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Timid Cooks Can Stop at the Rio Grande

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Last year I went to an advance publicity luncheon for Diana Kennedy’s latest cookbook, “My Mexico.” The venue was one of the current New York palaces of Southwesternized cooking, and the collision of philosophies was something to behold.

I won’t dwell on how the restaurant realized Kennedy’s food, but two highlights of absurdity involved rice dishes. It seems that this particular establishment uses only converted rice. It logically followed that the promised rice fritters from Morelos (which involved overnight soaking) never showed up at all and that a dish of the sopa type (akin to a pilaf) tasted like rice that had had a funeral service read over it sometime previously.

When the finished book reached me four months later, I did some spot comparisons against the advance proofs that had been printed around the time of the luncheon. Sure enough, Kennedy had adamantly rewritten every mention of rice in an ingredients list to insert the following phrase: “not precooked or converted.”

There in a nutshell is the story of what Diana Kennedy has and hasn’t done for the American palate since “The Cuisines of Mexico” in 1972.

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All those years ago, she started telling the food cognoscenti that the traditions of Mexican cooking were worth distinguishing from our confused images of the subject. All these years afterward, the food cognoscenti are gladly lumping together Mexican cooking and some Santa Fe-ish style-of-the-month. And Kennedy is still having none of it.

If anything, this book shows her at a new pitch of unconventional evangelism. Much as I’ve learned from all her books, I expect to learn more from “My Mexico” than all the rest put together. The reason is simple: This time she’s dared to write directly and avowedly about Mexico and Mexican people for their own sake, not as a backdrop to recipes.

Those who have Kennedy’s earlier books may find this one closest to the 1978 “Recipes from the Regional Cooks of Mexico” (now available as “Mexican Regional Cooking”). But that time around, she went the conformist route of the cookbook writer proffering the standard appetizers-soups-meats-desserts menu lineup, interspersed with accounts of learning from cooks on journeys to various places.

“My Mexico” vigorously reverses the approach. The places, journeys and learning experiences take center stage, with finished cooking formulas being worked in at intervals.

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Most of the book is organized in five sections sketching the country’s main geographical divisions (“the Gulf Coast,” “the central hub,” etc. ) and recounting about 40 years worth of travels through 17 or 18 of Mexico’s 31 states. Wherever Kennedy has gone, she has not so much braved as exulted in terrible roads, unpropitious weather and unforeseen obstacles en route to finding out something she wouldn’t have understood otherwise.

True, she does translate a huge number of her discoveries into recipes (about 300). But the real reason she thought she had a sixth book in her becomes clear elsewhere. I suggest that before trying to cook anything, a prospective user ought to spend some time living with Kennedy’s passionate evocations of local skies and landscapes:

. . . once past the agricultural fringes of land around Dolores Hidalgo, you pass only the occasional rancheria, a small settlement nearly always situated near some source of water: springs that feed a small pond or narrow stream. The land is poor and scrubby, dotted with the occasional mesquite tree and intersected by towering sheer and craggy rock formations. The sky was an intense blue that morning, except for some billowing clouds casting shadows that heightened the horizontal and brilliant ribbons of color: greens and yellows of all shades.

Equally crucial are her wonderful descriptions of skilled hands bringing a dish into being in a manner beyond the power of recipes to wholly re-create. All this material is not so much helpful to appreciating the recipes as indispensable to making sense of them.

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In all honesty, not everyone is going to love what I most value about the book: its devoted attention to things not necessarily accessible or charming. Kennedy herself allows in the book that it’s “eccentric.” Most of the time she asks an awful lot of us. It’s best if you’re the sort who welcomes her demands.

The demands I’m thinking of range from barrages of obscure names like xonequi, escobetilla or tepejilote (respectively belonging to a Veracruzan leafy green, a mushroom found in the state of Mexico and an edible palm blossom) to Kennedy’s horrific description of an annual Pueblan matanza, or mass slaughter of goats. She considers a Pueblan sauce made from pixtli, the laboriously prepared pit of the mamey fruit, important enough to include in the book, whether people can get pixtli or not. For the first time I recall, she declines to make room for tamal or tortilla formulas using Quaker Masa Harina or any other commercial substitutes for real freshly ground corn masa (dough from lime-treated kernels).

If you admire such breaks with ordinary cookbook spoon-feeding--or, to put it another way, practicality--as much as I do, you will probably consider this Kennedy’s finest book. Certainly the mix of recipes is magisterial and not as forbidding as I may have made it sound.

At one end of the spectrum, Kennedy offers plenty of attractive dishes that anyone with access to just a few basic Mexican ingredients can easily make: boiling potatoes in a poblano chile sauce, cracklins (chicharrones) of fried fish fillets with powdered chile and lime juice, a kind of pecan brittle, a cabbage salad from one of the 19th century Mexican cookbooks she loves to pore through. Others are lengthy but doable, like the Oaxacan coloradito (one of the major moles), Zacatecan bean fritters or Tabascan tortilla “sandwiches” filled with shrimp and beans and fried in oil with chopped garlic.

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On the other hand. . . . Well, when you see that the very first recipe is for tamales with a wheat flour filling involving pulque (fermented agave sap) and dried corn pollen and that for the next one you boil peaches in a wood-ash solution, you’ve seen a Kennedy-esque declaration of intent.

The few recipes I’ve tried yielded beautiful results with few or no roadblocks. I loved the rich, velvety fruit-and-nut mole from Xico in Veracruz, a great thing to try on people who think they don’t like moles. I had no problems with the cabbage salad, an interesting and easy sweet-and-sour poblano chile relish or grouper steaks slathered with a seasoning paste and cooked with sweet peppers and tomatoes.

I did, however, see other recipes that might puzzle would-be users. Some involve pesky little oversights, as when the word “extracting” in directions for a sauce on page 171 refers both to what gets pushed through a sieve and what gets left behind. Or different parts of a dish may be spread out confusingly in several places without enough cross-references (see the cheese-filled gordas from Palpan in Veracruz). There’s much evidence of sloppy copy editing, especially in Spanish words and the many scientific names that Kennedy goes to the (very useful) trouble to provide. The English-language index is ludicrously inadequate for the richness of her text, and the Spanish one is worse--just try looking up the names of local herbs or shellfish!

The small glitches of this book are a mirror of how uncommon it is. Who else probes and pioneers like this? Who else would try to wrestle such stuff into normal cookbook confines against a publisher’s schedule? Something in Kennedy’s relationship with her subject and with her readers reminds me of an impassioned, impatient music teacher. Though most cookbook authors go from book to book looking for more recipes in a vein that their readers feel comfortable with, she keeps imperiously making people stretch their limits. You must run ever farther and more breathlessly to keep up with her own ferocious desire to explore, reveal and preserve. If you don’t consider it a privilege, you’ve got the wrong guide--or she’s got the wrong pupil.

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