Diana Kennedy, fiery chronicler of Mexican food traditions

December 24, 2010

If the grand dame of Mexican cooking were a foodstuff, Diana Kennedy might be a pickled pepper. Absolutely indispensable at the table. But be careful. A little chili habanero goes a long way.

Three hours west of Mexico City, we pass happily up the cobblestone drive of her home tucked into a forested hill outside a sleepy little pueblo in the wilds of Michoacan. But when Kennedy spots an unexpected guest, a fellow reporter just along for the ride, she recoils in fury, points, and demands, “What is she?”

“I am very, very annoyed,” Kennedy says, and turns on her heel.

There is a difference between hospitality and gastronomy, and Kennedy is much more about the latter and is famous for her tart tongue, quick temper and withering appraisals of competitors.

But so what? The “Julia Child of Mexican Cuisine” is not a celebrity television chef, or a restaurateur with customers to pamper, or, actually, our friend. It is not necessary to be nice. She is instead a dogged, obsessive pop anthropologist who has spent the past 50 years traveling to some of the most remote corners of “my Mexico,” as she calls it, wrangling home cooks to reveal their secrets to this British expat with the imperial attitude.

Omnipresent Chicago chef, author and Obama pal Rick Bayless might have made us forget, but Kennedy was the game changer who in 1972 introduced “The Cuisines of Mexico” cookbook, and our understanding of Mexican food was never the same. Forgotten (but not gone!) was the beloved Number Three Combo at Tex-Mex joints inevitably called El Rancho — the sad enchilada, the weary beans, the useless rice, all hidden beneath a yellow glop of nuclear cheese — after Kennedy turned so many gringos on to the life-affirming pozole stew of Jalisco and the killer mole sauces made in Oaxaca.

In her lovely, airy, tiled kitchen, a member of her household staff, who is never introduced, is standing in front of a burner, roasting and grinding coffee beans. The serf keeps to his task, eyes down.

Kennedy grows the beans herself in her experimental garden. She serves a few cups. It has a rich, earthy aroma. “These aren’t super beans,” Kennedy says. “It’s not the right climate.” Actually, the coffee is muddy, but we all sip and yum, faking ambrosia.

All the while, Kennedy complains. She complains of flu. She complains about poblano peppers from China and apples from America. “Outrageous!” She isn’t happy about the state of her chicken house. She regrets deeply the rise of the Mexican industrial tortilla. She calls her gardener lazy. Warns us twice about the toilets. Gets really mad when someone tries to serve the women first. She apologizes for being prickly but doesn’t stop.

You can tune her out for a second and enjoy the kitchen porn. On a sunny shelf, glass jars of vinegars with pineapples, wines, rich green sprigs of something. A wooden bowl filled with fat limes. A pair of binoculars and “A Field Guide to Mexican Birds.” Outside, hummingbirds. Above a curtain rod, straw baskets with herbs. Atop the tile counters, traditional warm red charred clay pots.

“I’ve had some of these since I moved to Mexico,” Kennedy says, more than 50 years ago, when she arrived with her husband, Paul P. Kennedy, a correspondent for the New York Times, whose colleague Craig Claiborne persuaded her to publish her first cookbook.

She complains that reviewers have complained about the organization of her latest and likely last book (“I’m 87 years old; be serious, I’m not going to live forever”), called “Oaxaca al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy.” Instead of the traditional progression — appetizers to salads to soups to entrees, etc. — Kennedy divided the project into the 11 regions of the state.

Published by the University of Texas Press and on sale for $50, the Oaxaca book is academic-tome-meets-sociological-study (with chapters about the religious, ritual importance of chocolate, chilies and corn). It is a big, fat cookbook — 452 pages — but more than anything a statement about how a resourceful people created a cuisine.

“Trying to record the ethnic foods as well as the more sophisticated recipes of the urban centers presented an enormous challenge and responsibility,” Kennedy writes in the introduction. “I am sure that if I had known what it would entail to travel almost constantly through the year, and often uncomfortably, to research, record, photograph and then cook and eat over three hundred recipes, I might never have had the courage to start the project in the first place.”

Kennedy took her first trip to Oaxaca in 1965. She often sleeps in her old Nissan truck. “I carry a shovel to dig us out of the mud,” she says.

With the coffee down the hatch, Kennedy tends to the tamales. As she tells the chefs who make the pilgrimage to her Mexican cooking “boot camp” (her phrase) a million times, tamales are all about the masa, the corn dough. She steams a few Veracruzanos. The masa is fluffy, puffy and creamy white, not the yellow brick of lard that is often peddled in Los Angeles. Inside is just the perfect thimble of pork, flavored with smoky chili ancho.

The crummy coffee is forgotten.

As we natter away, she begins to prepare a soup of squash blossoms. The onion? Always white. Chopped fine. A little garlic. Shoot yourself if you own a garlic press. Later the poblano peppers. “The oil doesn’t need to be too hot,” Kennedy says. “You want the flavors.” Together we chop a big bunch of the yellow, musky flowers and toss them into the pot to steam. In a few minutes, they are done. “You see? I like my food a little shiny, not greasy. Do you see how bright the food looks?” We do.

In her Oaxaca book, Kennedy includes not only the classic fare — the red, green, black moles — but also the recipes of indigenous women who live hard lives and cook with wild plants and make meals with ingredients that folks in Washington (and Mexico City) might find exotic and inaccessible, like a wasp’s nest sauce or turtle eggs in broth or iguana tamales.

So if you want to try making beef brains with jalapenos and garlic, this is the book for you.

Kennedy maintains that the new generation of explorers must acquaint themselves with the kitchen: “All anthropologists and botanists, they ought to learn to cook,” she says. “I am suggesting that all the syllabi for would-be biologists include classes in cooking, or they will miss the whole point, of how the culture and plants and food come together.”

We put the blossoms, onions and chicken broth into the Osterizer. “All Mexican cooks use blenders,” Kennedy says. The soup is thick, a little more lumpy than the master likes, so she thins it a bit, pronounces it ready and able. It is just right: The rich blossoms say hello to a pop of chili in the savory homemade broth.

In David Kamp’s 2006 book about the foodie revolution, “United States of Arugula,” there is a funny passage about Rick Bayless meeting Kennedy for the first time in Mexico. “She did everything but just chew me up and spit me out,” Bayless recalls. “I’d never been so poorly treated by any person. She said, ‘This is over, I think we’re done,’ and kicked me out of her car and left me on the road. I had to walk back to town.”

From her side, Kennedy told Kamp: “ I had just bought some land but not yet built a house, and he sort of trailed me there, and the day he arrived, somebody had cut down two trees on the land that I’d just bought, and I was furious. And then, you know, being young, he was sort of damned opinionated, and he kept saying things like, ‘Well, why didn’t you translate the Spanish titles in the tortilla book?’ I said, ‘Well, for goodness’ sake!’ He was being very brash, and I was getting annoyed, so that was it: I gave him the bum’s rush.”

Here at her kitchen in Michoacan, Kennedy announces, unprovoked, that she read all about the Mexican meal Bayless cooked in May at the White House state dinner for Mexican President Felipe Calderon.

Mexican food for a Mexican? “Ridiculous,” Kennedy says. She ticks off the menu, which included a ceviche and a mole. “Can you imagine the indigestion?” she says. “Can you imagine how many plates were sent back?”

She is finally enjoying herself.

boothb@washpost.com

William Booth is The Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief. He was previously bureau chief in Mexico, Los Angeles and Miami.
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