Sierra Magazine

Food For Thought

Beyond the Burrito

Fostering environmental health through culinary pride

by Paul Rauber

No lepidopterist in pursuit of an unnamed butterfly is so zealous as Diana Kennedy on the trail of an unattested (and rarely tasted) Mexican recipe. Although in her 70s now and nursing a bum knee, she is still happiest when out in her old truck searching the highlands of Oaxaca for a local specialty like fried worms.

"One place I went to, literally off the track, was a small landholder who said he’d collect these pochicuiles for me," she says in her refined British accent. "It’s this ugly-looking worm, but it is organic and full of protein. So we stopped, and had them on a marvelous tortilla. Pochicuiles often have a very strong taste, but these were sabroso." Characteristically, Kennedy was just as interested in the provenance of the tortilla. "The man was complaining about what must have been genetically modified corn that the authorities were trying to foist on him. He said he planted it once but couldn’t stand it—it didn’t taste right, it didn’t look right."

Kennedy appreciates a discriminating eater, especially one who understands how food is linked to the health of the land. Over her long career she’s seen Mexico’s gastronomic wealth shrink with the growth of its worst environmental ills: overpopulation, unchecked development, and wholesale pesticide use. Championing the country’s culinary heritage is, for her, a form of environmental activism.

Kennedy moved to Mexico in 1957, and with the encouragement of New York Times editor and food author Craig Claiborne wrote The Cuisines of Mexico (1972, out of print but now incorporated in The Essential Cuisines of Mexico), the first great Mexican cookbook in English. Her genius was to look beyond the standard dishes familiar in any U.S. Mexican restaurant ("that awful heavy plate of mixed messes," she calls it), to the astonishing variety of regional cooking and local ingredients.

Not to say that Kennedy disregards the basics. She is adamant, for example, that beans not be presoaked. "If you do, then don’t throw out the soaking water with all the minerals and flavor. Instead throw out the book that tells you to do so."

Her real love, however, is for obscure sauces particular to certain towns and seasons, or delectable preparations of obscure local vegetables like the chilacayote. (If you can’t find one in your supermarket, a zucchini will do.) A dish like tamales de espiga (prepared with the anthers, or pollen sacks, from corn tassels) is for her like an endangered species, to be lovingly documented and perhaps revived. The odds, she admits, are tough: Migrant laborers returning from El Norte "are bringing back American tastes"—particularly for junk food. Drying the anthers for tamales de espiga takes nearly a week—the antithesis of fast food.

Globalization is also threatening Mexican traditions of foraging for mushrooms and wild fruit. Free trade has brought, for example, "very polished fruits like those great big apples. People think they must be better because they’re bigger and more luscious-looking than the local fruits."

Not that locally grown produce is necessarily an improvement. "It is so sad that in Mexico, the home of the tomato, tomatoes have become mostly horrible," Kennedy laments. "They taste to me of chemicals, except in certain places where you get the criollos, or natural tomato, which is thin-skinned, very juicy, but doesn’t travel."

Part of the problem is that Mexico has incredibly rich food traditions, but not one of haute cuisine. (It doesn’t help that most people associate Mexican cooking with tacos and burritos, which are actually the street food of the border region, the equivalents of hot dogs and hamburgers.) Kennedy’s evangelical goal is to preserve Mexico’s food traditions by elevating them in the eyes of the world, and to show how they go hand in hand with environmental health.

Paul Rauber is a senior editor at Sierra.

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