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Diane Kennedy and fans


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I'm going to be very direct here, but hopefully not offensive....

What's up with the Diane Kennedy remarks (ie, "East Coast food snobs and Diana Kennedy fans") that are popping up in this Q&A? Do you feel like the food writing you do is somehow diminished or doesn't get respect in the US due to the food writing she does? Has there been some brawl in the Mexican food writing world that we don't know about, some meeting at midnight between the two of you and your seconds to duel? Or are you just keeping up the "outlaw" image of Tex-Mex you love so much?

It seems like "authenticity" raises your hackles, do you think there is enough room in the food writing world for people who like to write about and document things done the old way in the old country and people who like to write about and document what is happening on the food frontiers, usually with a diaspora? I would think so, since some people even do both (Madhur Jaffrey springs to mind) but I'm very curious to hear your take on it when it comes to "Mexican" food.

thanks for your time,

trillium

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So I've gone back and read the intro in the link that Robb provided. Let me see if I can deduce the answers to my questions correctly from it.

1. You do feel that the food writing Diane Kennedy does causes what your writing to be diminished or not get respect it deserves.

2. There was nothing about a sword fight at midnight that I could find, but I gather the remarks you are making about her and her fans are in direct response to the tone of dismissal in her writing when it comes to "Mexican" food north of the border.

I'm not really interested in discussions of authenticity or what makes authentic Mexican, Italian, Chinese, whatever food. What I was trying to get at is how you feel about both styles of food writing existing side by side here in the US. I'm wondering if you feel that a fan of Diane Kennedy's work cannot be a fan of yours or that appreciation of one genre precludes appreciation of another. I was hoping you'd elaborate on this point.

thanks,

trillium

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1. You do feel that the food writing Diane Kennedy does causes what your writing to be diminished or not get respect it deserves.

Trillium -- I have read the intro dozens of times. I do not know how you can come up with this conclusion. His point is about the food getting the respect, not his writing. Perhaps I am wrong and Robb will clarify this.

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I'm really not trying to pick a fight, I promise, I'm not sure either, which is why I was asking. I came to that conclusion because of the mentions about the New York editors. When I think editor, I think writer. Should I be thinking food?

regards,

trillium

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My read is that you should be thinking food. It was the food that was disrespected in the Kennedy book. I get that from the quote in the intro and some of her other writings over the years. It is all about the food.

Linda LaRose aka "fifi"

"Having spent most of my life searching for truth in the excitement of science, I am now in search of the perfectly seared foie gras without any sweet glop." Linda LaRose

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I have an enormous amount of respect for what Diana Kennedy did for Mexican food. And I think I have gone out my way to congratulate and praise her work.

Unfortunately, Kennedy thought it was necessary to trash Mexican-American food in order to get Americans to accept her version of authentic Mexican. This was never necessary. I have much more respect for Rick Bayless who celebrates Mexican cooking without insulting anybody.

Unfortunately, Kennedy's negativity has been taken up and expanded upon by some segments of the food community to the point that Tex-Mex has been utterly villified.

Can we all sit down at the same table? I hope so. I have nothing against lovers of authentic Mexican food--I count myself among them.

But I won't sit silently and listen to anybody badmouth Tex-Mex anymore. There is another side to the story.

And that's one reason I wrote the Tex-Mex Cookbook.

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On Kennedy's recent book tour, I saw her asked what she thinks about Tex-Mex. She essentially said that if you like it, great, but it's not what she likes. I got the impression, though, that she still held strong feelings about its general inferiority. I think she thinks of it as contrary to a slow food way of cooking that she promotes. However, as that LA Times article points out, the same disappointment can be applied to the average Mexican cooks in Mexico. I'd be interested to see you take her to a few of your favorite spots. How someone could disparage something as simple and wonderful as good brisket tacos, I don't know.

Do you think that Mexican-American food has earned its negative reputation with gourmets at all? Afterall, most of the country encounters Mexican food in the form of Taco Bell and other fast food and low-level chains or at their local combo plate place whose two draws are alcohol and large portions. Gourmets generally feel similarly about Italian-American food, Tex-Mex's most analgous cuisine.

Edited by ExtraMSG (log)
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I have an enormous amount of respect for what Diana Kennedy did for Mexican food. And I think I have gone out my way to congratulate and praise her work.

Unfortunately, Kennedy thought it was necessary to trash Mexican-American food in order to get Americans to accept her version of authentic Mexican. This was never necessary. I have much more respect for Rick Bayless who celebrates Mexican cooking without insulting anybody.

Unfortunately, Kennedy's negativity has been taken up and expanded upon by some segments of the food community to the point that Tex-Mex has been utterly villified.

Can we all sit down at the same table? I hope so. I have nothing against lovers of authentic Mexican food--I count myself among them.

But I won't sit silently and listen to anybody badmouth Tex-Mex anymore. There is another side to the story.

And that's one reason I wrote the Tex-Mex Cookbook.

I think one other way of looking at it is thus:

DK came over an English import and found all this wonderful undocumented cooking going on (prior to her most significant contribution -'The Art of Mexican Cooking').

She is not from the US, has no roots in the US and therefore no attachment to any type of US hybrid of cooking going on north of the border.

She has no frame of reference to place Tex-Mex, except as a "bastardization" of a "poor folk" country cuisine that she happened to stumble across, and then later force herself into, apparently out of love and respect for it's merits.

When she looks north of the border she can only compare the food she sees there to what she has experienced before...and it ain't the same.

She found some cooking that had not been explored in it's natural form in the English language on a mass scale....she was lucky enough to be one of the first to do so from the Caucasian, English-speaking perspective - - but her learning and teaching did not account for the great "ethnic drift" that already had occured and was later a deluge on the heels of the book's publication.

Some of the comments in her first big book, "Art of Mexican Cooking" spoke of the storm to come, but I can see how the established Tex-Mex style could seem to DK a cheapening of the simple fare she experienced in the homes and fondas in Mexico.

This is what I see Tex-Mex as - simplified Mexican peasant cooking.

Not simplified as in 'dumbed down', but simplified as in using the ingredients available to you to try to approximate a simple meal you would have made back home...plus, as in most immigrant cultures, cooking is the one thing that somebody surely knows how to do that is marketable... their food becomes barter and these dishes later become "commercialized" - - that is, the ingredients are suited to fit the taste of the customers or reflect local availability...maybe in this way a cuisine is born.

I don't know.

As far as I can tell, though, DK still does not "get it"....living in her nice little Mexican abode exploring recipes that may never have seen the light of day in the English language...which is great, that's what I appreciate her for.

This, of course, does not mean that Tex-Mex ain't real - because it is...just that DK will probably never see it as such because she is coming from a WAY different place.

...I thought I had an appetite for destruction but all I wanted was a club sandwich.

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I will add that she probably didn't have a clue as to the idiosyncratic addition of the Canary Islanders into the (then Mexican) nation that is part of the distinctiveness of the Tex-Mex cuisine.

I have to say that this is one of the nuggets of information from Robb's book that made me slap my forehead and say "Why didn't I know that?" Yes, there is a North African influence in Tex-Mex.

Linda LaRose aka "fifi"

"Having spent most of my life searching for truth in the excitement of science, I am now in search of the perfectly seared foie gras without any sweet glop." Linda LaRose

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I agree with most everything that's been said on this thread.

But I'd like to address two points.

First, the part about Tex-Mex being simplified Mexican food. I understand where that comes from.

But it has become self-fulfilling.

Take the case of Acenar in San Antonio. Bruce Auden of Biga, and Lisa Wong of Rosario's Mexican food opened a joint venture restaurant on the Riverwalk a few months ago and called their food "Modern Tex-Mex." And some critics refuse to accept it. The salmon nachos have dill on them, so that can't be Tex-Mex and ceviche is Mexican, not Tex-Mex, etc. etc. Why can't anyone accept a modernized version of Tex-Mex?

I heard the same thing when I wrote the book, Nuevo Tex-Mex. It was panned by the Austin Chronicle and amazon.com. When Doug Rodriguez upscaled Cuban food, it became Nuevo Cubano. But when David Garrido upscaled Tex-Mex, the critics said, that's not Tex-Mex.

If your definition of Tex-Mex is "cheap and cheesy", then when you encounter Tex-Mex food that isn't cheap and cheesy, you must conclude: This isn't Tex-Mex.

This faulty logic needs to be set aside.

Secondly, I'd like to challenge the fundamental basis of comparison that Kennedy set up 30 years ago: On the one hand, we have Tex-Mex. On the other hand, we have Diana Kennedy's cherry-picked recipes from Mexico.

Sorry, that's not exactly apples and oranges.

As the LA Times article linked earlier on this thread observed, everyday Mexican food can be average and ordinary.

On my last trip to Mexico, to document the spectacular cabrito cookery in Monterrey for Saveur, I also experienced the other side of Mexican cuisine. I walked into three cafes at nine in the morning trying to get breakfast, or failing that, a real cup of coffee. No go. No huevos rancheros, breakfast tacos, or migas. And nothing but Nescafe. Mexicans don't eat eggs for desayuno. That's a Tex-Mex tradition.

I love to eat in Mexico. And I never fail to learn something new about food when I am there. But it's silly to think that everything is always wonderful.

Under Kennedy's basis of comparison, the American food community has discounted Tex-Mex and romanticized Mexican cuisine to a ridiculous extent. Sure Tex-Mex is poorly represented by ball park nachos and Taco Bell tacos. Just like frozen pizza pockets reflect badly on Italian-American food. But Mexico has got plenty of awful, artificial food too. And they are just now entering their convenience food phase. Bimbo white bread is gaining fast on the tortilla.

Today, 30 years after DK's The Cuisines of Mexico was published, it's time to take off the rose-colored glasses and see both Mexican food and Tex-Mex for what they really are.

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Mexicans don't eat eggs for desayuno. That's a Tex-Mex tradition.

Apparently you've never been to a Sanborn's?

If your definition of Tex-Mex is "cheap and cheesy", then when you encounter Tex-Mex food that isn't cheap and cheesy, you must conclude: This isn't Tex-Mex.

I totally agree with this. Some of the best Tex-Mex items I've had were expensive as hell at The Mansion at Turtle Creek. They were every bit as good as items I've had at The French Laundry or Charlie Trotter's.

That said, however, in looking at things as "they really are", isn't a lot of this judgment based on the fact of the matter? As I said before, most people encounter Mexican food at mediocre to bad chains around the country and at the local combo plate place that has bland beans, flavorless rice, and mediocre enchiladas. However, the burritos are gigantic and so are the margaritas and you get free chips and salsa.

It seems that a lot of the Tex-Mex tradition has earned this negative opinion of it. Extolling a Velveeta dip, to me, is the equivalent of praising a pot roast that uses cream of mushroom soup in a crockpot. We always ignore such home-cooking modern conveniences in cookbooks. There are few Thai cookbooks that tell people to go buy Mae Ploy and few Mexican cookbooks that tell someone to go buy Dona Maria. I imagine no French cookbook would recommend getting your bechamel from a jar, either. But is it possible to ignore Velveeta queso dip in Tex-Mex cookbook?

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My read is that you should be thinking food. It was the food that was disrespected in the Kennedy book. I get that from the quote in the intro and some of her other writings over the years. It is all about the food.

Well, I guess I don't think it's all about the food if editors are changing titles of books or rejecting sections of books because they don't fit in with their idea of what food writing regarding "Mexican" food should be. Then I think it's more about writing and the writers doing the writing, the food is peripheral. I'm not sure that this is Ms. Kennedy's "fault" per se, but rather that people took her work as some sort of rigid dogma that needs to be followed when doing any food writing about Mexico or Mexican immigrant cooking. The food writing world seems to be a really strange place from a writing perspective. In other writing areas, a diversity of opinion and style is appreciated if not celebrated. In food writing, especially non- "American" (and by that I mean US) genres, it seems like there can be only one literary voice. I find that puzzling. Maybe it is because food is such a profane thing, and can provoke emotional responses faster and stronger then other things.

On to the food... you can find shitty food everywhere you go, just because food is cooked by a Mexican living in Mexico, doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be good. The same goes for Chinese food, Italian, whatever. Does one get the impression that anything cooked in Mexico by a Mexican is going to be great from Ms. Kennedy's books?

And Robb, the summer I spent in San Cristóbal, Chiapas, eggs frequently showed up for desayuno.

regards,

trillium

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Thanks, Robb, for a fascinating Q & A session. It's great to have someone talk seriously about Tex-Mex and I can't wait to buy your book next time I'm in the States.

As the author of the LA piece, I'd like to add a few comments to the DK discussion.

I don't think Diana Kennedy is just recording a peasant cuisine as one or two comments on this thread have suggested. In fact, one of the guessing games you can play with her books is tracing the class origins of the different dishes. Much of what she records is the cooking of the very well-to-do. And I sometimes have the suspicion that over the years people have increasingly offered their latest inventions which get folded into a seamless web of supposedly timeless Mexican food.

It's interesting to compare her take on Mexican food with that of another Englishwoman, Elizabeth Lambert Ortiz. She published her book in 1965, a little before Kennedy. When I moved to Mexico I found it much easier to cook from. The recipes are much less baroque (to use Robb's phrase) than Kennedy's. And her clear distinction between the corn kitchen and the rest of Mexican food is very helpful.

It's also important to remember that Mexican food has its own very distinguished tradition of cookbooks, gastronomic works etc going back to the eighteenth century. Rick Bayless makes much use of these. I'm sure Diana Kennedy must be more than conversant with this tradition too.

Right now, one of the most interesting things happening in Mexico is the back influence from the US, including from Tex-Mex. Nachos and chips. Chile's (sp?) restaurants. It's not just migrant workers, it's also the Mexican middle class who acquire a taste for such things when they go shoppping n the Galeria in Houston, have exchange students, etc.

And Robb, I give you the coffee. Mexico is not a great coffee drinking country (though cafe de la olla is wonderful) and for many Nescafe remains up market. But eggs for breakfast. Interesting you couldn't find them in Monterrey. In the parts of Mexico I know eggs are breakfast: rancheros, divorciados, omelettes, revueltos, estrellados, etc.

Rachel

Rachel Caroline Laudan

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Great article, Caroline.

What I really wanted was machacado con huevos.

It was available for almuerzo if you could wait until 11 or noon, but I never did find a place in Monterrey, other that the Novotel breakfast buffet, that served eggs early in the morning.

I guess I should have gone to Sanborns.

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Gee, thanks.

Ah well, early breakfast. That might be different. My impression is that you just eat something very light early on. But normally almuerzo is available from 8 or 9 and that's when you get eggs. Including the delicious huevos con machacado! At least in the north.

Hotels, sad to say, are taking over the American "breakfast buffet" idea and although the best are good, most are not.

I think migas really are Tex-Mex, don't you? I've never encountered them here,

Rachel

Rachel Caroline Laudan

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In an earlier book, Nuevo Tex-Mex, I had written that migas was a Tex-Mex twist on the Mexican version of chilaquiles with eggs. But rather than the stale tortillas used in chilaquiles, migas employed stale tortilla chips, of which a Tex-Mex restaurant has an endless supply.

Migas means crumbs, of course, and hacer migas, means to smash something to bits. So it all made perfect sense since you have to crush the tortilla chips to make the dish.

But migas, it turns out, is also the name of a very old Spanish dish made with breadcrumbs. So I have had to amend my creation story.

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This is all fascinating. Migas are well known in this part of Mexico. If I ask the girls who work for me (OK, OK this is Mexico) to make migas, they turn our stale bread into breadcrumbs. I have not heard them use the term migas for crushed stale tortillas. Those seem to be toasted, made into chilaquiles, but not crushed,

Rachel

Rachel Caroline Laudan

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I think you both have it right. I did a little informal research on it a while back and I think the tortilla chip version is total Tex-Mex. I couldn't find a direct relation between the Spanish version and the Tex-Mex version. I think it's just because you make crumbs of them.

At least sometimes, chilaquiles are made with crisp, fried tortillas. I prefer them that way myself. I'm not sure if it's a regional thing or just a taste thing.

btw, I tried to find your book at two Barnes & Nobles and Powell's today and they were all out. I don't know if they didn't buy very many copies or if you're just selling that well here in Portland. I had already ordered it a couple days ago on Amazon.com, though, and just wanted to be able to ask better questions.

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