This British native is a national hero in Mexico. She has spent nearly fifty years traveling around Mexico, learning about and documenting Mexican cuisine. She currently resides in the tiny village of San Pancho, where she has built a solar-powered eco-house and planted an organic farm.
In my childhood we had no money but we were brought up to eat well, often with fish (it was the cheapest food then). My mother was a very good cook in very English Mrs Beeton-style. I always loved to eat so it all began right there. It was quite natural that when I arrived in Mexico and saw all the strange food in the markets I just had to cook.
I remember being astonished by the great variety of multi-coloured wild mushrooms in the rainy season and fascinated by the mountains of fresh and dried chiles. I can still remember the flavour of my first corn tortilla and poblano chile.
The talkative little woman who came once a week to clean enthused so much about her local dishes that I said, ‘Let’s not clean the house, let’s do tamales’, for instance. As I got to know more Mexicans they recognized my curiosity about their food and put me in touch with their mothers, aunts or grandmothers. Whenever I could escape from work, I would go off to their kitchens and cook with them, despite my very primitive Spanish.
My husband died in 1967 a year after we arrived in New York so I had to get a job there. In Mexico City the year before I had offered to give Craig Claiborne (food writer for the New York Times) a Mexican cookbook and he said, ‘No I don’t want one until you write one.’ When Paul died in New York Craig invited me to dinner and said, ‘You have to give Mexican cooking lessons’. He was instrumental in getting so many of us non-professional cooks (later turned cookbook authors) to start giving ethnic cooking lessons in New York.
An editor at the (then) Harper & Row asked me if I would do a Mexican cookbook for them? So I sent her stuff that I had written. That summer I travelled to many parts of Mexico much of it on third class buses. When I returned I looked at the material I had written, scoffed and rewrote it all. One evening soon after she telephoned me and said, ‘What happened to you this summer, you taught yourself to write’.
While living in New York I was asked to travel and give classes in the US and Canada. Then as I was jogging every day in a bad way I injured my heels. The doctor said I must not walk around. This was devastating news but I decided I had to do something to survive. Inspired by the different recipes based on corn tortillas in the books of Josefina Velaquez de Leon I asked a friend to buy me piles of corn tortillas and for the following two months I sat on a little stool in my kitchen and cooked and cooked. I was amazed at the remarkable regional differences for, say, enchiladas or tacos. I got piles and piles of tortillas. Every region had different kinds. Another book was born (The Tortilla Book)
One weekend several years ago there was someone shouting at the gate - we had three very fierce dogs so no one walks in uninvited – the young man on duty said there were people outside, relatives of some neighbours who want me to sign some books for them. They were Mexican relatives visiting from LA. So I invited them up and signed the books, the Spanish editions and they told me, ‘We love to read the way you write about our country’. There, I decided, was no bigger compliment.
The Oaxaca book (Oaxaca al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy) was published in Spanish first. It weighs three kilos representing 14 years of research covering the gastronomy of 11 geographical and cultural areas. I would like people to know about this book because it is considered definitive (although I would love to have included even more recipes). I spent many of those years travelling in the mountainous terrain of that state returning at different times of the year to visit the local markets and record the difference in local produce or foodstuffs gathered in the wild.
I am now rewriting and enlarging this personal book, Nothing Fancy, first published in the 80s and out of print. There’s lots of new material so it’s going to be explosive. I am going to indulge in listing my bête noires and take off things like sous vide. It’s ridiculous there is no idea of how we are contaminating our food with all those horrible little plastic bags. I am sure you get the picture.
My feeling is if you criticise a dish you have to have explain why and have suggestions for improving it. It is all very well to produce a dish beautifully but it has to be delicious. If it is a classic or ethnic dish it has to have the original balance of flavours lent by the correct herb or chile. In Mexican food, for instance, you should NEVER mix a chile habanero with Serrano, etc, etc.
My life is full of chance. All it took was for somebody to mention a regional dishes and off I went. I have had 56 years of eating, travelling and writing in Mexico. It has taken hard work, dedication and discipline to write those books.
Everything in my kitchen is cooked from scratch. I grow a bit of wheat so I make whole-wheat bread. I do my jams, bitter orange marmalade, vinegars, English muffins and the corn masa for at least 12 types of tamales. At this time of the year my garden is burgeoning with vegetables, salad greens and cucumber; there are apples, peaches, dragon fruits and raspberries. It is just overwhelming what it has produced this year. I like to think it is because we use an organic spray that not only kills bugs but also feeds the soil. I have just made a local recipe (printed in Nothing Fancy) that I make at this time every year with 50 unripe local peaches, Duraznos en tacha. They keep for almost a year and every visitor gets one only.
The recipe is for “Duraznos en tacha” (no real translation of tacha used in this sense)
50 small, under-ripe criollo peaches (not the big, juicy California type) about 2 kgs.
scant 1/3 cup wood ash
about 3Ls water
2 kgs. sugar
With the tines of a sharp fork, prick each peach (right down to the seed) 4 times.
Put the water into a large non-reactive container and stir in the ash. Let the ash settle to the bottom of the container for about 30 minutes. Carefully add the peaches trying not to disturb the ash too much. The water should just barely cover the peaches. Set aside overnight (but while you are still awake gently tilt the pan to make sure the peaches are evenly soaked).
The following morning, remove peaches and one by one rinse and rub off any remaining ash particles and the downy surface of the skin.
Meanwhile put 5 cups water and the sugar into a preserving pan over medium heat until the sugar has dissolved and the syrup has reached boiling point.
Add the peaches; the syrup should come only about 3/4 way up the surface of the fruit. Cook over a low flame, tilting the pan from to time until the peaches collapse, the syrup thickens and the whole mixture turns to a dark brown color—about 4-5 hours. Remove and cool on a rack. Leave to dry off before packing them into a container. The peaches should last for almost a year as they dry out and intensify in flavor.
Diana Kennedy is a speaker at MAD3. See the full line-up for this year’s symposium on the MAD website.