Sunday, September 26, 2010

Diana Kennedy: Revolutionista

"There really is nothing like experience
in the kitchen," said Diana Kennedy.

Not long after a small but appreciative crowd listened to her describe the 14 years of research and testing that went into her new book, Diana Kennedy took her seat behind a signing desk at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill.

"What can I say? Two hundred people came to my last reading," she said this afternoon with an accepting shrug as fans lined up to sample some of her recipes from Oaxaca, An Infinite Gastronomy, which were prepared by Foster's Market. "I'm not Rachel Ray."

And that, to paraphrase another over-exposed media mogul cum cook, is a good thing. Admired globally for her ardent support of Mexican culture and cuisine, Kennedy is as much a revolutionary as those who claimed Mexico as their home long before the petite UK native landed there as a bride in 1957. Indeed, her call to culinary arms is as potent today as the forebears whose bold break from Spain inspired bicentennial celebrations earlier this month.

While her books are highly praised by critics and she's earned the prestigious IACP Lifetime Achievement Award -- not to menton the equivalent of knighthood from her beloved Mexico -- Kennedy does not enjoy the instant name recongition and mega-sales of other culinary giants. Even her own publisher feels the need to define her as "the Julia Child of Mexican cuisine." Perhaps that's a necessity in this time when foodies gain fame for cartoonish personas, clingy on-air-wear and mass-marketed product lines that target harried home cooks.

Fellow cookbook author Sara Foster of Foster's Market
was first in line with several Kennedy titles.
Still, while "Master Chef" Rick Bayless rules the contemporary Mexican food scene, Kennedy's been at this since he was a niño de pañales. Influential and fiesty, she name-drops in a way few can: She has shared with the Officio de la Presidente that its failure to adequately support and market indigenous chiles is "disgraceful."

The no-nonsense women who live buy-local-eat-local lifestyles not by fashionable choice but necessity are the heroes of Kennedy's universe. She described how she camped in their villages, literally with her own cot and sleeping bag, to watch and listen as they shared the secrets of their cazuelas and how they used locally-grown ingredients.

"I'm really getting on in years and I've been around kitchens so long," the octogenarian said when asked how she later recreates these treasures. "I don't carry measuring spoons. There is nothing like experience in the kitchen."

Kennedy described Oaxaca, a handsomely illustrated 6-pound tome, as "very much an anthropological book."

"It is important in this day of marginalization to give credit to cooks who are surviving on the ingredients around them," she said, noting that Oaxaca's diverse microclimates produce varieties of chiles, corn and other delicacies found no where else in the world. "Writing this book taught me a great deal about how people live and why we need to know where our food comes from."

So appalled by a question about genetically-modified salmon that she merely flicked her hand in response, Kennedy urged those gathered to "take a stand" against jumbo tomatillos that have found their way into American grocery stores and to not buy dried chiles unless they clearly state their source.

"Do not buy chiles de arbol without stems," she warned. "They are from China. There also is garlic imported into Mexico from Peru! I find it quite disgraceful that our government does not put a stop to this."

Despite a tempermental laptop that would not project the enticing travelogue of photos from her book, Kennedy carried her audience on a vivid roadtrip that focused on Oaxaca's essential trinity of corn, chiles and cacao. She did not linger on particular recipes, instead plainly advising fans to buy the $50 book -- and a few others, while they were at it.

"There's a reason really good cookbooks are expensive," she said, ticking off how "first you cook your book, then you eat it, then you fight for years with your editors over foolish things like photo credits," which she insisted were published with each image instead of an easily overlooked list at the end.

"Really, it's a better deal than fiction," she said matter-of-factly. "When you consider the cost of a good cookbook over the, oh, 30 or so years it gives you pleasure, it's actually very cheap."

1 comment:

  1. A great cookbook is a family heirloom and Diana's rate as such.
    Already have some of my younger family members asking for certain pieces in my collection and D.K.'s certainly rate as prized possessions !