Cinco de Mayo is celebrated all over the world with parades, music, food, and drink. Although it is a day that honors Mexican history, people of all ethnicities and ages join in at parties that begin when the sun rises and continue into the night. You can stick with traditional Mexican fare such as tacos, salsa, Margaritas, and Mexican beer or try your hand a some new dishes and drinks, many of which can be prepared ahead of time so you don’t miss a minute of the festivities.
Whether you’re throwing a block party or a small home celebration, the venue should be filled with the vibrant colors of the Mexican flag, green, red, and white, as well as other bright festive colors that inspire cheer and camaraderie. Decorate the tables with mini-cactuses in assorted colors available at the 99-cent store, cover the tables with green, red, and white striped paper, hang multi-colored sombreros on the walls, and dress in your most festive clothes. Set out a big basket of maracas, dried gourds with seeds inside them, to encourage guests to add percussion to the surrounding music. If kids are on the guest list, provide coloring books about Mexican culture to simultaneously entertain and educate. Provide rolls of butcher paper or find neighborhood concrete walls that need color and hold a chalk mural painting contest with Mexican cultural themes. Spice up the day with a friendly chili cook-off or salsa making competition with simple prizes like a six-pack of Mexican beer or handcrafted curios from Mexico such as cornhusk dolls.
As you prepare for the day ahead, energize your helpers and yourself with a hearty breakfast of traditional huevos rancheros or add a Mexican touch to American eggs and toast by serving chorizo instead of bacon or ham. Give a south-of-the-border flair to conventional breakfast casseroles by mixing a can of green chilies into the eggs and adding a pinch of chili powder or cayenne pepper to the recipe. Accompany the morning meal with a steaming cup of Mexican hot chocolate or a virgin Margarita—save the real thing for later in the day.
While the mariachi or rock and roll band warms up, set out easy-to-eat snacks like tortilla chips, salsa, and guacamole. As the main meal of the day is being prepared, tease the guests’ palates with miniature tacos, tamales, and quesadillas, all of which can be prepared a few hours ahead of time. Provide a condiment bar set in an ice-filled chafing dish or long baking pan in a shaded area chockfull of sour cream, freshly chopped cilantro, diced jalapenos, chopped tomatoes, shredded cheese, and thinly sliced scallions.
As the parade ends and the day winds down, start setting out a buffet of Mexican favorites. Big dishes of enchiladas and tamales can be made the night before, refrigerated, and baked or reheated on Cinco de Mayo. They hold their heat for an hour or so to accommodate latecomers. Make a big pot of menudo in a slow cooker the night before and have guests serve themselves from the pot. Bake corn bread with Mexican additions such as cheese, diced green chiles, corn kernels and a dab of chili powder. Grill husked corn over charcoal until slightly charred and set out dishes of grated Mexican cheese, cream, and melted butter infused with cayenne pepper to dip the corn in. Dress up sides of black and pinto beans with chopped red and green pepper to add color and texture.
Although Margaritas and Mexican beer are the most popular beverages to serve with Mexican food, other cocktails pair equally as well with the traditionally spicy foods. A punchbowl full of Mojitos with muddled mint leaves and fresh lime juice is a great thirst quencher, as are simple tequila cocktails made with ginger ale, grapefruit soda or pomegranate juice. Instead of plain Margaritas, provide bowls of fresh watermelon, strawberries, bananas, peaches, and pineapple and have someone man a blender to whip up slushy fruit Margaritas to match individual tastes. Add Galliano to the bar so beautiful and alluring Tequila Sunrises are part of the cocktail menu.
While the band transitions from party music into soft serenades, bring out the desserts. Flan is the most famous Mexican dessert and has the advantage of advance preparation, although it has to be refrigerated right up to the time it is served. A more portable and durable dessert is churros, deep-fried crullers dusted in cinnamon and sugar. For guests who have little room left for dessert, offer a fresh fruit salad. If your party is held at home, consider serving fried ice cream as the final course. Kids enjoy making their own desserts with flour tortillas filled with cooled apples cooked with cinnamon and sugar and dressed with a dollop of whipped cream. For a satisfying and easy dessert, make batches of assorted Mexican wedding cookies ahead of time or purchase them from a local Mexican bakery.
No Cinco de Mayo celebration would be complete without breaking piñatas at the end of the party. Kid’s piñatas are conventionally filled with candy and small toys but many novelty stores carry fillable piñatas that can be stuffed with car air fresheners, miniature bottles of liquor, key chains, bottle openers, lottery tickets, $5 or $10 gift cards and travel size bottles of personal hygiene items to create adult piñatas. While it’s fun to watch kids beat a hanging paper Mache toy into submission, it can’t compare with the entertainment of watching adults doing the same.