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The High Art of the Tamale

Ignacio Urquiza
Pan de muerto, described by Diana Kennedy in Oaxaca al Gusto as ‘the semisweet yeast rolls of various sizes made for the Day of the Dead, All Saints and All Souls.’ Kennedy writes, ‘Each one is supposed to represent the soul of a departed family member or friend. The faces illustrated here were just a few of the hundreds being made by Señora Clementina Baños when I visited her one year at the end of October.’

Diana Kennedy was born in England some several decades ago (she does not like to be precise about such things) and grew up high-spirited, feisty, and no-nonsense. In 1957 she came to Mexico with her soon-to-be husband, Paul Kennedy, who was a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, and then she really fell in love—with her new life and with a universe of flavors, colors, textures, shapes, and aromas several light-years removed from her own. How could she have resisted? She was coming from the drab kitchens of postwar England, and in Mexico City just a short walk through any neighborhood market was enough to make her swoon: armfuls of blossoms the color of gold, the smoky perfume of dried chiles gusting through the corridors, the racket of a dozen vendors vying for her attention, waist-high pyramids of unheard-of vegetables, pumpkins of every description, gourds, melons, purple amaranth plants, shocking-pink cactus fruit, blood-red hibiscus flowers, and, above the general din, the metallic cries of the vendors...¡cómpreme, marchantita! Buy here! Buy here!

And then to huddle at a market stall and wait for an industrious woman in braids to chop up some barbacoa and onion and cilantro and spoon it all over a tortilla and hand the steaming morsel into her eager hands…Heaven.

Then there were the cooks, brown-skinned women with hands calloused from a lifetime of direct contact with fire—shoving kindling into the stove, turning over dozens of tortillas on a baked earthenware griddle, or comal, grinding and chopping and kneading all day for their husbands or in the kitchen of the patrona, the she-boss. With an empathy that often shocked the society ladies she lived among, Kennedy found a natural home in those back kitchens, and with a formidable tenacity she may not have known she possesed, she set about learning how to cook Mexican. She devoured recipe books, but she also learned to observe and imitate the cooks’ every gesture.

Here she is in her masterpiece, My Mexico (1998), at the end of a two-page account of how she learned to make tamales de espiga, flavored with the dried toasted anthers, or pollen sacs, of the male corn flower. After harvesting the flowers and setting them to dry, they had to be winnowed:

The winnowing was not…done with the wind or by tossing [the anthers] in the air but by drawing the fringe of a rebozo [traditional shawl] slowly over the surface so that the husks adhered to the fabric. But it wasn’t quite as easy as that. Catalina said she had forgotten to bring her rebozo—actually she had lent it to her daughter, who had lost it. We sent across to some neighbors to borrow one. Elena, who had two, we were told, sent back word that she couldn’t find hers; Esther had just laundered her rebozo, and it was still damp. I produced a woolen one and thought it worked quite well, but it did not pass Catalina’s stringent test. The most efficient fringe for their work, so it turns out, is that of an ordinary rebozo de hilo (a common rebozo made of a more commercial thread).
The cleaned anthers, mixed with some of the brilliant yellow pollen that had been shaken from them, were a luminous pale green but needed to be dried for two extra days.

One can only dream of reproducing the recipe provided next for fragrant, spongy tamales made with those luminous green anthers, but what matters as much to many non-Mexicans is the zooming view Kennedy provides of small-town Mexico, with its agricultural seasons and its kitchen life and gossip. (Of course Elena hadn’t lost that rebozo!) Not very many years from now, when all the traditions are gone and all Mexicans have substituted bouillon cubes for heady, healing chicken caldo, sandwich bread for bolillos, and Tetra Pak orange juice for the palate-dazzling real thing, the Kennedy oeuvre will allow Mexicans, too, to revisit that place of infinite nostalgia called la tradición mexicana.

Kennedy’s books were a logical extension of her fervent evangelizing on behalf of her New World discoveries. Following the untimely death of her husband—the other great love of her life—she lived in New York, and in the dismal food landscape of those days, which I remember clearly, the two or three Tex-Mex outposts in Manhattan sold glutinous, revolting, pasty glop that no one in their right mind wanted to touch. Sometimes I felt that I was the only Mexican in the city, pining simply for a little fresh coriander or a mango. If only I had known Kennedy back then! Now the city is full of hardworking migrants with refined palates from the states of Oaxaca and Puebla, who have filled local markets with the freshest vegetables and herbs. But Kennedy created the first receptive audience for those products. In her kitchen, foraging ingredients from here and there, Kennedy taught what she had learned. Craig Claiborne, the great, benevolent food critic of The New York Times, had suggested that she give classes in Mexican cooking, and with one of those life-changing bits of advice offered casually over dinner, also prompted her to do a book.

Characteristically, she went at it like fury, compiling, testing, teaching herself to write, and then waging an all-out campaign to promote it by cooking her way into the affections of the sales force at Harper’s and then hauling food for booksellers at their yearly convention. Her first book, The Cuisines of Mexico (1972), was revelatory from the very title, emphasizing as it did that Mexican cooking is a high-art form, and that it is as regionally varied as that of China or France. It was immediately successful.

She moved back to Mexico. In the beautiful state of Michoacán she built an adobe house far ahead of its time in its ecological obsession, started an organic garden of edible plants, and, with a camp kitchen fitted into the back compartment of a rattling little truck, she began her endless pilgrimage up and down the República Mexicana. A description in My Mexico of a hair-raising excursion to Mascota, Jalisco, in pursuit of the perfect fruit sweets, shows her determination. Following a collision with an oncoming truck and a long negotiation with the local police,

the last two and a half hours were by far the worst. At first the road was shaded by trees along a small river and there were some homesteads and a few children playing while their fathers gossiped over a beer…. We were held up twice by huge machines trying to clear the road of a recent fall of rocks and earth and then began a precarious descent when the road narrowed considerably as it hugged the side of the steep slope. The loose stony surface made it slippery, and the bends were closed and blind…. As we descended, we had a distant view of the broad valley below and soon caught sight of the tiled roofs of Mascota…the Emerald of the Sierra, as it is known locally.
It was by then late afternoon: the restaurant that we had heard so much about was closed for a wedding party, so we hurried along to the lady who was famous for her conserves. She had gone to Mass, a long one, her son said, but he finally took pity on us and showed us in to buy her much acclaimed wares.
Where were the stuffed peaches that we had particularly come to buy? There was no peach harvest this year…. But what a variety of sweets there were: [thick jellies] of local fruits—pears, apples, guavas, and tejocotes, a type of crab apple, thin layers of fruit conserve rolled up with a coating of sugar, the most delicious being a pale green color and sharper than the others, made of steamed green mangoes.

Of course, Kennedy works alongside the cook to learn how to make this last treat, a perfumed concoction that plays on the tongue with so many tingling, contrasting shocks of sweet and tart, mellow and barely ripening, that I once consumed a large block of it in the course of a single day, and felt only sorrow that there was not more.

Voraciously, Kennedy collected every recipe she came across: from other books, from her friends, and, increasingly, from women all over Mexico whose names she provided above each list of ingredients, often followed by little vignettes. Some of her best recipes are so simple that the name of the dish is also its description, like “Tortillas stacked with guacamole and tomato sauce” and “Eggs scrambled with chorizo” (you have both the complete ingredients and the process right there.)

Her consuming interest in the exotic life all around her made it inevitable that the seven cookbooks she ended up writing would range far from the standard recipe collection, but one can see that in each successive book she veered farther from the mestizo, or mixed-blood, cuisine of the cities, toward the rural, Indian roots of Mexican culture. She evolved into a sort of historical ethnobotanist very much in debt to the nineteenth-century writer-explorers.

It was probably inevitable that someone as constantly aware of the landscape as she is, and familiar with every part of the country, would become incensed by the ecological and cultural devastation Mexico has been undergoing. I could go on at some length about our garbage-lined highways, the almost daily loss of native species, the forests logged by lumber black marketeers, drug traffickers, and landless settlers, the slow attrition of our beautiful markets thanks to the likes of Wal-Mart, and the takeover in local Wal-Marts of everything fresh by everything processed—for one small example, the replacement of locally grown raisins by imported dried cranberries—but I won’t. Suffice it to say that Kennedy’s latest work, Oaxaca al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy is a homage to one of Mexico’s economically poorest and culturally richest states, and to its indigenous people, whose immense poverty and fragile, stubborn beauty scald the heart.

The book itself is beautiful, chock-full of photographs, many of them lovely, and most taken by the author. But though it looks ready for the coffee table it clearly aims to be the definitive work on the subject. To shore up that claim a few Oaxaca experts have been rounded up to provide essays that could just as easily have been left out. (Although what inexplicably has been left out is an alphabetical index.) What counts is the collection of recipes. Gathered by Kennedy over the course of a lifetime, they reveal a universe in which food is ritual and sustenance, and where agriculture and cooking are part of a single, perpetual cycle of transfiguration.

Perhaps not everyone will feel like making the wasp’s nest salsa that Kennedy collected in the Puerto Escondido area of the state, but what an astonishment it is to read a recipe that seems to come through the millennia straight from the time of the hunter-gatherers. Step one: find your wasp’s nest. Step two: munch on a few of the grubs. Step three: invent corn, develop the tortilla, grind the nest—the part with the wasp eggs in it—in a hollowed-out bit of volcanic rock, and roll yourself a few tacos. “Interesting and delicious” is how Kennedy cheerfully describes the result.

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