Alex Pardo, part owner and chef of Jalapeé±os in Gloucester, grew up making day trips from his home in Mexico City to the city of Puebla, where people traveled for mole the way they travel to Essex for fried clams.
Mole, the savory Mexican sauce most of us know as chocolate and chili pounded to a smooth paste, is a traditional food for celebrating Cinco de Mayo.
There are a few mole legends, but in Pardo's version mole ingredients were first mixed in a molcajete (a lava rock mortar and pestle) in 1862 by Puebla nuns planning a quick escape from the offending French army. The nuns threw together foods that would best suit a long journey. Their chocolate and chili mixture, packed with protein and vitamins, was satchel-ready to make an old turkey or hunk of venison cooked over a campfire delicious and nutritious. Miraculously, the Mexican Army defeated the French on May 5, and Cinco de Mayo became the El Dia de la Batalla de Puebla, The Day of the Battle of Puebla. (It is NOT Mexican Independence Day, which is Sept. 16.) Cinco de Mayo can be a horn-honking, flag-waving celebration in this country, particularly in cities such as Chicago with large Mexican communities, but in Mexico it's recognized regionally, certainly in Puebla.
Alex Pardo's father owned a glass company in Mexico City. One of four children, Pardo lost his mother when he was only 7, and grew up loving kitchen smells and activities beside his older sister and grandmother who took over meal preparation.
"We always had three-course meals," Pardo told me when I asked about his early food memories. "We would always start with soup —my sister made a wonderful soup with noodles in a chicken and tomato broth with cilantro and onion. And then we might have a Pork Milanese: pork lightly breaded, pan-seared to a nice crust, and then finished with cilantro and lemon. Or Fish Veracruzana, a white fish with green olives, onion, garlic, peppers."