Bestselling Mexican cookbook author Diana Kennedy has written a love letter to the cuisine of Oaxaca. Initially asked to write the book in 1994 by the then-governor of the state in Mexico’s southwest, its publication was thwarted time and again. The delay was due in part to politics, in part to Kennedy wanting to find a publisher “willing to include the text and recipes from the indigenous areas and not just the more familiar material illustrated with the usual predictably glamorous photographs.” Finally, in 2008, “Oaxaca al Gusto” (Metropolitan University of Monterrey) appeared in Spanish. It is now available in English.
"Oaxaca al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy"
by Diana Kennedy
(Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2010, 436 pp.)
Kennedy, who was born in the United Kingdom but has been living in Mexico since 1957, is now 87. She drove clenched-fisted along single-lane mountain roads with thousand-foot, unguarded drop-offs to ask strangers in remote villages to open their kitchens and share their techniques. She slept out on a camp bed in blistering heat and mountain cold. Her undertaking was made even more difficult given that her sources had suffered centuries of neglect or abuse by outside authorities and were often suspicious.
The result of her fearlessness is a fascinating compendium of some 300 recipes from Oaxaca, the original home of maize and a territory that boasts the greatest biodiversity in a country considered the fourth most biodiversified nation in the world. Kennedy, sometimes referred to as the Julia Child of Mexico, arranges her book by region, introducing each with a brief essay and scenic photographs. Headnotes for the recipes tell readers where and from whom the author got them. The accompanying photographs, most taken by Kennedy herself, are of cooking techniques or regional plants, and, only occasionally, of the finished dish.
A treasure trove of unusual comales and tortillas
Kennedy explores a variety of comales (griddles), including the puzzling comiscal that looks and is used like the tannur ovens — round and earthen — found across the Islamic world. She ferrets out unusual tortillas made with yucca or plantains, studded with shrimp. She photographs the 24 varieties of chile unique to Oaxaca, including taviche, costeño, boludo, cuerudo and soledad. She describes how foams are created, perhaps from the petiole of a vine in the Smilax family, perhaps of dried and fresh plumeria flowers, and how they’re floated on drinks. She identifies the plants that yield the buds, leaves, shoots, tendrils, stems and flowers that go into various fascinating dishes.
That the non-Mexican cook may not be able to put a finger on the social, economic and cultural gulf between a beef estofado (stew) made with raisins, almonds and olives and a pork knuckle in mole verde made with chiles serrano, pumpkin seeds, and radish, cilantro and epazote leaves is not her worry. That a non-Mexican cook is unlikely to make a paste of cardon seeds from a cactus fruit to spread on tortillas or a salsa of wasp’s nest, chiles, garlic and salt to wrap in a tortilla is not the point, she says repeatedly in her presentations. “This is not primarily a book for Americans to cook from,” she insists. “It’s a book about how they cook in Oaxaca.” In short, unlike her earlier publications, “Oaxaca al Gusto” is not a teaching cookbook, but an ethnography expressed as recipes, fascinating to anyone interested in the variety of the world’s cuisines.
Her intent it to chronicle the ancient food traditions of Oaxaca, many of which, without Kennedy’s devotion and determination, would pass from future memory without a trace.
Kennedy yearns for Oaxaca’s indigenous cuisines to be preserved and exalts in the flavors of their time-consuming, laborious dishes. Her extraordinary book is a capstone to a life of curiosity and hard work that has already produced a series of pioneering books on Mexico’s varied cuisine. Celebrating the symbiosis between biodiversity and the ingenuity of cooks for whom eating local is a necessity as well as a celebration of culture, “Oaxaca al Gusto” is a magnificent contribution to the world’s culinary literature.
Rachel Laudan is a historian and freelance writer based in Mexico City. Her book, “The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii’s Culinary History,” earned her the Julia Child/Jane Grigson Prize from the International Assn. of Culinary Professionals, and she recently served as keynote speaker at the national meeting of Les Dames d’Escoffier. She is currently completing a book on the history of the world’s cuisines which will be published next year by the University of California Press.
Photos from top:
Display of plumeria and cacao beans, Oaxacan ingredients for creating drink-topping foams.
“Oaxaca al Gusto”
Credits: Rachel Laudan