Oaxaca al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy
Diana Kennedy bursts over the phone line like a dynamo. She’s in California and we’re discussing Oaxaca al Gusto (University of Texas Press).
“It is not a book for Americans to cook Oaxacan food. It is how Oaxacans eat,” Kennedy explains.
This distinction tells us why Kennedy received Mexico’s Congressional Order of the Aztec Eagle, the highest award given to a non-Mexican. Over more than 50 years she has become Mexico’s ambassador to an international following of cooks waiting to benefit from her ventures into little-known reaches of the Mexican countryside. In this new book, she documents and shares the life ways and foods found throughout Oaxaca.
An earlier Mexican version of the book was categorized in typical cookbook format with chapters on appetizers and entrées. The U.S. publication categorizes content by Oaxaca’s diverse regions. Kennedy doesn’t expect readers to use all of the recipes. More importantly, she would like to encourage interest in the great variety of ingredients, particularly chiles, and further their use in today’s world market.
“It is not a book for Americans to cook Oaxacan food. It is how Oaxacans eat.”
Diana Kennedy on Oaxaca al Gusto
I ask how she found specific dishes that fill the pages. She says ethno-botanists have told her about interesting things they were eating. She would also go in search of other sources.
“The city of Oaxaca is a meeting place for people to find jobs from all over the state. And so I'd be recommended to somebody from one part of the state, and I'd talk to them, and they'd say, Oh, well you know Grandmother does this, that, and the other,” Kennedy says.
“And so off I'd go into the mountains with my sleeping bag and my cot and spend a few days up there learning what they did—and paying for any ingredients, too, when it was appropriate. I like to pay for a day's work, and if I went back, I'd take them a present—a new mill or grinder, or something like that.”
In addition to her written records, Kennedy also took the hundreds of photographs (with a few exceptions) that grace the pages of Oaxaca al Gusto. When I first saw it, I thought it strange that, rather than food, an olla filled the front cover. Once I viewed the book front to back, it made perfect sense. The olla is the traditional cooking pot that’s used in some form or another across geography and time—the vessel that holds all of Mexico’s food.
Many of these recipes use ingredients we will never encounter. Much of it is foraged near people’s homes or raised seasonally. Foods are not wasted but used “nose to tail.” I mention a wasp nest comb used in a hot meal.
“Free protein!” Kennedy exclaims. “That's the thing about all these wild things. It's free protein. Wild things have marvelous food value.”
But, regardless of the enormous amount of information in Kennedy’s masterwork, she maintains one constant: “Anything you make should be delicious.”