Whales, Squirrils and other Victuals

Inigo Thomas

No one could accuse Diana Kennedy of cowardice. The 92-year-old Englishwoman lives in an adobe house in Michoacán, three hours west of Mexico City, where she writes about Mexican food culture. She has seen off extortion attempts by the local police. She isn’t bothered by nearby drug traffickers. She travels through the provinces of Mexico in an old jeep, in which she also sleeps. She takes a spade with her so she can dig the wheels out of the mud when necessary. ‘I never travel in straight lines,’ she says.

Serene, Kennedy is not: she’s intelligent, abrasive and up for a fight. Margarita Carrillo Arronte’s Mexico: The Cookbook appeared in 2014, and Kennedy had been asked by Phaidon for a blurb: reading the proofs she saw more than an overlap between the book and work of her own. She refused to write the blurb, and when the book was published had someone put a review on Amazon, quoting what she wanted to say. ‘With at least 60 mistakes and 16 recipes of mine used, without my permission or acknowledgment, this book is not to be taken seriously. Shame on the Phaidon editors and their ridiculous promotional blurbs!’

Kennedy's assertions were supported by David Sterling, an American chef and the author of an anthropologically-minded book on the cuisine of Yucatan. In his Amazon review, he said: ‘Diana Kennedy's negative comments about this book seen elsewhere in this column of reviews have nothing to do with any sort of vendetta or “sour grapes”. She is upset, as am I, because of the great disservice this book does to the understanding of regional Mexican cuisine beyond the country, an understanding that Diana has worked hard to build since the 1950s. The book is full of egregious errors, cover to cover, in fact on almost every page.'

The Amazon reviews, and the threads leading from them, are now the length of a book, and while the contest might seem overblown – more evidence of too much boring talk about food – Kennedy is far more than just a writer of cook books. ‘All anthropologists and botanists, they ought to learn to cook,’ she has said, ‘or they will miss the whole point of how culture and plants and food come together.' She was born in Essex, spent the war in the Women’s Timber Corps measuring the girth of trees, met a New York Times journalist in Haiti, and moved with him to Mexico. Craig Claiborne, the paper’s legendary food critic, told her that he would only be persuaded Mexican cooking was a distinct cuisine if she wrote a book explaining why it was. So she did.

If Kennedy is following in the footsteps of anyone, it’s Hans Sloane, whose colossal collection of books and objects were the foundation of the British Museum. His account of his years in the Caribbean, especially Jamaica, included observations on what there was to eat, and what there wasn’t. Cooking and ingredients familiar in Britain turned bad too quickly in the tropics; dishes that lived in Lincoln died in Kingston. That can still be true, and I learned my own lesson in Mexico when I tried to show off by making my hosts in Malinalco a cheese soufflé. It didn’t work, and I was told by a brain-box Mexican-French economist a few days later, who knew everything about everything (he'd written his PhD on the irrigation and redirection of the Durance river in Provence, had his own morels in his own woods, and had worked for Carlos Salinas in the 1980s), that at 5000 feet above sea-level you have to rethink how you whisk those egg whites.

In an inspired piece on her blog about British 18th-century taste, Homo Gastronomicus, India Mandelkern explains how Sloane’s thinking developed into an inquiry into what food is and what about we take for granted.

So alien were these Jamaican foods, so distasteful were they to the European palates, that Sloane began to ponder the very definition of food in the first place. After all, Sloane surmised, there was no hard and fast rule separating ‘food’ from ‘non-food’. What was unique about mankind, Sloane reasoned, was the ability to extract nourishment from pretty much anything. But necessity alone does not determine one’s taste preferences. ‘[H]owever strange to us,’ Sloane continues, strange and un-food-like foods ‘are very greedily sought after by those us’d to them. Thus Person not us’d to eat Whales, Squirrils, or Elephants, would think them a strange Dish; yet those us’d to them, prefer them to other Victuals.’

There’s probably no better contemporary book that illustrates the food/non-food question than Diana Kennedy’s Oaxaca al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy. The book is exotic less for its unlikely ingredients, although there are plenty of them, than for its variety: throughout the province of Oaxaca, there are thousands of valley-specific dishes. Unlike most contemporary cookbooks, where you can, if you think about it, imagine the taste of the dish you’re confronted by, in Oaxaca al Gusto there is almost no recognition at all. The book has never been published in the UK; the British Library doesn’t have a copy.

‘Are we in fact what we eat?’ Mandelkern asks. 'It’s a well-worn adage, but Dr. Sloane didn’t seem to think so. In fact, precisely because the definition of food was so malleable, Sloane concluded that one’s dietary preferences should not be a pretext to classify, categorise and enslave other peoples.' A radical thought. Kennedy’s books ask similar questions. ‘I had no vision,’ she said in an interview about how she got going as a writer in the late 1960s. ‘I was just putting down what I found. I never thought of myself as a writer. I never thought of myself as anything.’ Quite something, that.


  • 28 January 2016 at 12:49pm
    Simon Wood says:
    That last sentence has been playing in my mind like a folk tune.