Growing up, I never took much notice of Cinco de Mayo — not of the parties, or the extra taco stands, or the sudden friendly squabbles about the best burritos or best fajitas or best Cinco de Mayo cupcakes, nor even the flood of pinatas.
My dad is Latino, so our home was filled with Hispanic food, music, art, and culture year-round. It somehow didn’t seem important to single out a specific day to celebrate my dad’s heritage, nor did he want us to. He was happier having it be just a natural part of our world — day in and day out.
But now that I’m halfway around the world and only get visit my parents (and my dad’s side of the family) once or twice per year when Cinco de Mayo rolls around, I notice.
Not that I really celebrate now. Cinco de Mayo isn’t really on the radar in Germany. So, it’d just be me, my husband and a plate of tacos. And I don’t think we can consider a “celebration” since it describes just about any ol’ Wednesday night at Casa Poenicke.
But, I definitely do notice.
It makes me a touch nostalgic and homesick. Mostly, though, it makes me glad that there is a singled out, specific day for people to celebrate their heritage if they want to! Cause it’s totally worth celebrating!
Why Do We Celebrate Cinco de Mayo?
Though over the last couple of decades Cinco de Mayo has morphed into a kind of everything-Mexico-related holiday, it actually started as a celebration of the anniversary of the Battle of Pueblo.
The Battle of Pueblo took place on May 5th, 1862, between Mexican troops and the French army. The Mexican forces prevailed, helping ensure a northern victory in the American Civil War.
Uh… say what now?
The Battle of Pueblo
See, the French government kind of sided with the Confederacy during the American Civil War. They actually invaded Mexico to try to install a new government that would ally with and sends economic aid to the fledgling Confederate state. (Well, that, and to try to get back existing Mexican government back for failing to pay their debts to the French state.)
As the invasion started, it looked as if the French would be victorious and the South would gain an ally. They were winning battle after battle.
Then, when the French army was just four days away from the capital and victory, a small band of Mexican soldiers stopped them in their tracks, at Pueblo. In fact, they defeated the French so soundly, it took a full year for the army to return for another assault.
This single victory bought Mexico a year of independence from Europe and bought the North a year fighting an economically weaker foe.
Modern Cinco de Mayo
After the Civil War, the Battle of Pueblo fell into obscurity in most places (except the city of Pueblo).
In the 1960’s and 70’s, though, American alcohol companies launched advertising campaigns based on the Battle of Pueblo to reach out to Latino customers. They cannot have realized how well the story of this battle would resonate — creating a holiday that would seep into the American psyche and take root.
But, the battle offered the perfect holiday-creating storm! It really spoke to people!
First, it’s a legit underdog story! And everyone loves to root for the underdog.
Second, it’s a battle for freedom against European interference and monarchical oppression. Americans of all ethnic backgrounds are totally on board with that!
Third, it highlights a serious military accomplishment that benefited both Mexico and the United States! How could those with Hispanic backgrounds living in the US not feel proud of that victory? (Actually, the dual nature of this victory is thought to be why this holiday really took off in Latino communities in the United States, not in Mexico.)
Fourth, because it was promoted first by alcohol companies, the celebration of the battle became intimately linked to drinking and eating lots of good food! Who doesn’t love a day to drink and eat a lot?
So, What Do You Eat and Drink on Cinco de Mayo?
Well, based on my personal Cinco de Mayo experiences, I’d say you can eat just about whatever you want on Cinco de Mayo!
Pizza. Spaghetti. Steak. Mac and Cheese. Stew. Basically, whatever you would eat on any given Saturday night.
But, typically, I think most people opt for traditional Mexican cuisine! Like, say, homemade refried beans and sopa, a warm tostada, a bean burrito topped with enchilada sauce, guacamole and salsa. Maybe washed down with traditional Mexican alcoholic beverages, like a Mexican beer or a tequila-based margarita.
(Actually, I changed my mind. That is the only meal you’re allowed to eat on Cinco de Mayo. Or on any day. How have I survived 6 months without it??)
What about dessert?
You can definitely opt for traditional desserts, like fruit, chili-flavored candies, or brightly-colored Mexican cookies!
Or, in honor of the uniquely American component of this holiday, you could finish off your Cinco de Mayo feast with a hybrid dessert!
Like a Cinco de Mayo cupcake!
What’s a Cinco de Mayo cupcake, you ask?
A delectable treat that wraps traditional Mexican flavor palettes up into that most American of pastries — a cupcake. Frosting and all.
Not sure what that would look like? No worries! We’ve scrounged up some examples for you. And, because we don’t like to do things halfway, we made sure they are examples of the best Cinco de Mayo cupcakes the internet has to offer!
Top 5 Best Cinco de Mayo Cupcakes
Our number one, absolute top Cinco de Mayo cupcake recipe comes are the Xocolatl Cupcakes created by Icy Violets and shared by Chef Dennis.
“Xocolatl” is the Aztec word we generally translate to “chocolate”. While both of these words refer to succulent treats made from the beans of the cocoa tree, the Aztecs weren’t talking about chocolate exactly as you know it. Rather than sweetened and solid, Aztec xocolatl was liquid — and spicy.
The original “chocolate” was a hot-cocoa-like beverage (though it was consumed cold) laced with chilis.
Playing off that traditional mixture, the xocolatl cupcakes are flavored with unsweetened chocolate (in the modern sense of the word!) and several teaspoons of chili powder!
Not only do these ingredients make these cupcakes authentic in their Latin flavors, they also make these cupcakes healthy. (As far as cupcakes go, anyway!)
Cacao — the only ingredient in unsweetened chocolate — is a health-promoting powerhouse. Rich in antioxidants, phytonutrients, and flavonoids, cocoa can aid weight loss, improve artery function, reduce blood sugar and improve blood fat levels.
And chilies are also some serious health foods! Phytonutrients in chilies, (particularly a phytonutrient called capsaicin) can boost your metabolism, help you lose weight, ease stomach aches and reduce symptoms of immune disorders.
Coming in a close second on our Cinco de Mayo cupcake list are the Spicy Mexican Chocolate Cupcakes by Hispanic Kitchen!
These cupcakes play on the same idea the Xocolatl Cupcakes do — mixing dark chocolate and spice. They use a touch less of each, though, and fill out the flavor with rich and nutty peanut butter.
This makes these cupcakes a little more enjoyable for those who are slightly spice-averse, but cuts back on the authenticity some.
Luckily, switching out some of the cocoa and chili for peanut butter doesn’t also down the health factor.
Peanuts, even after they’re ground into peanut butter, provide a whole host of their own health benefits! These include helping regulate your weight, improving your blood sugar levels and protecting your arteries from atherosclerosis!
Not a fan of spice at all? Or a serious fan of tequila? Then our third Cinco de Mayo cupcake pick is for you!
Mexican Palomo Cupcakes (by Nourish and Fete) are inspired by a traditional tequila-based cocktail called — you guessed it — a Paloma.
A Paloma combines tequila with a simple grapefruit syrup for a bright, summery, tart drink! And these Paloma cupcakes combine those flavors into a sweet, slightly boozy, citrusy treat.
The batter and the frosting are infused tequila. And then with fresh grapefruit juice. Then again with lime juice for good measure!
This is great news for your taste buds and most of the rest of you! You get to enjoy all the deliciousness of a Paloma, with much less alcohol, but plenty of fresh citruses!
And citrus fruits are something you should definitely be aiming to get in your diet! They’re seriously rich in antioxidants, antibiotic and antifungal chemicals. And they’re great for your arteries, heart, blood sugar and gut health.
Of course, actually eating a fresh, whole grapefruit or lime would work better to reap those health benefits. But if you’re going to splurge on a festive fiesta cupcake, then might as well add a fresh citrus (and tequila!) twist!
Sweet milk dishes are a favorite dessert-base in Mexican cuisine. This cupcake recipe by Wandercooks is a creative twist on traditional Mexican dairy desserts.
By soaking a sweet sponge-cake in three kinds of milk (condensed milk, evaporated milk and heavy cream), you get all the caramelly goodness of traditional Mexican desserts. But it’s in the form of the richest, creamiest, moistest cupcakes imaginable.
There aren’t any ingredients in these ridiculously decadent cupcakes that are really good for you, healthwise. But, my word, is the final product good for your soul! (And you do need to take care of your soul, too!)
If you are looking for a no-strings-attached indulgence, these are definitely the best Cinco de Mayo cupcakes for you! Calories don’t count on holidays… right?
On a low-carb or low-sugar diet? Don’t have much of a sweet tooth? Want to save all your dessert room for more… drinkable treats? Then these savory, meat-based cupcakes by Fit Forty Forever are Cinco de Mayo for you!
These Mexican-inspired mini-meatloaves are made with 99% fat-free turkey burger, making them a low-fat protein-packed “cupcake” perfect for an appetizer or main course. And, unlike some meatloaf recipes, Mexican Turkey Meatloaf Cupcakes don’t shy away from health-boosting veggies and spices. There are onions, bell peppers, celery corn (which you could ditch on a low-carb diet), tomatoes, jalapenos, cumin, coriander, garlic, and chili all mixed in!
Take Home Message
Today, Cinco de Mayo is a nationwide fiesta that celebrates everything Mexico-related! But it’s original intention was to mark the anniversary of the Battle of Pueblo, a stunning Mexican victory that both kept Mexico safe from French occupation and helped the North win the Civil War.
This Cinco de Mayo, you can honor the multinational spirit of the original holiday by whipping up a batch of Cinco de Mayo cupcakes. Go for our favorite chocolate and chili, tequila and grapefruit, milk and sugar, or meat and salsa recipes! Or go loco and create your own south-of-the-border, frosted sweet-treat!