DIANA KENNEDY, the pioneering British food writer and English-language authority on Mexican cooking, died last week, at 99. And say what you will about death, it makes people curious about you, especially if you were famous. I realized I knew very little about Kennedy’s career, in spite of her hallowed reputation and the fact that I own two of her cookbooks.
I naturally started quenching my curiosity with her New York Times obituary. And if you don’t know much about Kennedy’s work, either, it’s a great place to start, in addition to buying some of her terrific cookbooks. (I sometimes think if it weren’t for these mini-masterpiece obituaries, I’d lose my curiosity about other humans on this festering planet and do nothing but play New York Times word games while waiting for the end of days.)
I read quite a few more interesting and laudatory obituaries, which made me admire her independence and dedication, and, yes, her bravery. But I also came across work (and social media passages) that looked at her career with less of a desire to lionize her (or even respect her, in one case) and more of a wish to view her in the context of the present, when Mexican home cooks and chefs and authors would rather tell their own stories.
Understandably! Cookbooks reflect the era in which they are written, of course, but Kennedy was a visitor and a kind of culinary anthropologist—an extremely passionate and prolific and industrious one, but still a visitor.
But if you grew up in the 70s in, say, a small mostly white town in the south like I did, you were grateful for any news at all of the larger food world beyond the few Greek and Italian restaurants in the cities an hour or so away. And the world did seem much much much bigger to me in 1972, when I was 12, the year Kennedy’s first book, The Cuisines of Mexico, came out. Not that I even knew about it.
I was too busy eating the hard taco shells from a box, which we filled with hamburger meat seasoned with powder from a foil envelope, which turned the liquefied fat orange; this we piled with tomato, shredded iceberg, sour cream, grated cheddar cheese, and hot sauce. I absolutely adored these tacos. How lucky the people in Mexico were, I thought. I’d love one of those tacos right now. But it would be a long time before I had my first really good Mexican food, in Colorado, after high school.
At my family’s dinner table, we also ate despicably bad canned chicken “chow mein” from Chun King (a company started by the American man responsible for Jeno’s Pizza Rolls that was later swallowed up by ConAgra) and bamboo shoots and water chestnuts from La Choy. And we felt fancy and worldly.
I also remember my Uncle John teaching himself to cook Japanese food from a book—he had a wok, and apparently made a huge mess in Aunt Mariah’s kitchen, which she had to clean up—but I didn’t eat in a Japanese restaurant until I was in my early twenties, on a visit to NYC. I had this crazy stuff called sushi.
My point is, aside from watching Julia Child or The Galloping Gourmet on television, I could barely begin to imagine all the food I was missing out on while living my insular life. Still, all of this food we joke about today? It was bringing the world to me, however inauthentically, and making me want to find out more.
I think I would have been extremely grateful back then if someone had given me Kennedy’s first book, or Claudia Roden’s A Book of Middle Eastern Food (1968) or Paula Wolfert’s Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco (1973)—or any books, written in English, about the cooking of other cultures, information that otherwise wasn’t quite accessible to me back then.
I get emotional thinking about how much my young brain might have begun blooming had I had these gateways to walk through.
And I still think of these older books as gateways to understanding how food culture evolves. After all, American food history happens the same way the history of the planet does: advancing slowly, then speeding up, with backsliding, and more forward movement, and on and on, hopefully.
It takes two kinds of lettuce (🥬 + $$) to keep the Department of Salad alive. The best way to support us: Punch the green button.
But I’d like to point out that regardless of how each (or some or all) of us may (or may not) have changed when it comes to honoring or understanding or allowing innovations in the food of cultures that are not our own (whatever they may be), I still find the liquid guacamole I saw at Whole Foods completely offensive. What are you supposed to do with it? Drink it with a straw? (Actually, I’d probably enjoy that.)
Anyway, as you might suspect, my question when I began re-investigating Kennedy’s recipe legacy was: How did she treat salads? Especially since the most popular “Mexican” salad in America remains the Tex-Mex taco salad (a descendent of the 1950s “tacup”). You know: the deep-fried bowl-shaped tortilla filled with meat and the rest of the taco fixings we had in our 1970s tacos. (Now, I want a taco salad and a tacup, too.)
I’m happy to say the answer is: Wonderfully. Especially considering how many cookbooks, both old and new, don’t bother with salads at all.
One that jumped out at me like a magical unicorn going over a rainbow was a jicama salad: fresh, crunchy, tart, no oil, perfect for summer.
And I’m also passing along her guacamole, because we all have to fight against the Wholefoodsization of how we eat.
RECIPE: Yucatecan Jicama Salad, from The Essential Cuisines of Mexico
This is one of the most delicious salads I’ve ever expended so little effort to make. It’s also one I plan to trot out as often as possible whenever I want something dazzling and delicious to start or end a heavy meal. But I’ll also eat it as a snack. Or for lunch. Crunchy, bitter, tart, sweet—and cilantro? Win, win, win, win, win. I couldn’t find Seville oranges, of course, so I used the substitute Kennedy suggests. (You can find simpler substitutes online.)
2 small jicamas or 1 large one (about 1/1/2 pounds)
1 heaped tablespoon finely chopped cilantro
Salt to taste
½ cup Seville orange juice or a substitute (see substitute below)
1 large sweet orange (I ended up using 2 small ones, and it was quite pretty)
Peel the jicamas with a potato peeler, cut them into 1/4 -inch cubes, and put into a nonreactive bowl. Add the cilantro, salt, and orange juice and set aside to season for at least one hour. (Note from Emily: I also gently tossed the mixture occasionally.)
Peel and thinly slice the orange. Serve the salad topped with the orange slices. (Note from Emily: I also sprinkled a bit of flakey sea salt over it all.)
Seville Orange Juice Substitute: Mix together 1 teaspoon grapefruit or green Meyer lemon rind, 2 tablespoons fresh orange juice, 2 tablespoons grapefruit of ripe Meyer lemon juice, and 4 tablespoons fresh lime juice.
*RECIPE: Guacamole (from The Essential Cuisines of Mexico)
Makes about 2 1/2 cups
I’ve been making guacamole forever, and I thought I was pretty good at it until I tried this version, which tastes like avocados. Mine, I have come to realize, tastes like lime and garlic. To be clear, this one also tastes like tomato and onion and has enough Serrano peppers to send you to the tastebud hospital. But it somehow makes the avocado sing. Which is what you want. And about those Serranos: I love hot food, but after trying this guac with 4 peppers, I cut it back to two.
2 tablespoons finely chopped white onion
4 serrano chiles, or to taste, finely chopped (I ended up at 2; that’s plenty hot)
3 heaping tablespoons roughly chopped cilantro
Salt to taste
3 large avocados (about 1 pound, 6 ounces)
4 ounces tomatoes, finely chopped (about 2/3 cup)
1 heaping tablespoon finely chopped white onion
2 heaping tablespoons roughly chopped cilantro
Grind together the onion, chiles, cilantro, and salt to a paste (I used my mini food processor)
Cut the avocados into halves, remove the pits, and squeeze the flesh out of the shells and mash into the chile base to a textured consistency—it should not be smooth. Stir in all but 1 tablespoon of the tomatoes, adjust the seasoning, and top with remaining chopped tomatoes, onion, and cilantro.
🥬 ONE MORE THING We’ve gotten a start on PRINTABLE RECIPES! You’ll start finding downloadable PDF files (SEE THEM? ABOVE?) at the end of each recipe. We’re working backward, until we have them all done. CONFUSED? Check the archive if you lose track of your e-mailed newsletter.
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Brilliant. Love your newsletter and thank you for illuminating the illustrious DK. I also feel vindicated re: Guacamole as all these years (I'm old), I've objected to garlic in Guac and yet everyone persists in adding it. Plus a lot of other stuff I think doesn't belong. I've from Texas so I learned it as a you've shared from Kennedy. I even had a friend from Chicago put mayo in it!
Your childhood diet of international foods mirrors mine growing up in VA in the 60’s and 70s. Good memories of those chow mein noodles and water chestnuts. Did you ever have the “fusion” chocolate haystacks of melted chocolate chips and chow mein noodles? I too wish I had been exposed to more international recipes beyond the Home Econ Teachers’ Collection book my mom had. I think I was in college before I knew what a tortilla was. Like you, I am making up for lost time! Love your newsletter.