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Diana and Me: Betsy McNair of My Mexico Tours (left) with Diana Kennedy.

Holy Mole!

Diana Kennedy, doyenne of Mexican cooking, is coming to Santa Cruz.

By Christina Waters

The expression "instant classic" probably doesn't apply to many books. The Bible, The Kama Sutra, On the Road--perhaps a few others--would qualify. But in the voluminous world of cookbooks, one tome truly earns that title: Diana Kennedy's The Art of Mexican Cooking. It found its way onto enlightened kitchen shelves faster than hotcakes when it first debuted 20 years ago. A generation of home chefs passionate about authentic flavors of Mexico found a treasury of styles, dishes and seasoning lore in these meticulously researched nuggets of Mexican cookery.

Now that another generation of aficionados has emerged, the author has succeeded--against all odds, given the publishing landscape--in reissuing this beloved classic intact, complete and as mouth-watering as ever.

To celebrate, and to be honest, to do a bit of sales hustling, the queen of in-depth Mexican cuisine herself is touring California to chat, demystify, demonstrate and sign copies of her gorgeous culinary classic.

Thumbing through the almost 500 pages of recipe secrets, strategies and unexpurgated explanations, I was struck by the care with which Kennedy has compiled regional, even microregional variations on such staples as pozole, tamales, rellenos and above all, the prized mole sauce. "Yes, yes, mole is very diverse, and very complex," Kennedy told me in a recent phone interview. Mole sauce is famous for involving, well, many steps and many ingredients. Some petulant home cooks have complained that Kennedy's painstaking recipes are elaborate and time-consuming. So I put it to her: Do these recipes really take inordinate amounts of time?

"No, they don't," she retorted in a firm but lilting English accent. Kennedy, a British native, moved to Mexico almost 50 years ago. "It's all a matter of organization. If you want to do it, you'll do it," Kennedy states. "I don't simplify! And besides, she points out cheerfully, "there are enough recipes for those who want something simple."

Indeed, this book runs the gamut of culinary techniques, from a simple Mexican preparation of scrambled eggs--huevos revueltos a la Mexicana--to the mole verde of Oaxaca, which is only one of at least seven moles native to Oaxaca explained in Kennedy's book. The mole negro oaxaqueño involves four kinds of chiles, plus cloves, allspice, thyme, oregano, sesame seeds, peanuts, almonds, raisins, garlic, cinnamon, chocolate and tomatoes. And that's only half the ingredients! Simply reading through these luscious herb-and-chile-intensive recipes is like a walking tour through the country. And that's how Kennedy compiled these recipes over the years--by getting into her car and driving, then walking, visiting villages, talking to cooks and growers, going to the very off-the-beaten-track source.

When asked why she decided to rerelease her masterwork just now, Kennedy fired back, "Why not now? I've been trying to do this for 10 years." And finally her publisher has agreed. "It is ridiculous to let this book die," she insisted. "My agent had a difficult time persuading them to rerelease it, but a cookbook needs to be cooked," she laughed. "Finally it's out and thank God!"

While the cooking matriarch has many other books in publication, she works long and hard on each one, like the treasury of Oaxacan cuisine she's currently completing. "I thoroughly distrust authors who come out with a new book every two years," she sniffs.

And besides, in Kennedy's case, part of the joy of the writing is the collecting. "I love the travels, I love wandering all over Oaxaca, seeing the people in the countryside," she admits, "but I hate to see the pollution and those awful, what do you call them, developments--they're just eating up the land." Diana Kennedy doesn't like that one bit.

The great collector and interpreter of traditional Mexican cooking will be here with us this weekend on her booksigning trek up the West Coast from Los Angeles all the way to Vancouver. Those of you who have been using her many priceless recipes for years--this is your chance to come meet Diana Kennedy and say "thanks for the mole."

DIANA KENNEDY signs copies of 'The Art of Mexican Cooking' on Friday, May 30, 6-8pm at Alma Gifts & Culture, 1705 Mission St., Santa Cruz, 831.425.2562; gives a talk followed by booksigning on Saturday, May 31, at 9am at the Aptos Farmers Market, 6500 Soquel Dr., Aptos; and gives a talk followed by reception with refreshments created from her recipes on Sunday, June 1, at 5:30pm at Capitola Book Café, 1475 41st Ave., Capitola, 831.462.4415.

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