At 94 years old, Diana Kennedy isn't afraid to speak her mind.
The British expat, cook and renowned expert on Mexican food has lived in Mexico since the late '50s and published nine well-loved cookbooks. But lately, she has also taken on the mantle of protecting Mexican food against the onslaught of imported agriculture, Monsanto and flavorless "reinventions" of the cuisine. In an interview with Vice recently that's pretty much a must-read for anybody who cares about food, she said that the broader culture had even forgotten how to make a good tortilla. "Everyone is writing about nixtamal and getting it wrong," she said. "I think Wikipedia probably has it wrong."
We sent along a few questions to Kennedy through Mi Mero Mole's Nick Zukin, who studied under Kennedy in Mexico for a week, and who largely uses her recipe for his mole poblano at his restaurant. Zukin hosted her at Mi Mero Mole this past weekend for a dinner and brunch. Here's the result of the conversation. The introduction below is from Zukin.
Diana Kennedy is not just a collector and writer of recipes. She is also a cultural anthropologist and ecologist who lives what she preaches. She has documented ways of life that are disappearing. Her books have so much history, so much knowledge, so many practices that would otherwise be lost with the death of each grandmother in Mexico. Beyond that, she's like an Old Testament prophet warning you of the impending doom. She doesn't care who she pisses off or who she offends. She's not one of those celebrity chefs patting each other on the back to get on TV and sell another 10,000 books. She's passionate and cares more about telling chefs and foodies the truth than getting them to like her. There is no one in the food world with more integrity than her. She is a living legend every bit as important as Julia Child, Marcella Hazan or James Beard.
You've said in interviews that that Mexican food is in crisis. Why?
I haven't said that. I have said that Mexican cuisine has been more misrepresented than any other cuisine because everyone takes it and messes around with it. In part, that's because many of the traditional ingredients are difficult to come by.
How does it happen that Mexico imports almost half its chile poblanos from China?
It's a positive disgrace that they do. I don't know why they do it, but it's an utter disgrace. If the government helped some of the local farmers, they could produce enough in Mexico—and not only for eating poblanos fresh but for drying ancho chiles. It's inexplicable to me. The chiles don't have the same flavor. It's like with wine—the terroir is different. They are generally using so-called "improved seeds," which they like because the chiles have a thicker skin. But they have less flavor. I remember when I first went to Mexico they were smaller, darker, thinner in flesh, and much more flavorful.
What's everybody getting wrong with their tortillas?
First of all, many are using a flour-like product, like Maseca, to make tortillas. You do not get the same flavor as you get from a tortilla made with nixtamal, the freshly treated corn. The texture and flavor are both worse. If you use a tortilla made of Maseca, it's going to disintegrate when you use it for something like chilaquiles in a sauce. It's a great pity that some people almost prefer Maseca now because they're so used to it. But there's such a great difference in flavor, and a softness to tortillas from nixtamal that is much more attractive. For people who have grown up in the countryside, say in Oaxaca, there is no comparison for how much better the flavor and flexibility is of a tortilla from nixtamal.
Since you've been vocal in Mexico about the decline of traditional Mexican cuisine, have there been any positive changes?
I have not seen an improvement towards quality ingredients and away from commercial products. I have been around a long time and for me I am trying to let people know about what is being lost.
I think there's always room for the new Mexican cuisine. For instance, if you go out to a good Mexican restaurant at night, if you don't want to eat a heavy mole or whatever, what some of the chefs are doing is very laudable. But they need to know how to treat their ingredients so the flavor of the ingredients, such as the chiles, come out. One example: some chefs are using hot oil to blister and peel their chiles. You don't get the same flavor as when you use a flame to char and peel it. You're not getting the best flavor if you're not treating every ingredient the way they would in a traditional way. You're not going to get the full depth of flavor. And people need to know that.
Have you gotten backlash for being a gringa talking about Mexican food?
Yes, sure, I have. Of course. And the chefs will say, "Oh, she's English. I cook like my grandmother." And my reply to that is, "Sonny boy, when I arrived in Mexico in 1957, how old were you? I was learning from your grandmother." And I will make tamales and many dishes along with the best chefs in Mexico. And I can hold my own.
Donald Trump wants to put up a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Will this help Mexican food by keeping American agriculture out?
We do not know the total effect of that, like we don't know the total effect of Britain leaving the European Union. Donald Trump—it's like something coming out of a mad man. We don't know all the results. It cannot bring about good trade relations in any form. I think the same people will want to go to the US. But there cannot be anything good about cutting off trade with Mexico. There are many many ill effects we cannot anticipate. I think we all ought to be dressed in black parading through the avenues of Washington.
Who's a bigger threat to Mexico—Trump or Monsanto?
I think they both are. I don't think there's any distance between them. Maybe Monsanto because it's been around a longer time. Hopefully, Donald Trump will be gone in four years. Monsanto is a monster that has lived and will live on for generations.
Has Mexican food in America gotten better? Or do we just think it has?
Oh, I think it depends who you talk to. I think there are places where it has been preserved by families and in restaurants. I don't go to many Mexican restaurants in the United States. But I think there are probably many pockets of good Mexican food. But to run a restaurant you have to adapt your format to people's tastes. But there are very few places that are doing traditional food exactly the way it is done in Mexico.
Thanksgiving is coming up, which theoretically celebrates what Native Americans fed white settlers in the 1600s. What would they have been eating at that time in what's now Mexico?
Truly traditional and regional foods. At that time there weren't trains and airplanes and roads. In that time, food was much more regional. There wasn't a universal Mexican food. It was regional. People were much more stuck to their certain regional dishes.
If you had to pick one essential Mexican dish that Americans should seek out—but probably haven't tried—what would it be?
Pipian. Pipian of any type. I always say that even people who think they know mole often don't know that pipian even exists. These sauces that are enriched and based on pumpkin seeds are very supple. I love the texture, no matter how finely you grind it, it thickens the sauce and adds a sort of sheen of the green oil. It's much more subtle than a complex mole, like a mole poblano.
Notes from Nick Zukin for Portlanders:
I would bet Portland, per capita, has more masa from nixtamal than most places in the U.S. It's hard to get outside of L.A. or Chicago. The options are even more limited in Texas's larger cities or San Francisco, and those are much bigger cities. There has been a birth of hipster restaurants trying to do it themselves, but it ain't easy and it's really expensive.
Tienda San Francisco (17112 SE Powell Blvd.), La Tapatia (18330 SE Stark St.), and Three Sisters (various locations) all retail masa from nixtamal and tortillas made with that masa. Three Sisters uses organic, heirloom varieties of corn, too.
There are definitely some Mexican restaurants or carts that use masa from Three Sisters, such as La Tierra del Sol at the Portland Mercado who uses their blue masa. Others use the pre-made tortillas. La Milpa, whom we get our masa de nixtamal from at Mi Mero Mole, sells to businesses, mostly for use in tamales. I believe Xico is still making their own masa from nixtamal.
- Pipian, pumpkin-seed sauces and moles, are the true pre-Columbian moles. They don’t use any of the old world nuts, though they occasionally some have sesame. Our green mole is a pipian verde.
- Nuestra Cocina
- also has one, as does
- La Calaca Comelona
- . Some of the best places to find them, though, are the Central American restaurants.
- La Guanaquita
- in Hillsboro actually makes one of the best around.