Diana Kennedy’s Oaxaca al Gusto

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Seeing her in November at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, it was clear that at 87, Mexican cuisine doyenne Diana Kennedy has mental and physical acuity worthy of envy by those half a century younger—a real-life exemplar of the find-something-you-love-doing-and-then-do-it aphorism. Rare enough! But when that something documents huge swathes of a country’s regionally varied indigenous cuisine, the benefit to all of us quickly outdistances mere role modeldom.

Her appearance was in support of her new book, “Oaxaca al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy” (University of Texas Press, 2010), the culmination of a project begun in 1984 when the governor of Oaxaca asked her to write a book about the state’s traditional foods. Through interim years of publishing starts and stops, among them, as DK said at the MoLAA event, complaints like, “Do you have to have a recipe for iguana?” the book finally found a home with the University of Texas Press, which released the gorgeous, 436-page tome in September.

Chef Deborah Schneider of Sol Cocina in Newport Beach was an inspired choice to host; not only the author of four books, two on Mexican cuisine, her commitment to ingredient integrity strongly resonates with DK’s own. Schneider writes a fantastic blog where hardcore street-food research on both sides of the border co-mingles with acute cultural analysis. And then of course there’s the 25 years of immersion in Mexican cuisine, through DK’s books and research of her own, begun while working in Southern California restaurant kitchens with cooks from Mexico.

Easy to see how Diana Kennedy’s copious documentation might usefully inform the work of a chef focused on Mexican cuisine, but there is also a personal aspect. “It was a huge thrill to meet Diana Kennedy in person!” Schneider said. She’d learned of the upcoming appearance earlier this year when presenting a cooking class from her book “Amor y Tacos” at the museum and made known her interest. “Being in a position to pepper her with questions of my own devising was a bonus.”

Of DK, Schneider says: “She is careful, accurate, respectful, methodical and thorough, especially when it comes to explaining the techniques and ingredients that make Meso-American cooking unique. She gives you the background of the recipe and gives you the story, where known, of its roots. She credits the cook who inspired the recipe.” In her own early exposure to Mexican cooks, Schneider found, “The first thing I learned was that there was no monolithic ‘Mexican,’ but instead, many regional variations and sub-cuisines that drew on a culture and cuisine that is thousands of years old, and still going strong.”

Not that there isn’t concern about the intrusion of the modern and the industrial. In answer to the question concerning the biggest threat to traditional cuisine in Mexico, Kennedy responded with an unequivocal condemnation of instant-flour mix supplanting traditional fresh-masa tortillas as the most serious and damaging trend. She joked, a little ruefully, that the makers of Maseca, “will be sending someone to sue me soon,” since she’s on the subject so frequently. Chiles, another cornerstone, are also threatened. One example is chiles de arbol, a smallish, pointy, dark-red dried variety, being brought in from China, she said, infecting the indigenous seed supply and threatening the livelihood of campesinos growing them in Mexico. A way to tell the difference, Kennedy said, is chiles from China are sold without tops or stems—those from Mexico will still have their caps.

Prompted by a former cooking student to describe her research trips, DK spoke of driving, alone, all over Mexico to interview cooks, gather recipes and ingredients. Part of her research entailed taking many of her own photos. When asked a photo-geek camera-setting question, though, she laughed, saying that she just puts her camera on automatic and shoots away. (The photos in the book are beautiful and immediate.) This became practice for pragmatic reasons; she won’t ask a photographer to drive hours up a mountain to a village, wait unknown hours more to see a certain person, and only then possibly get to photograph the dish being researched. So of course she does it herself.

As Deb Schneider says, “What DK does—researching, testing, writing, translating, traveling to remote areas—is incredibly hard work, and very time-consuming. It demands dedication and focus and commitment to something bigger than just food. Diana exemplifies these qualities. I admire her tremendously.”

After speaking, DK decamped to the museum store for book signing. Prior to the event, it was announced that she would sign any of her earlier works as well—very generous, and unusual in the world signings.

I loved seeing how many well-used DK classics, often a stack of several, showed up in the arms of their owners. I’d brought my copy of “Recipes from the Regional Cooks of Mexico” (Harper & Row, 1978). “That’s an old one,” DK said, taking the book and flipping to the Works By page where she wanted to sign. Pausing, her Sharpie hovering an inch from the page, she looked at me and said conspiratorially, “Did you read the part where I was in the bakery?”

With the line behind me snaking out of the museum store and around the corner, there was only time to say yes, but it lingered in my mind a long while—how she happened to think of that particular part of the book. After all, there’ve been six other books and 22 years since. The bakery chapter is a beautiful story, especially for a recovering bread baker like me—how she apprenticed in a Mexico City bakery, and the kindness, skill, and disciplined comportment of the staff. Not too surprising, I suppose, that it was meaningful for the writer, too.

 

 

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