The Wrath of Diana Kennedy
April 22, 2015 6:27 PM   Subscribe

A great interview with Diana Kennedy, who knows more about the traditions of Mexican cooking and the ingredients involved than I ever will! Her book The Art of Mexican Cooking is not just a collection of recipes. Kennedy intersperses anecdotes and explanations of processes. Her descriptions of the ingredients she uses are worth the price of the book.
posted by Agave (21 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
 
Interesting stuff; would love to know more about the Rick Bayless tiff.
posted by Renoroc at 7:03 PM on April 22, 2015


Bayless is a good cook but a bit of a blowhard who likes to make out that he invented authenticity in Mexican cooking. He's made a concerted effort to "own" Mexican food and food writing, with sometimes embarrassing results, like when he went to LA and told everyone that it was time somebody brought the real Mexico to these LA imposters. That didn't go over too well, and Bayless ended up leaving with his tail between his legs. Kennedy is ten times the cultural chronicler he is or ever will be, and those LA cooks he scorned are a hundred times as inventive.

Still, you could do worse than work your way through his books. The food is good.
posted by Fnarf at 7:10 PM on April 22, 2015 [4 favorites]


Her house and garden look like heaven on earth.
posted by 445supermag at 7:51 PM on April 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


Another, less romantic, view of tortillas from Rachel Laudan, another English expat in Mexico:

When I was twelve years old, I had my first period. I thought, “Oh my god, is this what I’m going to have to put up with for the rest of my life? Roll on menopause!” But imagine if I’d been a little Mexican girl, twelve years old, and I’d not only had my first period, but I’d also been handed the grindstone and I knew that from then on, for five hours a day, six days a week, I was going to grind.

It is a very, very time-consuming thing. It’s terrible for the individual: arthritis, bad knees, no time to spend with the children, and no opportunity to go to school. It’s also, obviously, not a great thing for the society if you’ve got one fifth of your adults doing nothing but grinding.

...
Mexican women that I have talked to are very explicit about this trade-off. They know it doesn’t taste as good; they don’t care. Because if they want to have time, if they want to work, if they want to send their kids to school, then taste is less important than having that bit of extra money, and moving into the middle class. They have very self-consciously made this decision. In the last ten years, the number of women working in Mexico has gone up from about thirty-three percent to nearly fifty percent. One reason for that—it’s not the only reason, but it is a very important reason—is that we’ve had a revolution in the processing of maize for tortillas.
posted by neroli at 8:56 PM on April 22, 2015 [14 favorites]


Fnarf: "Bayless is a good cook but a bit of a blowhard who likes to make out that he invented authenticity in Mexican cooking. He's made a concerted effort to "own" Mexican food and food writing, with sometimes embarrassing results, like when he went to LA and told everyone that it was time somebody brought the real Mexico to these LA imposters."

So he sounds pretty much exactly like Diana Kennedy.

Seriously, there's something about her, at least in this article, that really rubs me the wrong way. One part is probably how she's a foreigner, even after being in Mexico for a long time, and she sets herself up as a judge of authenticity or quality in Mexican food. Not just "this is what I like", but "this is what's right".

There's also a shitload of hippie back to nature authenticity bullshit going on, mixed with the usual "organic agriculture" idiocy, a swipe at GMOs for no good reason, and the ass-licking tone of the whole article. The article acknowledges that she's almost unknown in Mexico, but then goes on to assume she should be seen as an authority on Mexican food by Mexicans anyway.

I also don't understand what she's talking about when she goes on about nixtamalization and Maseca. Maseca is (mostly) nixtamalized maize. It's also dehydrated, I don't know if that's what she's opposed to? But it's not like there's either nixtamal or maseca, the two are not mutually exclusive, and the article doesn't seem to bother to figure out what her beef with it is exactly.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 10:29 PM on April 22, 2015 [4 favorites]


neroli: "It is a very, very time-consuming thing. It’s terrible for the individual: arthritis, bad knees, no time to spend with the children, and no opportunity to go to school. It’s also, obviously, not a great thing for the society if you’ve got one fifth of your adults doing nothing but grinding."

Oh, but it's so much better tasting and more correct and authentic, according to a rich expat who lives on an ecological farm in Michoacán with her own personal gardener!
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 10:31 PM on April 22, 2015 [4 favorites]


Wow, neroli's link is fabulous and fascinating, but I liked the piece about Kennedy, too. The part about how Mexico sold out its corn crop in the NAFTA negotiations (instead of protecting it as a cultural cornerstone like South Korea did with its local rice) was interesting. And both Kennedy and the writer seem well aware of the "foodie imperialism" charge.

Maybe I just have a soft spot for opinionated 91-year-old women, but color me impressed with the life Kennedy built for herself. I'm glad her book about Mexican cuisine has recently been translated into Spanish, and would love to see reactions from Mexican reviewers.
posted by mediareport at 3:29 AM on April 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


a swipe at GMOs for no good reason

Biodiversity reasons? GMO may not be killing the planet, but it seems to be preventing me from eating a decent tomato. Also, the mass importing of corn into Mexico has had some real negative effects (corn shortages in the country).

The article acknowledges that she's almost unknown in Mexico, but then goes on to assume she should be seen as an authority on Mexican food by Mexicans anyway.

So, apparently Order of the Aztec Eagle is the highest award the Mexican government can give to non-Mexicans. She was awarded this by the Mexican government for her work in Mexican cuisine. She was "Named Academic Researcher by the Mexican Society of Gastronomy". She's been given more awards and recognition by Mexican institutions, but these are some of the more notable ones. Given she's been informally studying Mexican cuisine for longer than most of the bloggers have been alive, she's certainly the foremost non-Mexican authority on Mexican food in the world.

and the ass-licking tone of the whole article. The 93 year old introduced authentic Mexican cuisine to much of the world, is generally recognized as the foremost English language author on the subject. How fighty should the article be? This isn't a hard-hitting expose, it's a visit with a luminary in her home.
posted by el io at 6:20 AM on April 23, 2015 [2 favorites]


have lived in new mexico for 40 years. mexican food is corn, flower, refritos, and chile combined with various veggies and spices, meat when you have it. simple to complex depending on the cook.
posted by judson at 7:33 AM on April 23, 2015


Maseca is a brand name of masa harina, dried flour made from masa, which needs to be reconstituted into a masa substitute before being used. If you are familiar with using fresh masa, you know that there is no comparison in taste or feel with the real thing. Also, Maseca is made by Gruma, a horrible industrialized food company which is famous for making awful gunk (they also make Mission and Guerrero tortillas, which are crap).

I get your criticism; Kennedy has a whiff of the patrician colonialist about her, "explaining" Mexico to clueless gabachos, just like Bayless. But Kennedy, quite simply, knows more. Much, much more. She's been collecting recipes for a long, long time, and has gone deep into regional cuisine. Bayless is more of a jet in, spend a few days kind of a guy. He's also not that interested in traditional techniques and ingredients; he's always saying "hey, if you have a blender, you don't need to know any of this stuff, just put it in there, it doesn't matter. Use the canned stuff, it doesn't matter. It matters to Kennedy.

The part about Mexicans not knowing who she is is, I think, unfounded. People who study the history of the food culture there know who she is, even Mexicans. Most Mexicans don't cook out of books; they learn from their grandma or whomever. But I don't have a Mexican abuela, do you?
posted by Fnarf at 9:26 AM on April 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


On the biodiversity topic: there are several serious issues with modern industrial corn. For one thing, most of it is not grown for human consumption, but for cattle, in feedlots. But cattle cannot properly digest corn (neither can humans, which is why nixtimalization is used). It makes cattle sick, which requires increasingly massive doses of increasingly ineffective antibiotics to fix.

And the corn that is grown now is not just a monoculture but a mono-variety. All those millions of acres across the US and Mexico are mostly growing the exact same variety, which means that when (not if) a Roundup-resistant bug comes along, the whole sector might just disappear (think Ireland in the 1840s).

Corn is hugely important to the Mexican people. It is part of who they are (literally, some indigenous beliefs consider masa and human flesh to be the same). Indigenous peoples in what is now Mexico invented corn, after all, breeding a wild grass called teosinte into hundreds of modern corn varieties in one of the great engineering feats of humankind. But the traditional varieties of corn are rapidly disappearing. There is a strong movement in places like Oaxaca and Chiapas to preserve these heirloom varieties, many of which have properties that can still be useful, and of course the growing of which has profound impacts on the survival of indigenous people.

Read more here and here. The Itanoní link in the first article has been changed.
posted by Fnarf at 9:51 AM on April 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


And the corn that is grown now is not just a monoculture but a mono-variety.

Wow, this is just flat out wrong. Farmers in the US select their seed corn from dozens of different varieties with different characteristics ranging from drought tolerance to growing season to strength of the root ball.

These varieties may appear similar to the outside observer but they are not the same
posted by nolnacs at 11:32 AM on April 23, 2015


You can see evidence of this if you travel through agricultural areas. There will be signs alongside fields with the seed company name and the specific variety of seed used in that field.
posted by nolnacs at 11:36 AM on April 23, 2015


Fnarf: "Most Mexicans don't cook out of books; they learn from their grandma or whomever. But I don't have a Mexican abuela, do you?"

I don't. But I've lived in Mexico for 17 years, and what I know of Mexican cooking (a bit, nowhere near being an expert) I've learned from friends who learned from their mothers/grandmothers, and in some cases directly from their mothers/grandmothers.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 1:40 PM on April 23, 2015


Fnarf: "But cattle cannot properly digest corn (neither can humans, which is why nixtimalization is used). It makes cattle sick, which requires increasingly massive doses of increasingly ineffective antibiotics to fix."

I'd really, really like a reliable source for this. The ones I find (that don't also seem dangerously woo-hippie-ish in other ways) seem to suggest that this is false, for instance this (which links several other sources) and this Virginia Tech publication, which says "The rumen microorganisms are adaptable enough that cattle can digest a large variety of feeds from grass, hay, and corn to brewer’s grains, corn stalks, silage, and even urea."

It's a claim I've seen pop up a few places, but I've never seen a good source, just biased ones, either from people selling some kind of diet or health advice, or people pushing grass fed beef.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 1:47 PM on April 23, 2015


el io: "So, apparently Order of the Aztec Eagle is the highest award the Mexican government can give to non-Mexicans. She was awarded this by the Mexican government for her work in Mexican cuisine. "

I'd never heard of that order either, for what it's worth. Also, it seems Rick Bayless also got one. I'm sure she knows her stuff, I just think the whole "absolute authority" tone is a bit ridiculous.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 1:50 PM on April 23, 2015


CORN, THREAT OR MENACE (reliable information thereunto appertaining)

I believe that what you're looking for in cattle is called rumen lactic acidosis, shorthand for "too much grain ruins the pH of the cow's stomach, and the entire digestive system goes higgledy-piggledy."

This is different from why humans can't survive entirely on un-nixtamalized corn, which lacks usable dietary niacin.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 5:24 PM on April 23, 2015


Also, here is a picture of Soviet botanist Nikolai Vavilov hugging some stalks of teosinte during a research expedition in Mexico during the 1920s, I think?
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 5:26 PM on April 23, 2015


ivan ivanych samovar: "I believe that what you're looking for in cattle is called rumen lactic acidosis, shorthand for "too much grain ruins the pH of the cow's stomach, and the entire digestive system goes higgledy-piggledy." "

So that paper seems to say the same thing as my links above, that this is a problem if cows change diets to those rich in grains too quickly. It suggests changing the diet to grain over a period of 14-21 days to avoid the problem. So it hardly sounds like "cattle cannot properly digest corn".
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 10:49 PM on April 23, 2015


Also, " It makes cattle sick, which requires increasingly massive doses of increasingly ineffective antibiotics to fix" seems like a massive distortion of the truth. What seems to be the case is that in some cases, antibiotics are used, not to treat disease, but to speed up the change in intestinal bacterial flora from the types of bacteria that help digest grass to the types of bacteria that help digest corn.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 10:51 PM on April 23, 2015


"In some cases". Uh-huh. Those notoriously woo-woo hippies at the Pew Charitable Trust say this:

"Hundreds of scientific studies conducted over four decades demonstrate that feeding low doses of antibiotics to livestock breeds antibiotic-resistant superbugs that can infect people. "

Also "70,000 Americans each year die from infections that once could be treated with common medications" from Pew again.

Michael Pollan says some good stuff on the intersection of corn and beef here.
posted by Fnarf at 3:24 PM on April 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


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