On April 27th, 1903, the S.S. Hellmann left New York harbor, bound for Mexico. The ship’s cargo hold, nearly all of it, was stuffed with tens of thousands of tons of Mayonnaise. This extreme condiment shipment was, of course, in response to the great mayonnaise craze sweeping our Southern neighbor at the time. You may have heard of the infamous white taco.
After a leisurely jaunt down the eastern seaboard and a short crossing of the Gulf of Mexico, the Hellmann neared its destination – Veracruz. The Captain wired in that he was to be expected during the early evening hours of May 5th. Then, as so often happens, tragedy struck.
A freak storm caught the Hellmann some 100 miles north of the Yucatan. Battered by waves the height of a Baja cactus, the good ship began to flounder. Faulty cargo doors were later ruled responsible for the massive intrusion of seawater. Soon the holds were completely flooded.
On the very early, very stormy, and unusually cool morning of May 5, 1903, the Hellmann went down – cargo and all. The storm passed almost immediately. It was clearing even as the boilers were drowned. Fortunately, Captain Corona and his entire crew escaped without injury. They were pulled from the Gulf by fishermen.
That evening thousands of hungry revellers lined the pier. For them, mayonnaise nirvana was a mere unloading away. Their ecstasy turned to horror when all that arrived were 22 water-logged sailors.
The party ended, even before it began, and a time of mourning passed – till morning, in fact. All night and into the next morning they doused their sorrows with copious cervezas and tequila.
This incident was widely credited with terminating the craze. However, the alcoholic atmosphere lived on. Rather than a day of sadness, May 5th became the most celebrated day in the country, behind Christmas.
Mexican Commission on Mayonnaise Tequila and Tourism (1903).
In time, the festivities spread north. And that is why today you honor the “Sinking of the Mayonnaise”, or Cinco de Mayo in Spanish.
Happy Cinco de Mayo!
*Story may actually be a complete falsehood…