Originally published in June of 2012, republished in 2017.
My dad Steve Rogers was a good cook, maybe even a great cook. He could turn a few wilting odds and ends into a memorable lunch, and his obsessive interest in traditional methods and ingredients was matched by a fearless creativity that led him far off the beaten path. When I was a little girl, I loved to sit and watch him in the kitchen. Watching Steve cook was like watching a vaudevillian dance: he’d twist and shuffle, gesture flamboyantly, groan in an exaggerated fashion, smack his lips, swat at intruders with a spoon, and bat his eyes when he received a compliment. Unfortunately for me, he didn’t like interlopers: my mother and I were not allowed in the kitchen when Steve was cooking. I always sat slouched on a stool with my elbows on the far side of the counter that divided the kitchen from the dining room. Chin propped in my hands, I’d watch my dad perform his magic tricks. But it never occurred to me to ask questions and it never occurred to him to teach me.
Had he lived I bet I could have coaxed him into giving up some of his secrets. Maybe he would have even let me into the kitchen from time to time to, you know, chop garlic or something. But he passed away when I was 20 and still in the phase of life when cooking a burrito seems impressive. I was left to grow up as a cook on my own, making guesses and straining to remember his buffoonish yet adept kitchen dance.
I have a tin box of his recipes, scrawled on bits of greasy notebook paper. But when the box fails me (Why didn’t he write down his recipe for carnitas!), I have Diana Kennedy. I can’t think of anyone my dad respected more than Diana Kennedy, and as I’ve made my way through his stack of Kennedy cook books, I can find the dishes I remember from childhood by looking for the most encrusted pages: the ones spangled with salsa and speckled translucent with oil. I’ve had many an “aha!” moment when reading Kennedy: “Ah, that’s how he got that flavor…” “Oh that’s what he he was doing with the guajillos…”
My “sainted mother” recently brought me a signed copy of a book Steve never got to know: From My Mexican Kitchen: Techniques and Ingredients (2003). My dad would have adored this book, in which Kennedy does not skimp on detail, but never bores. Kennedy is a purist, which Steve certainly was not, but she shares his zeal as an apostle of the fine potential of Mexican cuisine. As The New Yorker points out, “If the mention of Mexican food in the United States no longer conjures up images of rubbery melted cheese, canned tamales, and taco salads, this largely a result of Kennedy’s efforts.”
Diana Kennedy is now more than 80 years old and a notorious dragon. But then again, what great chef is not a dragon? A Washington Post journalist who toured Kennedy’s Mexican kitchen in 2011 criticized Kennedy for not introducing her Mexican assistant. The journalist sarcastically refers to the downtrodden serf, and the implication seems to be that Kennedy is a racist, or at best, a snob. I couldn’t help but think this incident probably had more to do rather with the hierarchical nature of a professional kitchen, which demands serf-like behavior from graduates of the best culinary schools. At any rate, Kennedy is gracious to her Mexican assistants in From My Mexican Kitchen. In the introduction she devotes a page to a warm description the Mexican family who is her home staff and winds up by writing, “…without them, it is highly probably that I would never have produced this and my last two books…I owe them an enormous great debt of gratitude!”
The introduction is a pleasure to read, with vibrant descriptions of Mexico at large and of Kennedy’s home in Michoacán specifically. She writes: “The task of writing this book is made bearable because I sit in my Mexican home looking at the lush vegetation around me—the result of my year’s planting enhanced by a long and generous rainy season. The tall, flaming red and pink poinsettias that border the steep entranceway to my house are bowing their heads gracefully: they are natives here. The orange and lime trees are laden with ripe fruit; the strawberries are giving their first small but luscious harvest; and the birds, refugees from the cold north, call to each other scandalously as the sun goes down.”
The text is alive with Kennedy’s clear, tart voice. After the leisurely (and fascinating) eleven page introduction, the book is broken down into chapters devoted each group of ingredients essential to Mexican cooking: “Cheeses and Cream”; “Cooking Fats and Oils”; “Fresh and Dried Chiles”; “Meat, Poultry, and Seafood” etc. Part II unfolds with chapters such as “Making Antojitos,” “Making Moles,” and “Making Tortillas.” All chapters contain an illuminating introduction and encyclopedic entries on ingredients, followed by recipes and essential cooking tips. Directions are simple and easy to follow, and the introductions to ingredients and techniques are informative and often quite amusing. Kennedy peppers the book with ornery comments: “If you have to resort to one of the dry corn products for your masa…”; “I do not agree with soaking the beans overnight…”; “I don’t trust those scientists: look what they have done to the tomato!”
But the greatest joy of the book is the author’s tangible love for food. She matches her acerbic tendencies with sparkling enthusiasm and a touching attention to detail. On aguacates criollos: “The flavor is incomparable: aniselike, nutty, and altogether delicious. Of course there are always exceptions, but it would be unlikely to find these avocados in markets outside Mexico because once ripe they spoil very quickly. But make sure you try them when you get there!” On tequelite: “This is a creeping vine with fleshy stems and leaves that are shaped like large teardrops. The face of the leaves is dark green in color with lighter veins and a matte, very slightly abrasive surface. The underside is a very light lime green outlined with a slightly darker edge and central vein. It is like touching—as I am now—a very cool (in temperature) piece of suede.” On creams: “I mention natas here because you should at least try them—if you haven’t already done so—and forget about cholesterol when you are next having breakfast in a Mexican market.”
The book is handsome and organized, with glossy pages, excellent color photographs, and a good glossary. I highly recommend From My Mexican Kitchen to anyone with even a passing interest in Mexico or Mexican cuisine. Not only is it a solid cookbook and an excellent culinary reference resource, but it contains all sorts of interesting tidbits on Mexican culture and history. Want to know how to render lard? Curious about the etymologyof the chile xcatik? Just want an authentic salsa verde recipe? In short, From My Mexican Kitchen is the next best thing to sitting across the kitchen counter from Steve Rogers. If we’re allowed cookbooks in the great palapa in the sky, I can guarantee his copy is already saturated in salsa.
Text by Felisa Churpa Rosa Rogers. All rights reserved.