Diana Kennedy on "Unknown Gastronomy of Mexico"


Jamaica, or Hibiscus calyces for tea. Photograph: Reed Spirito

Last night, I went to see Diana Kennedy, self described "ethnogastronome" and author of many seminal volumes on Mexican cooking, speak at the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas in Austin. Part of a series on Mexican Foodways celebrating the Mexican Bicentennial, the talk was titled "Unknown Gastronomy of Mexico" and was based on her research for her new cookbook titled Oaxaca al Gusto (buy it), out in September.

I know I shouldn't beat myself up about this too much as the talk was on "unknown" dishes, but having lived in Texas for four years, I humored myself I knew a little bit about Mexican food. I can make salsas that doesn't use tomatoes! I have a kick-ass carnitas recipe! I made tamales, once! Turns out, I know absolutely nothing; jokes about things like atoles and epazote were met with dull ears (mine) and appreciative laughter (everyone else). My education in the real Mexican cuisine begins, in addition to some choice quotes from Ms. Kennedy, below.

Some Rural Mexican Dishes that will Blow Your Mind Burger

  • Atoles, or a porridge made out of ground corn, lard and berries blended together. Kennedy bemoaned the fact that people nowadays cheat and used premade masa, in which the corn has been treated with lime.
  • In Kennedy's town in Michoacán, quesadillas are not a cheesy happy hour snack, but instead a sweet dough filled with queso añejo, kind of like a cheese danish.
  • Posole de Trigo, a soup many are familiar with, but this time made with wheat kernels instead of the traditional hominy.
  • Tamales made with black corn and toasted corn silks. Kennedy also noted that corn silk teas were good for kidney problems — she is very interested in nutritional value and herbal healing.
  • Salsa made from wild plums.
  • Tamales de Espija — tamales made from ground, toasted corn pollen sacks and a fermented white flour mixture. Kennedy says the toasted pollen tastes like honey. This is when my stomach started growling.
  • Highland mushrooms ground and fried with onion, garlic and epazote as taco filling.
  • Begonia stalks cooked into a stew with a sour flavor.

Words of Wisdom from Diana Kennedy

  • "To hell with lard, you know, it's great...you have all these good ingredients and then you eat less, that's my theory."
  • "Some of these new chefs are putting [jamaica, aka the calyces of hibiscus,] in tortillas for tacos and I think that's perfectly horrible...you have to have a reason, or it has to be delicious."
  • "Never let me hear you say a cookbook is expensive...a novel you read once, a cookbook is on your shelf for 30 years."
  • She also said that she does not think she will be working on another cookbook after Oaxaca al Gusto; she is currently working with a foundation to record a database of the foraged foods of the indigenous peoples of Mexico.

—Paula Forbes

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Comment Feed

  1. Jess

    Thanks for this :)

  2. All of those dishes sound so delightful--I want fried mushroom tacos NOW.

  3. Wild plum salsa? I'm sold.

  4. Moira

    Mmmmm. Those tamales sound good.

  5. Thank you for reporting on the person who has done more for the preservation of Mexican Cuisine for 40 years.
    She's a force to be reckoned with when it comes to doing it right!

  6. Ken Riley

    Great report on a fascinating woman. I had the opportunity to meet her at a book signing in a small town in the mountains of central Mexico a few months back. She pulls no punches!

    One thing that I think you might have gotten somewhat garbled here. Good masa is made with nixtamal, which is dried corn "slaked" with lime (not the fruit, the mineral). The crappy stuff is maseca which is about as close to maseca as the frozen crescent roll dough in a tube is to handmade dough for croissant.

    • Paula Forbes

      Actually, Kennedy was saying that atoles should be made with plain ol' ground corn, and that the cheater's way is to use masa. (I'm sure she would consider maseca to be the extra double cheater's way.)

  7. Oaxaca al Gusto is a glorious book, a worthy addition to the serious aficionado of Mexico's cuisines and la Sra. Kennedy's life work. Amazon.com has it for pre-order now at a fantastic price. Order it, you won't regret it.

    Great article, Paula. Thanks for spreading the word about the traditional cuisines of Mexico.


  8. Ash

    I've had jamaica on tostadas and I really liked it. We also made a vegetarian lasagna adding jamaica to the sauce and it turned into this glorious fuchsia color and gave it a tangy taste which I loved.

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