Dr. Eliot's 5-Foot Shelf: Diana Kennedy's "The Art of Mexican Cooking"

When Charles Eliot, the former Harvard president, declared that one could get a perfectly serviceable education by spending 15 minutes a day reading from the books that could fit on a five-foot shelf, he did not have cookbooks in mind. But these days, with home cooking becoming increasingly important (the recession, Michael Pollan), perhaps one might do well to exchange a few dusty classics for some cookbooks. Here's one which deserves to be right next to Julia Child and The Joy of Cooking on your own shelf: Diana Kennedy's recently reprinted classic "The Art of Mexican Cooking."

Published last year, this is a reissue (with a new introduction, some corrections, and the inclusion of metric measurements) of the classic cookbook, first published in 1989 and, for a time, out of print.

Diana Kennedy, who has spent over 50 years living, traveling, and cooking in Mexico, is a cultural anthropologist as well as a magnificent cook, and her straightforward, accessible and detailed book is a pleasure to read as well as to cook from. With more than 200 recipes, it also has drawings and black-and-white pictures which illustrate techniques (how to prepare cuitlacoche, or corn fungus; how to form pan de muerto, the bread baked for Day of the Dead) and cookware (a molcajete, a cornmill).

"What has happened to Mexican food and ingredients in the interim [since the first edition]?" writes Kennedy in her new preface. "In the United states there is a much greater, and still growing, interest in the the traditional regional foods of Mexico among the public in general, but especially among the younger generations." There are traditional ingredients available now, but there are also "changes for the worse," like the increasing disappearance of authentic corn tortillas and cheap imports of chiles that are misidentified as guajillos. Kennedy's book is at once a handy primer, a culinary guidebook, and a great read.

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