Once upon a time Cinco de Mayo meant, for me, too many pet goldfish and the great taste of authentic cactus salad. It meant digging in the dirt and the scent of marigolds. The dirt and the marigolds are still here for me today, but the goldfish and the cactus salad have faded into the past.
From 1991 to 2003 my children attended Hopland Elementary School (now closed as a result of school budget cuts). It was the best little school in the world, but that is another story. The annual school fundraiser was a Cinco de Mayo celebration. It was perfect for our school, at which nearly half of the students were Mexican-American. Those mamis sure knew how to cook. Best Mexican food I ever ate. I would dream all year about that cactus salad. I got the recipe, but it never tasted the same when I made it. The festivities took place on the Friday closest to Cinco de Mayo. I always took the day off work and went to help out in the school kitchen, where I attempted to communicate with the cooks in my broken Spanish. I peeled avocados, stirred refried beans, ground strawberries up in the blender, and later, when the guests arrived, I served. Beef, chicken, and vegetarian enchiladas. Beef, pork, and potato tamales. Cactus salad. Guacamole. Three kinds of salsa. Diced lettuce, tomatoes, and onions. Horchata, strawberry juice, and lemonade. And for dessert there was a bake sale, at which my children invariably made me buy the chocolate chip cookies I had baked for the sale. Along with chocolate cupcakes, chocolate brownies, and enormous peanut butter cookies. Is anyone else hungry?
The adults and children in Ballet Folklorico danced, and usually the Pomo children danced too. The student population was nearly 20% Native Pomo, with children coming from families in the nearby Hopland Band of Pomo Indians who lived at the Rancheria just outside Hopland.
There was a silent auction and every year I made a point of bidding just right to win the summer membership at the health club. I got it at a good price (way less than the actual cost) and our family used it to spend the summer swimming in the pool. Over the years I also scored many other useful silent auction items, and one year I won a gift certificate to the grocery store in the raffle. The big raffle prize each year was a quilt, made by some of us moms. I always made a square for it and helped with the quilting sometimes at PTA meetings. They had a theme each year and they gave us quilters a little package of fabric pieces and we had to come up with a square that fit the theme.
There was a fair, of course, with booths and games the children could play using tickets we purchased upon entry. One of the favorites was the jail. You could pay (with tickets) to have someone arrested (like your mom) and then “cops” would go get the person and take them to the “jail” where they would have to stay for a certain amount of time. The children thought it was marvelous to have their parents arrested. My children played every game at the fair and usually won several hapless goldfish who we brought home and put in our little fish tank. Sudi named them all Michael and few if any of them lasted until the next Cinco de Mayo. Goldfish were not our specialty at the Ranch. If we had been better at caring for them I would have insisted that the children find more suitable names for them, but Michael it was across the board. It was cruel and impractical to give away goldfish as prizes, but there was nothing I could do about it and the children were so excited when they won a doomed goldfish. Oh well. My children also won piles of cheap plastic toys that swiftly populated the bottom of the toy box.
So where do the dirt and the marigolds come in? Simple. Planting season. Every year on the first Friday in May the Mendocino College Agricultural Studies Department has its annual plant sale and there is no better place to get wonderful veggies, herbs, and flowers for the summer garden at a reasonable price. The Ag Sale always coincided with Cinco de Mayo. While the children spent the weekend following the event watching their goldfish swim in circles and breaking their cheap plastic toys, I was in the garden digging, digging, digging, and then planting. That part has not changed. Yesterday found me in my yard all day planting. (I went to the Ag Sale on Friday.) I had done all the heavy digging and soil preparation during the previous two weekends. So this weekend was devoted to getting the plants in the ground. Hard work in the heat. But feel-good work.
As gardeners know, marigolds make good companions for tomato plants because the marigolds keep away insects that damage tomatoes. So I planted marigolds as “pets” for the tomatoes. Marigolds have a distinct scent that knocks my socks off every time. Back in the day, before they grew up and left home, I used to get my children to help me with some of the planting. Nowadays I live at a property that has better soil than the tough clay at the Ranch. So I can grow more vegetables. And fruit. This year, much to my delight, Sudi and his roommates in Oakland have decided to try to keep a modest urban garden behind their apartment. So I bought a few plants for them at the Ag Sale and in a couple of weeks I’ll spend a day with the guys creating a container garden of vegetables. Sudi continues the family tradition of growing organic food!
The Cinco de Mayo days at Hopland School are long gone, but in the spring, when I am digging in the gardens and planting for the summer’s bounty, I can still taste that cactus salad in my memory. The taste of good times never dies.