions of Mexican-Americans to regional cooking in the United States. So, just in time for Cinco de Mayo, here is a virtual tour of Mexican-influenced border cooking — from Tex-Mex to Cal-Mex, with a stop along the way in Santa Fe, N.M. — in four cookbooks that beautifully sketch the cultural wellsprings from which these regional cuisines were born.
The Tex-Mex Cookbook, Robb Walsh (2004)
Hard-shell tacos, refried beans, breakfast migas and nachos, all served with pickled jalapenos on the side: welcome to the world of Tex-Mex cooking, the “ugly duckling” of American regional cuisines. Though long dismissed (unfairly!) as a vulgar, Americanized form of Mexican cooking, in The Tex-Mex Cookbook, Robb Walsh makes it his mission to right the reputation of this “cuisine without pretension.” Whether regaling readers with stories of the chili queens of 19th-century San Antonio or weaving tales of Pancho Villa into a history of the west Texas enchilada, Walsh’s book is cultural history at its most engaging. Through recipes, archival photographs and profiles of cooks and restaurateurs, Walsh paints a richly textured, deeply researched portrait of the evolution of Tex-Mex cooking.
The Feast of Santa Fe, Huntley Dent (1993)
Twenty years after its publication, Dent’s book remains the most thorough and illuminating treatment of the cooking of the American Southwest — the book most adept at tying present to past and tracing the woven strands of Native American, Mexican, Spanish and Anglo influences that make up this remarkable cuisine. As Dent makes clear, Santa Fe cooking mirrors the hardness and austerity of its desert surroundings. Since prehistory, the local diet has been a merry-go-round of chiles, beans and corn, rounded out with a little meat. From that meager larder, however, much has been made. The chapter on New Mexican enchiladas (“the glory of authentic New Mexico food”) should be the final word on the subject. Give Dent’s red chile enchiladas a try, and then retire to an easy chair with this absorbing book.
California Rancho Cooking, Jacqueline Higuera McMahan (2003)
A terrific book on original Cal-Mex cooking. McMahan traces her lineage all the way back to the days of the Californios — the Spanish settlers who reached California by way of Mexico, establishing the Spanish Empire’s last outpost in the form of massive ranchos set along California’s coastline. The cooking of these settlers was a distinctive mix of Old World and New, Spanish and Mexican. Lighter than other types of border cooking, Californio cooking made abundant use of fresh herbs (basil, parsley, cilantro, oregano) and favored olive oil over lard and flour tortillas over corn. Red chile sauces formed the foundation of many dishes, and the pit barbecue was a central ritual of communal life. The Higueras were one of California’s first rancho families, and here, in evocative prose and old family recipes, McMahan beautifully conjures the lives and foodways of her forebears.
The Border Cookbook, Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison (1995)
No survey of border cookbooks would be complete without the Jamisons’ classic: a book that adopts a larger regional perspective, encompassing both sides of the border (“a culinary border never existed in this vast region”), from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean, the Sonoran desert to the Sierra Madre. Zooming out allows the authors to parse the commonalities, crosscurrents and divergences that produced Tex-Mex, Sonoran, Norteno, New Mexican and all the other culinary permutations in the “fertile breeding ground for food ideas” that is the U.S.-Mexico border. The section on salsas and condiments is a veritable dissertation on the subject and a good example of the Jamisons’ method. They begin by identifying a common thread — the roasting or broiling of chiles or tomatoes to add smoky depth to a sauce — and then dive into microregional variations, say, Arizona versus northern New Mexico versus California chile and Colorado. The recipes are written with genuine attention to detail, full of helpful tips and techniques, each framed with headnotes so rich in story and context that they sing with meaning.