An Essential Mexican Cookbook

Diana Kennedy was a Brit who married the NY Times correspondent for Latin America in the 1950s and early 1960s.

She fell in love with Mexican food, learning the cuisine literally from the ground up, visiting every state in Mexico on buses, donkeys and in her pre-power steering Nissan pickup, carrying a shovel to dig out of mud and sand.

Kennedy’s explorations resulted in an authoritative body of work that provides a thorough, extensive survey of the many cuisines of Mexico from Chiapas to Baja, but her most essential work is The Cuisines of Mexico (Harper & Row, 1972). If you are at all interested in food and cooking, and you have a taste for books that are well-written, well-researched, and ring with authority and  conviction, then you must have this within reach.

Kennedy’s introduction, “A Culinary Education” certainly ranks among the most notable essays about coming to know food as more than mere nourishment (see below). The first section, “Ingredients and Procedures” gives the initiate a thorough grounding in such arcana as herbs, kitchen equipment, and chilies. You’ll find no better introduction to the basics of the Mexican kitchen.

As to the recipes, bear in mind that Kennedy was writing for a somewhat less sophisticated audience, and these were selected for simplicity and ease of preparation; still you will find surprises. You might be, as I was those many years ago on first reading, delighted by the seafood recipes (“There is an awful lot of coast to Mexico …”), which includes perhaps one of the first recipes for “cebiche” included in an American cookbook.

The inclusion of many Gulf species among these recipes is poignant indeed in this post-BP Gulf world. My personal favorite among them is the snapper Vera Cruz, which we served at the Warehouse during my tenure.

Kennedy’s writing is strong and serviceable, rarely lyrical but savory when so. Her most powerful gift is an excruciating, attention to detail in every respect, evidence of her intelligence and commitment to authenticity. She wanted you to know what she loved.

Kennedy died on July 24, 2022, at the age of 99.

A Culinary Education

Although I have always loved good food, it was in Wales during the war years, when I was doing my service in the Women’s Timber Corps, that I first savored food I can still remember today.

In the Forest of Dean we would toast our very dull sandwiches over the smoldering wood fires and roast potatoes and onions in the ashes to help eke out our rations on those frosty, raw mornings. Later, in the Usk Valley, as we cycled for pleasure through the country lanes and walked the Brecken Beacons, we would stop for the farmhouse teas: thick cream and fresh scones, wedges of homemade bread spread thickly with freshly churned butter, wild damson jam, buttery cakes that had been beaten with the bare hand. From there I moved to an even more remote village in Carmarthenshire.

After the war there were occasional trips to France, and memories flood back of the first belons, and moules along the Côtes du Nord; rice cooked with minute crabs that had to be sucked noisily to extract their sweet juice; the ratatouille, and refreshing Provençal wines in a Saint-Tropez bistro. I can’t forget the lunchtime smell of olive oil in northern Spain as we walked up through the oleander bushes from the beach, and the never ending meals in the Ramblas restaurants in Barcelona, or beef à la tartare after a day’s skiing in the Austrian Alps. It was then that I really learned to cook, to reproduce what had been eaten with such pleasure.

I met Paul Kennedy in Haiti, where he was covering one of the many revolutions for The New York Times. We fell in love and I joined him in Mexico later that year.

And so life in Mexico began. Everything was new, exciting, and exotic. Luz, our first maid, loved to cook. One day she brought her corn grinder to the house and we made tamales: first soaking the dried corn in a solution of unslaked lime, washing the skin of each kernel, and then grinding it to just the right texture. It seemed to take forever, and our backs ached from the effort. But I shall never forget those tamales. She introduced us both to the markets and told us how to use the fruits and vegetables that were strange to us.

Finally Luz had to go, and Rufina came from Oaxaca; it was her first job. She was young and moody, but she was a really good cook and my apprenticeship continued as she taught me how to make her rather special albóndigas, rabbit in adobo, and how to draw and truss a hen.

But I suppose it is Godileva to whom I am most indebted. I always loved the evenings she would stay to do the ironing; we would chat about her life when she was a young girl on her father’s small ranch in a remote area of Guerrero. They had lived well, and she loved good food. She would pat out our tortillas, and before lunch would make us gorditas with the fat of marrow bones to enrich them, and as we came in the door would hand us, straight from the comal, sopes smothered with green sauce and sour cream. We would take turns grinding the chilies and spices on the metate, and it is her recipe for chiles rellenos that I have included in this book.

I had other influences as well. My friend Chabela, on several trips into the interior, taught me almost all I know about the handicrafts of Mexico; together we visited craftsmen in remote areas and on those journeys we would try all the local fruits and foods. It was she who spent many hours in my kitchen showing me, accompanied by meticulous instructions, the specialties of her mother’s renowned kitchen in Talisco.

At last our stay had to come to an end. Paul had been fighting cancer courageously for two years, and it was time to return to New York. By then we had traveled extensively together, and on my own I had driven practically all over the country, seeing, eating, and asking questions. I started to collect old cookbooks and delve into the gastronomic past to learn more for the cookbook that I hoped some day to write.

Paul died early in 1967, and later that same year Craig Claiborne suggested that I start a Mexican cooking school. I suppose I wasn’t ready to start a new venture; I was too saddened and worn by the previous three years. But the idea had planted itself, and in January 1969, on Sunday afternoons, I did start a series of Mexican cooking classes-the first in New York. A wintry Sunday afternoon is a wonderful time to cook, and the idea caught on.

The classes expanded beyond those Sunday afternoons, and the work for the book went on as well. But while the classes continue to flourish and grow, the research and testing have come at least to a temporary halt-if only to allow the book to be published at last. For I find myself involved in a process of continual refinement, due both to the frequent trips I make to Mexico to discover new dishes and to refine old ones, and to the constant dialogue between myself and my students and friends who try these recipes with me.

DIANA KENNEDY
New York April 1972

Lemon Ice

To a quart of finely crushed ice, add a cup of sugar and a half cup lemon juice. A drop or two of vanilla is a nice touch. Mix very well. Serve with ginger snaps.

A Certain Justice: Faulkner, Mitford and McGee

Best known for her work The American Way of Death, Jessica Mitford was a British aristocrat, writer, and political activist who came to Mississippi in 1951 to publicize the unjust execution of Willie McGee, a black man from Laurel who was sentenced to death in 1945 for the rape of Willette Hawkins, a white housewife.

McGee’s legal case became a cause célèbre that many find has striking similarities to the trial Harper Lee wrote about in To Kill a Mockingbird nine years later.. William Faulkner wrote a letter insisting the case against McGee was unproven, and Mitford sought him out in her effort to rally support against a travesty of justice that many find has striking similarities to the trial Harper Lee wrote about in To Kill a Mockingbird nine years later. This excerpt is from Mitford’s memoir A Fine Old Conflict.

‘We had already overstayed our time in Mississippi. The four weeks allotted for the trip stretched into five, as we did not wish it to appear we had been chased out by the Jackson Daily News. But we decided we could not leave the state without attempting to see Mississippi’s most (indeed its only) illustrious resident, William Faulkner.

The reserves having drifted back to their respective homes, it was the original four of us who drove down to Oxford. We asked a gangling, snaggle-toothed white boy for directions to Faulkner’s house. “Down the road a piece, past the weepin’ willa tree,” was his response, which I took as augury of our arrival in authentic Faulkner country. We turned through a cast-iron gate into a long avenue of desiccated trees leading to a large, run-down plantation-style house, its antebellum pillars covered with grayish moss. Through the window we saw Faulkner, a small man in a brown velvet smoking jacket, pacing up and down, apparently dictating to a secretary.

We gingerly approached and rang the front doorbell. Faulkner himself came to the door, and when we explained the reason for our visit, greeted us most cordially, invited us in, and held forth on the McGee case for a good two hours. Faulkner spoke much as he wrote, in convoluted paragraphs with a sort of murky eloquence. I was desperately trying to take down everything he said in my notebook, and frequently got lost as he expatiated on his favorite themes: sex, race, and violence. The Willie McGee case, compounded of all three, was a subject he seemed to savor with much relish; it could have been the central episode in one of his short stories.

Later it was my job to edit down his rambling monologue as a brief press release to be issued by our national office. He said the McGee case was an outrage and it was good we had come. He cautioned us that many people down here don’t pay much attention to law and justice, don’t go by the facts. He said in this case they are giving obeisance to a fetish of long standing. He expressed fear for McGee’s safety in jail.

When we left he wished us good luck. William Patterson was jubilant when I telephoned to tell him of our interview with Faulkner. It was a major break- through, he said. The release would certainly be picked up by the wire services and flashed around the world! But he insisted we show it to Faulkner and ask him to initial it, for fear that pressure from his Mississippi compatriots might later induce him to repudiate it.

This time I drove alone past the weepin’ willa tree to find Faulkner in dungarees and hip boots, up to his knees in dank manure, working alongside one of his black farmhands. I showed him the release and explained why I had come: “Mr. Patterson thought I should ask you to sign this, for fear you might later repudiate it.”

He read it through, initialed it, and as he handed it back murmured softly, as though speaking to himself, “I think McGee and the woman should both be destroyed.”

“Oh don’t let’s put that in,” said I, and clutching the precious document made a dash for my car.

One can only conclude that Faulkner gave expression, in his own distinctive voice, to the deep-seated schizophrenia then endemic among white liberals and racial moderates of the region.’