Diana Kennedy, the Mexican cuisine authority and cookbook author, doesn't often travel outside of Mexico, where she lives in rural Michoacán a few hours from Mexico City. For the past 65 years, Mexico has been her home, and a laboratory for her studies and writings about Mexico's regional cuisines. So her appearance last Sunday at the L.A. County Museum of Art for a brief talk and book signing presented a rare opportunity for Angelenos to meet the woman who's often called “the Julia Child of Mexican food.” Like Child, Kennedy has shared her vast knowledge on a topic that had previously been both exotic and esoteric in the United States. Her latest book, Oaxaca al Gusto from 2010, is much more than a cookbook. The 450-page tome presents a study of Oaxacan cultural history illuminated by glorious photographs, many taken by Kennedy herself.
The book took 14 years to research, Kennedy said in a panel following a lecture on Oaxacan feasting rituals, part of the “Children of the Plumed Serpent” exhibition of ancient Mexican art. During those years, she visited each region of Oaxaca in every season, learning that the state is one of Mexico's most ecologically diverse. And Oaxacans use just three staples — cacao, chile and corn — in more ways than anywhere else in the world.
A slideshow with photos from the book helped Kennedy explain further. In one image with women stirring white foam, Kennedy said it was made from cacao and meant to be served atop chocolate atole. A photo of colored corn prompted Kennedy to praise Oaxaca's 50 corn species. Another image showed a woman patting a tortilla. Mexico's finest tortillas are in Oaxaca, Kennedy said, and making them is “a great art.” Why did Oaxacan cooks share private traditions with an outsider? “They were fascinated that someone was going to take in all the intimate details,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy radiated energy, warmth and delight as she greeted museum patrons and a crowd of devotees for the book signing. The line to meet Kennedy snaked across the museum's plaza for more than an hour, her fans conversing in an animated fusion of English, Spanish and Spanglish. Despite its 7-pound heft, nearly everyone in line carried a straight-off-the-shelf, $60 copy of Oaxaca al Gusto from LACMA.
Fans snapped photos and wanted to chat. Kennedy turned a question about authenticity (as recently discussed in Taco USA by Gustavo Arellano, who has called Kennedy “puritanical”) into a discussion of tortillas. “You want tortillas made with good nixtamal, and not Maseca,” she said. Both are used to make masa, or dough; nixtamal is handmade while Maseca is a commercial product. “You can't have a good taco unless you've got a good tortilla. OK?”
Did she follow the Mexican food scene in L.A.? Only Loteria Grill from chef Jimmy Shaw, a friend. Did she have any special L.A. dining plans? Not really. In fact, she prefers the food in her own home. “I'm going back Tuesday,” said Kennedy. “I have a lot of work in Mexico to do.”