Diana Kennedy. Those two words mean esquite expert to some, proper tamale-making instructor to others, or as so many have dubbed her, simply the “Julia Child of Mexican cuisine.” That last one is the only title that the pedigreed author of the new cookbook Oaxaca al Gusto doesn't deserve, as Kennedy is so much more than simply a reference point.
For starters, that this book was published by an academic press, the University of Texas Press, is not incidental. In the Introduction, Kennedy says the seeds for that mole verde Oaxaqueño (green Oaxacan mole) began in 1994, when the governor asked her to catalog the state's regional foods. Nearly ten years passed before she found an unnamed commercial publishing house in Mexico, in partnership with one in the U.S., to take the manuscript. Yet Kennedy still pulled out of the deal before the manuscript was finished when “it was apparent the style and content of the book were being severely compromised.” That refusal to commercialize what arguably could have been her most commercial work to date (Kennedy, in her 80s, has earned a devout fan club that some might argue virtually guarantees cookbook sales) is precisely why this is perhaps her best cookbook to date.
Kennedy turned to an academic press that she says would “include the text and recipes from the indigenous areas and not just the more familiar material illustrated with the usual predictably glamorous photographs.” And so you will find detailed recipes for cabeze de res (barbecued beef head) and guiso de sesos de res (beef brains with jalapeños with garlic and tomatoes cooked in banana leaves). Not exactly Food Network fodder.
Kennedy also writes about the Tuxtepec cook (local barbecue master Señor José Solis) who makes those regional dishes with such care each time. It is these people who are the crux of this book. She starts by noting that she thinks the head of a cow, particularly the tongue, is the most delicious meat (though she notes “it is not for the squeamish”), before giving a detailed recipe for two dishes that many of us will probably never cook in our lifetime. Or at least not the way Solis so precisely does. He skins the cow head himself to prepare it for the grill before removing the brains for the second, almost porridge-like dish, which requires a thick layer of ash between the banana leaves and the grill to prevent the leaves it's wrapped in from burning.
Kennedy takes you throughout the state by region, talking about the caldo de guanjolote ahumado (smoked turkey soup) and salsa de panal (wasp's nest sauce; exactly what it sounds like) that the British expat first tasted and is now sharing — that's what it feels like here, sharing — from her fifty years of living in and discovering Mexico. Some recipes you might try to whip up one weekend, like a fascinating pasta o picle (not pasta but a mashed potato-based vegetable custard with a curious dash of prepared mustard, apparently a regional home cook favorite) and adobo de pollo o de carne de res (chile-seasoned chicken or beef; stewed beef or chicken with ancho and guajillo peppers, tomatoes, and potatoes).
Other recipes, like those beef brains or the pimbos (traditional ring cookies; cinnamon-laced brown sugar and ground corn flour mixed with melted marrow fat), have more difficult to procure ingredients. And some, like the farangoyos de huevos de tortuga (turtle eggs in broth) and tamales de iguana (iguana tamales in chile de árbol sauce) are the sort of dishes that anywhere else would have been included solely for their shock factor. Not here.
By the end of the book, you start to sense the weight of why Kennedy pulled out of that first publishing deal. Oaxaca al Gusto is a beautiful reminder that what we may want to whip up in our kitchens tonight isn't the true definition of cooking. Cooking, when extensively researched and cataloged as Kennedy has again done, is more than a singular digestif whipped up in a perfectly polished copper pot. It is a cultural history, iguanas and all, worth preserving. Even if sometimes, it can only happen on the page.