Why does Diana Kennedy have us so divided?
The tug-of-war over who can be a Mexican food expert. A Jenn Harris chicken crawl. Creating Jordan Peele’s perfect fish sandwich for “Nope.” Ryan Gosling’s love for “toxic” Skittles. Plus, pretzel logic. I’m Laurie Ochoa, general manager of L.A. Times Food, in for Bill Addison with this week’s Tasting Notes.
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The legacy of a ‘difficult woman’
There is one scene from my 1992 interview with Diana Kennedy that I’ll never forget — mostly because there are many ways to interpret it. The British-born author of “The Cuisines of Mexico,” who died Sunday at her home in Michoacán state at the age of 99, was making tamales for a big dinner and had two young Mexican cooks helping her. She showed them how she wanted the corn husks folded around the masa — as a compact envelope with a thin husk tie. “Bonito!” she said.
“But this is the way we do it in Mexico,” one of the Mexican assistants told her as he showed her a simpler method of tucking just one end of the husk over the masa, leaving an opening on one side.
“Ah,” she told him, “but this is the way we do it in my part of Mexico.”
Neither side would concede to the other. She continued to assemble the tamales her way while her male assistants stuck to their way.
Was this tamale standoff an example of a snobbish white lady trying to tell Mexicans how to cook their own food? Or were the young male cooks too dismissive of a woman who had spent years traveling the many regions of Mexico and knew that there was more than one way to make a tamale?
When we grow up eating the foods of our culture — in my case, I think of my grandmother’s nopales, albondigas soup and red-tinged menudo, not to mention the thick atoles she loved to give us on cold mornings — we have an intimate relationship with what author and former Times journalist Victor Valle, with Mary Lou Valle, called “Recipe of Memory.”
But can this intimate relationship cloud our view of a cuisine’s possibilities? A friend and I sometimes go back and forth on what makes a proper birria — goat or beef. Having spent years happily eating goat birria at L.A.’s El Parian, the dish to me should always be made with goat. But my friend’s family is from Nogales, Ariz., where she says beef is the birria norm. To her, goat in birria is just plain wrong. Does it take an outsider like Kennedy to show the breadth of a cuisine — or as Kennedy so wisely titled her book, “The Cuisines of Mexico”? Yet does that outsider also have to take care in how those cuisines are presented to those who’ve grown up inside the culture?
Some of these questions have come up in the remembrances of Kennedy this week. Food editor Daniel Hernandez was lucky enough to visit Kennedy at her Michoacán compound. He writes of having a soft spot for the author who blazed her own trail and didn’t seem to give a damn about what others thought of her. To those who accuse her of cultural appropriation, he writes that “she’d meticulously credit the women originators of the recipes she’d perfect alongside them.” Although Tejal Rao, in the New York Times, points out that the Mexican cooks she credited didn’t achieve her level of fame. L.A. Times columnist Gustavo Arellano praises her for elevating people’s conception of Mexican food but criticizes her for dismissing Mexican American food.
“United States of Arugula” author David Kamp recalls how Kennedy confirmed the story that she left chef Rick Bayless “by the side of the road” in Mexico, burnishing her reputation as a “difficult” woman.
But San Francisco chef Pim Techamuanvivit doesn’t like the “difficult woman” label for Kennedy. In a tweet, she writes, “The more I read how people talk about Diana Kennedy the more incandescent with rage I get, too. She was not unkind or mean just to be vicious, she just refused to shut up about things and issues that meant so much to her. And for that she was called a cantankerous woman.”
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Rollin’ in El Gallo
Could there be a more perfect vehicle for cruising the streets of SoCal in search of fried chicken spots run by women than El Gallo, described by Food columnist Jenn Harris as “a canary yellow 1973 Oldsmobile 98, with a rooster head bolted to the roof of the car and a curved feathery tail attached to the trunk”? Owner Tommy Kendall drove Harris and Hotville Hot Chicken’s Kim Prince all over for a chicken crawl loosely connected to the all-female restaurant organization Regarding Her. Starting with chef Kat Turner’s Li’l Chicky Sando at Highly Likely in West Adams and ending in Silver Lake at Lien Ta and Jonathan Whitener’s All Day Baby, they hit Jurni Rayne’s Gritz N Wafflez, Annie’s Soul Delicious in Little Ethiopia, Casey Felton’s Banh Oui, Harold’s Chicken Hollywood and more. Required listening for any chicken crawl: The tasty beats of “Chicken Techno.”
Jordan Peele’s perfect horror film fish sandwich
You can’t eat at the fast-food fish restaurant (and “Goonies” homage) Copperpot’s Cove — but then, maybe you wouldn’t want to given the blood and horror that surround its customers in the Jordan Peele movies “Us” and “Nope.” On the other hand, that fish sandwich seen in “Nope” may be the best fish sandwich ever served in a movie scene. After all, as L.A. Times Food’s Stephanie Breijo reports, it was created just for Peele by Gilberto Cetina, chef of the great fish restaurant Holbox and Yucatecan specialist Chichén Itzá in the Mercado La Paloma in downtown L.A. Keep an eye out at Holbox — there’s a chance Cetina will serve the “Nope” fish sandwich as a special in coming days.
Centina isn’t the only L.A. chef to lend some expertise to Hollywood. If you’ve gotten caught up with the lives and culinary aspirations of Carmy, Syd, Marcus, Tina, Richie and the rest of the kitchen characters in Hulu’s “The Bear,” it’s a good weekend to catch up with Breijo’s piece about what went right and what went wrong when the cast tried to train at Walter Manzke’s République and Dave Beran’s Pasjoli.
Are Ryan Gosling’s beloved Skittles toxic?
In the rainbow-bright candy land of Skittles, it looked as if it was going to be a very good month with an A-list mention in Netflix’s high-budget action film “The Grey Man” starring Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans. How could it get better when Gosling as our hero turns down a sushi lunch offered by Evans (going full gourmand villain) with the line, “No, I’m good. I just had some Skittles.” This week, Gosling went on “Good Morning America” and talked about how his on-set advisor told him, “You should always have Skittles on you because it’s a great source of energy — they don’t go bad.”
Of course, all of this was offset by the news that a California lawsuit was filed earlier this month saying that the “known toxin” titanium dioxide makes Skittles “unfit for human consumption.” As Times reporter Nathan Solis writes, the European Food Safety Authority recently decided that titanium dioxide is “no longer safe when used as a food additive.” But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has deemed it “safe as a food colorant.”
As long as Gosling doesn’t get carried away with his Skittles habit, he should be safe to fight off still more sushi invites from Evans.
Masks in restaurants
Late this week, after much speculation, Los Angeles County officials announced that an indoor public mask mandate would not be reinstated, a relief for restaurant owners. When Food reporter Stephanie Breijo talked with several restaurateurs about the possible return of a mask mandate, it was clear that the wounds of the past few pandemic years are still raw. Just as restaurants are starting to find an equilibrium, she found a lot of anxiety out there. Even without a mandate, customers are seeking more outdoor dining spaces as uncertainty rises over the most recent variant.
— Also from Breijo, news of the opening of the poolside Bar Clara, the first food and drink spot to open at the new Hotel Per La downtown in the space that was until recent days the NoMad Hotel, plus the latest on LouLou Restaurant & Lounge, Saffy’s Coffee & Tea Shop, Propaganda Wine Bar and Prosperity Market Scavenger Hunt “in support of L.A.’s Black-owned shops, restaurants and other small businesses ... in celebration of Black Business Month” in August.
Are you ready for Food Bowl?
Preparations are still underway for L.A. Times Food Bowl, our annual monthlong series of live food talks and tastings taking place Sept. 1-30, but tickets are already selling out for the dinners celebrating Restaurant of the Year, Anajak Thai, and Jonathan Gold Award winner Meals by Genet. This week, however, tickets were released for our L.A. Times Night Market, taking place Sept. 23-25 at Paramount Pictures Studios and the Launch Party at Grandmaster Recorders on Sept. 1. Look for news next month about more events at Food Bowl, presented by City National Bank.
Twists Under Fire
Finally, this week’s screen obsession is ... pretzels! How they’re twisted into existence and then sent into a fiery inferno where they are browned and released into the wide world only to be eaten. A twist of fate.
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