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Diana Kennedy, fiery chronicler of Mexican food traditions

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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.


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