Contrary to popular notion, Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico's Independence Day but rather the commemoration of the May 5, 1862, Battle of Puebla, when the Mexican army beat back occupying French forces during the 1861-67 French intervention.
The victory turned out to be a small one in the scheme of things for Mexico, as the French occupation would continue for five more years. And even today, if you went south of the border seeking an authentic Cinco de Mayo experience, the closest you'd come would be in the central Mexican state of Puebla, where the battle occurred. In the rest of the country, it doesn't register.
In the U.S., however, it's become big business, as restaurants and bars seek to cash in on what's become a fairly major celebration of Mexican heritage.
It's also the focus of a weekend-long block of programming on Food Network on Saturday and Sunday, April 30 and May 1, hosted by "Mexican Made Easy" chef Marcela Valladolid.
"People ask me all the time, 'What do you do for Cinco de Mayo?' " says Valladolid, a native of the Pacific Coast town of Tijuana. "And my honest answer is always, 'When I was growing up in Mexico, nothing. Really, nothing. It was a school day. It was totally normal.' But when I grew up and started going to San Diego and started drinking margaritas, that's when Cinco de Mayo celebrations started for me."
The fare on Food's Mexican Fiesta Weekend ranges from the traditional (Valladolid's steak quesadillas and roasted tomatillo salsa on Saturday's "Mexican Made Easy") to the nontraditional (grilled southern fish tacos on "Down Home With the Neelys" on Saturday) to the decidedly non-Mexican (Moroccan meatloaf on "Rachael Ray's Week in a Day" on Sunday).
For Valladolid, it's all about bringing more people under the Mexican cuisine tent.
"Somebody might watch the show and is not that into Mexican cuisine," she says. "But they see, I don't know, my Mexican meatloaf, and that really resonates. And just by adding a couple of Mexican ingredients, maybe that will kind of open up a door and get them more interested in cooking Mexican food."