What? Not celebrating Cinco de Mayo this year? You really should, for at least a couple reasons: this year it falls on a Saturday, so tequila can be judiciously consumed throughout the day; and after an endless winter and slow spring, we deserve any excuse to celebrate.

Contrary to popular belief, Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s independence day, which is celebrated September 16. In the early 1860s, the U.S. was in the middle of a civil war and Mexico was deeply in debt to France. Napoleon III, who had ideas of supporting the confederacy, sent troops to not only overtake Mexico City, but also to help form a Confederate-friendly country that would neighbor the South. On the 5th of May, 1862, the smaller and less-equipped Mexican army held off French troops in the Battle of Puebla. (The French army returned the following year and won, but that’s another story.) The news of the Battle of Puebla was a boost for California-based Latinos, who had been feeling disheartened as Union forces were falling to Robert E. Lee’s Confederate troops. California, as a free state, was glad that the French plan to help the Confederacy was stymied. This was particularly true for its residents of Hispanic origin, who had ample reason to oppose the South’s system of white supremacy. The defeat of the French at the Battle of Puebla was not definitive, but it helped to stave off the French while the U.S. Union forces made advances. Thus Cinco de Mayo could be seen as a turning point in the U.S. Civil War.

While I’m happy to be back in Maine after a long spell in southwest Florida, I almost wish I’d waited long enough to celebrate Cinco de Mayo there, where there is a big Mexican presence. Many cities host celebrations that include traditional food, Mexican musicians and dancers and such nontraditional events as a Best Dressed Chihuahua contest. Even if I decided to celebrate at home, the ingredients for a homemade feast are easy to come by there, as we live just a short drive from a shopping plaza that houses a Mexican supermarket, bakery, restaurant and ice cream shop. While people believe that the whole U.S. is completely homogeneous when it comes to food, the truth is, there are many things you can find in Florida that aren’t on the shelves in northern markets: my favorite fresh grapefruit juice, a huge selection of Mexican sauces and salsas, tropical fruits, and tortillas of all kinds in towering heaps, plus the fish from the Gulf waters.

If you want to put a Mexican spin on your Cinco de Mayo menu, you could just bust open a Dos Equis or whir a margarita in the blender, but why not start with something different, like a Paloma, a popular Mexican cocktail.


coarse salt
1 grapefruit wedge
14 cup fresh grapefruit juice
1 Tbsp. fresh lime juice
1 tsp. sugar
14 cup tequila
14 cup club soda
Pour some kosher salt on a plate, rub half of the rim of a highball glass with the grapefruit wedge and dip the rim of the glass in salt. Combine grapefruit juice, lime juice, and sugar in glass; stir until sugar is dissolved. Stir in tequila, add ice, and top off with club soda. Garnish with the grapefruit wedge.

For a light, healthy Cinco de Mayo taco, break out the grill and fill your tortillas with grilled fish. Snapper is the first choice of fish, but halibut or even tilapia are good substitutions. The addition of guacamole and tangy cabbage slaw makes this a Mexican fiesta in your mouth.

F I S H   T A C O S

2 avocados, halved, pitted and peeled
14 cup sour cream or Greek yogurt
1 small jalapeño, seeded and finely chopped
2 Tbsp. minced red onion
3 Tbsp. chopped cilantro
juice of 1 lime
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
In a medium bowl, mash avocados, sour cream, jalapeño, red onion, cilantro and lime juice. Season guacamole with salt and pepper and press a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the surface.
Cabbage Slaw:
4 cups napa cabbage, shredded
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 Tbsp. fresh lime juice
In a large bowl, toss cabbage with olive oil and lime juice. Season with salt and pepper.
Fish tacos:
2 lbs. thick red snapper fillets with skin, cut crosswise into ten 2-inch-wide strips (or halibut or tilapia)
2 Tbsp. olive oil
Ten 7-inch flour tortillas, warmed
2 medium tomatoes, thinly sliced
salsa and lime wedges, for serving
Light grill. Brush fish with oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill over moderately high heat until lightly charred and cooked through, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a platter and pull off the skin.

To assemble each taco, spread a dollop of guacamole on a tortilla. Top with a piece of fish, a few tomato slices and a large spoonful of cabbage slaw. Serve with hot sauce and lime wedges.

In Mexico, Michoacana is to ice cream as the Golden Arches are to burgers here. You find the shops everywhere, but instead of fast food, Michoacanas prepare cold treats like ice cream and Popsicles, or paletas, from fresh ingredients in each store. In a Naples, Florida, shop, the ice creams, made daily in-house, include coconut, pineapple, strawberries and cream, and mamey, which is a tropical fruit with the flavor of sweet potato crossed with pumpkin pie. A huge freezer case holds over 20 different paletas varieties, including mango, guava, tamarind, marzipan, cantaloupe, watermelon and, one of my favorite, arroz con leche, which is like rice pudding on a stick. The cold cream studded with nubs of fat rice is an ice cream lover’s dream. Here’s a recipe to make them for yourself.

P A L E T A S   D E   A R R O Z   C O N   L E C H E

3 cups whole milk
1 cup Arborio rice
2 sticks cinnamon
1 14-oz. can sweetened condensed milk mixed with 2 cups water
1 Tbsp. vanilla extract
14 tsp. salt
14 tsp. ground cinnamon
Bring whole milk and 114 cups water to a simmer in a 4-quart pot over medium-low heat. Stir in rice and cinnamon sticks and cook, stirring occasionally, until rice is tender, about 30 minutes. Remove cinnamon sticks and stir in condensed milk mixture, vanilla extract, and salt. Simmer until rice has absorbed most of the liquid, 10 to 15 minutes more. Remove pan from heat, stir in ground cinnamon, and let cool slightly. Fill twelve 3-oz. ice-pop molds with rice mixture, transfer molds to the freezer and freeze until slushy, about 1 hour. Insert a Popsicle stick into each mold and freeze until pops are solid, about 3 hours more. To release ice pops from molds, run the bottom of the molds briefly under warm water.