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Cooking With The Grand Dame Of Mexican Cuisine

Diana Kennedy's home in Michoacan, Mexico, sits at the end of a long dirt road that can only be accessed by pickup or four-wheel drive.

Heavy rains have turned her rambling gardens into a swath of jungle dense with ingredients: apricot and fig trees; chayote vines from Veracruz, Mexico; and a thatch of weeds underfoot that's thick with herbs.

Originally from Britain, Kennedy moved to Mexico in 1957, and she's been traveling the country in search of recipes, new dishes and the perfect tamale ever since. She became a leading expert on authentic Mexican cooking after she published The Cuisines of Mexico in 1972.

She is now 87, still fit, and still on the hunt for the perfect tamale. Her most recent cookbook, Oaxaca al Gusto, focuses on the traditions of the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca.

The Food Anthropologist

Kennedy is often referred to as the Julia Child of Mexico, and with good reason.

She moves energetically around her kitchen, the walls of which are lined with traditional clay pots. Spices and vegetables hang in wicker baskets, but the centerpiece is a long cement counter adorned with Mexican tile and topped with built-in gas burners.

She's cooking a simple recipe of beans with yerbasanta that hails from the western highlands of Oaxaca. The recipe calls for garlic, oregano and cumin -- in just the right proportions.

"Don't go over on the garlic," Kennedy commands. "People put far too much garlic in Mexican food."

Kennedy is a stickler for authenticity. She isn't just cooking to create a meal -- she's cooking to preserve and document dishes from remote parts of Mexico that are usually made entirely with local ingredients. She's a bit of a food anthropologist -- and, weighing in at almost 7 pounds, Oaxaca al Gusto is her textbook.

Kennedy divides the book up not by recipes but by geographical region, highlighting the varied cuisine of this diverse state. She says this is what makes Oaxaca so special.

"Because of all these cultural differences and because of all these microclimates," she says, "you've got all these different ingredients that are used."

Foodies should be warned that the book's long list of recipes includes several dishes that gringos or the faint of heart will probably skip -- like the iguana in mole sauce or the wedding stew that calls for a whole ox to be butchered, then boiled for hours.

In her section on the Amuzgos, an indigenous group from the Pacific coastal region of Oaxaca, Kennedy writes: "Tamales, too, play an important role in their diet. They are filled with iguana, armadillo, goat, shrimp, mushrooms, beans, pumpkin, and even the black grubs known as cuetlas."

A Sweeping Culinary Landscape

But Kennedy's deep expertise is also one of the downsides of her latest book. The index, arranged geographically, makes it hard to find a recipe unless you already know what part of Oaxaca it comes from. Kennedy also leaves out staple recipes for things like masa, the ubiquitous tortilla dough that is required in many recipes, leaving newcomers to Mexican cuisine to fend for themselves.

Kennedy says she can already hear her critics in the U.S.

"They're going to say, 'Oh there are a lot of wild recipes that nobody can do in this book,' " she says.

And while Kennedy's stress on authenticity can make Oaxaca al Gusto a dense read, she makes up for that by providing insight into the culture and history that accompany these meals. It could easily be mistaken as a textbook or a travel log in which the southern Mexican state is explored through its food.

Illustrated with luscious photos of raw ingredients, cooked meals, overflowing markets and sweeping Oaxacan landscapes, Kennedy insists that, on the whole, her book is quite accessible.

"There are a lot of recipes you can do," she says. "And I want to say, 'How many recipes do you do in any cookbook? I swear you don't do half of them.' "

Kennedy is right, of course -- there are many simple recipes in her new book, like the yerbasanta beans she's working on.

The chilies, garlic, cumin and oregano are blended with a bit of water in an old electric blender, then mixed with pre-cooked beans and brought to a simmer. Right before serving, Kennedy adds rough chunks of fresh yerbasanta leaves to the mix.

With the chilies from her garden playing off against the mild licorice taste of the yerbasanta, the final product makes for an authentic, unusual dish -- but still a treasure.

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Jason Beaubien
Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.