The Essential Mexican Cookbook

Diana Kennedy was a Brit who married the New York Times correspondent for Latin America in the 1950s and early 1960s. She fell in love with Mexican food, which she soon discovered is far better in the country. She learned the cuisine literally from the ground up, visiting every state in Mexico on buses and donkeys and in her Nissan pickup with no power steering, 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. Her 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 conviction, then you must have this one on your shelves.

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. To supplement the strict rationing, there was salmon trout fished from the river that ran within a few hundred yards of the cottage; when fishing wasn’t good there was a steaming bowl of cowl, a soup made from stinging nettles, or just a plate of green beans-picked fresh from the garden and doused with butter from the big earthenware crock that stood by the kitchen door. The butter was soft and yellow, with perceptible grains of salt and globules of water-hand-churned butter from the farm next door. On summer evenings, when everyone from the village would go up to the hillside farms to help bring in the hay, the ham that had been strung up to the rafters by the fireplace months earlier was cut down. It was a feast to us then with bread, onions, and creamy local cheese. Thursday was baking day, and as we cycled wearily home from the woods the smell would waft toward us as the bread was being taken, very crusty, from the brick wall ovens.

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 soon wanted to travel further afield, so I emigrated to Canada. I had never before eaten such crusty rye bread as that of the Spadina Road market in Toronto, or cheeses, summer sausage, and sugar-cured ham quite like the ones the Mennonites made. There was a wonderful breakfast of freshly caught fish on the banks of Lake Louise after an early morning hike through pine forest on a sparkling and pine-scented day. Later in our journey it was followed by poached West Coast salmon in Vancouver, the minute Olympia oysters, and further south in San Francisco the sand-dabs and rex sole.

When I traveled back to England via the Caribbean, everything was new and had to be tried: callaloo, lambie stew, and soursop ices; salt fish and ackee in Jamaica, where, too, you had to see the famous Blue Mountain coffee growing and buy the syrupy sugarloaf pineapples. I ate my first mango, a huge Bombay, conveniently standing up to my neck in crystal clear water on a small island off the Kingston harbor.

And that was the summer 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

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