The best way to learn Mexican cooking is from someone who was taught the cuisine at their mother’s table or someone who has lived in Mexico for many years. It also helps to a considerable degree if that person is indeed a good cook, someone who is interested in techniques and ingredients and can steer you in the proper direction for suitable pots and pans and such. Barring such a muse, we are left with books.
One of Craig Claiborne’s most significant legacies is his diverse contributions to the American table via his support of cooks and writers. Claiborne encouraged us to sample Vietnamese, Chinese, Moroccan and (perhaps most enduring) Mexican cuisine, in that case the writer is Diana Kennedy, a British subject who married The New York Times correspondent for Latin America in the 1950s and early 1960s. She became enamored of the food, which she discovered was better in rural and local settings, and began to learn the cuisine literally from the ground up, visiting every state in Mexico on all kinds of transportation, from buses to donkeys to her Nissan pickup truck with no power steering (and a shovel to dig it out of the mud). Such dedication is rare if not unique; Kennedy’s efforts were crowned with an authoritative body of work that provides a thorough, extensive survey of the many cuisines of Mexico from Chiapas to Baja as well as dozens of honors and awards, including membership in the Order of the British Empire.
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. A revision was published in 1986, but I’d recommend the original edition with Claiborne’s introduction stating, “If this book is a measure of Diana’s talent, it will probably rank as the definitive book in English on (Mexican cooking).” Kennedy’s introduction, “A Culinary Education” certainly ranks among the most notable essays about coming to know food as more than mere nourishment. 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 revealing when so; her most powerful gift is an excruciating attention to detail which can be daunting, but remember again her audience, who needed such specifics. You will enjoy the Mesoamerican art she includes as well as the history. After you read this book, you will come to know Rick Bayless for the shallow fraud that he is. Comer bien.