Cooking with Counter-Currents
Peter D. Bredon
Or, We Need Immigrants for, What, Again?
“Libertarianism, like most libertarians, is all about someone else paying for their ethnic dining habits. It’s why they are no longer of any use to the Right.”
“What makes America great is, therefore, less about productivity than about population, less about Google and Stanford than about babies and immigrants.”
The last time I was in New York, in the mid-2000s, I heard that there was finally an answer to one of the most puzzling problems of the metropolis: why can’t you find good Mexican food in New York?
The puzzle was that New York was full of Mexicans, just chockablock with them, and by no means were all of them shiftless welfare bums or drug mules; many, many worked in the “food services” industry, and by no means were all of them waiters, busboys, and dishwashers, either: many ran their own restaurants, some of pricy, elite quality. And yet no one was producing really great Mexican food, even on the level of the humble taco.
The problem was solved, apparently, by the arrival of a “taco truck” that would appear from time to time in Tribeca, selling the greatest Mexican food New Yorkers had ever obtained.
How did this happen? Did the massive immigrant population finally hit that critical mass that – as it seems to be assumed – allows great “ethnic food” to make its appearance?
As it happened, no. Two guys – presumably white – decided to go south of the border, learn what was needed, and returned to implement their new skills. No immigrants were needed to apply.
The cover (March/April 2017) features a very appealing bowl of guacamole, and the cover story therein promises “True Guacamole. Clean. Simple. Bold.” But what really got me reading intently was the accompanying True Travel tale (the magazine’s tack is to swerve between autistic white guy kitchen science and Paul Theroux travels to exiting and authentic Dark Lands) by J. M. Hirsch, straightforwardly titled “48 Hours with Diana Kennedy,” the supposed Doña of Mexican cuisine. Could this be Diana, the slightly mad woman I had met as the friend of a friend, living in a dilapidated but expensive Mexican-tchotchke-stuffed suite at the Dakota?
As it turned out, no. Apparently, crazy white ladies who travel to Mexico and become stern mistresses of authentic Mexican eats are a thing. This Diana, Diana Kennedy, came to Mexico with her husband, Paul Kennedy – the New York Times reporter, not the Princeton poli-sci guy – in 1957, returning to New York in 1966 when he developed cancer. I guess this was to get treatment, or revisit friends, or something, because there are no details and he just disappears. For all Hirsch tells us, he could still be alive in an old age facility, like that other Kennedy, JFK.
This vagueness is also a thing; there always seems to be some nebbishy guy in the background to take these women to some exotic locale, then conveniently disappear, more or less noiselessly.
Diana, meanwhile, meets Craig Clairbourne, the Times food critic (networking!) who suggests she write a cookbook (thinking, no doubt, to shut her up with her incessant chattering about the wonders of Mexican grub). The result, The Art of Mexican Cooking: Traditional Mexican Cooking for Aficionados, seems to be considered something of a “Bible.” Amazon sez:
This indispensable cookbook, an instant classic when first published in 1989, is now back in print with a brand-new introduction from the most celebrated authority on Mexican cooking, Diana Kennedy. The culmination of more than fifty years of living, traveling, and cooking in Mexico, The Art of Mexican Cooking is the ultimate guide to creating authentic Mexican food in your own kitchen, with more than 200 beloved recipes as well as evocative illustrations.
Kennedy shares the secrets of true Mexican flavor: balancing the piquant taste of chiles with a little salt and acid, for instance, or charring them to round out their flavor; broiling tomatoes to bring out their character, or adding cumin for a light accent. By using Kennedy’s kitchen wisdom and advice, and carefully selecting produce that is now readily available in most American markets, cooks with an appetite for Mexican cuisine–and Kennedy devotees old and new–can at last serve and enjoy real Mexican food.
Hmmm. Note that last paragraph. Shared wisdom + now readily available ingredients = Mexican food without Mexicans. The accompanying guac’ recipe gives us a chance to try this out. Milk Street says:
Too many guacamole recipes are a muddle of flavors. Diana Kennedy’s use of just a handful of traditional ingredients allowed the dish’s simple flavors to be the focus. White onion mashed with cilantro and serrano chilies added the right amount of bite, while diced tomatoes offered balanced acidity against the rich avocados. Mashing the cilantro, chilies and onion in the same bowl as the avocados kept their flavors in the food, not on the cutting board. We were surprised that we never missed the lime juice. Guacamole hinges on the ripeness of the avocados; they should be soft but slightly firm.
Someone else’s online comments about Kennedy’s guac’:
What makes this guacamole a little unique is that it uses no lime juice. I was pleasantly surprised that I didn’t miss it at all. What’s not terrible unique, but an under-utilized technique in my experience, is mashing the onions, cilantro, chilies, and salt together before mixing in the chunky avocados. My recommendation is to do the mashing with a mortise and pestle. Alternately, you could use a food processor, or a fork and some elbow grease. Whatever you’ve got around to pulverize the onions will do!
Honestly, this was the best guac I’ve had in a while . . .
In a while? How about evah. Yes, I’ve made this guac’ myself, several times, and while I have to take Diana’s word for its authenticity, I can affirm that not only is it easy to make, it is better than that which any restaurant serves.
And yes, that includes any you’ve had, made by supposed Mexicans in supposedly Mexican restaurants, from funky but “authentic” taquerias to five-star watering holes.
So why do we think we need authentic immigrants to have authentic ethnic food? Well, obviously, it’s a fallacious argument – a non sequitur, or ignoratio elenchi, I’d say – a bit of dishonest rhetoric employed by the immigration fanatics; they needn’t believe it themselves, as long as we’re naïve enough to buy it.
Also, there may be some vestigial memory of the Great Big French Cuisine Boom, which in a sense was immigrant-fueled, though not at all through some surge of Frenchmen at the border.
[O]ne restaurant, Le Pavillon, came to epitomize the rise and fall of French cuisine.
It began as a pop-up-style eatery called “Le Restaurant Français” at the French Pavilion during the New York World’s Fair of 1939-1940. But the sudden German conquest of France in the late spring of 1940 left the staff with a choice: Return to Nazi-occupied France or stay in the U.S. as refugees.
Maître d’hôtel Henri Soulé, together with those who stayed, found permanent quarters in midtown Manhattan and rebranded it “Le Pavillon.” With a preexisting reputation for excellence from the fair, the restaurant was an instant success.
Le Pavillon and Soulé soon ruled over the city’s restaurant scene, rising to become the undisputed top-ranked establishment in America, with exacting culinary standards that surpassed its Francophile competition. French writer Ludwig Bemelmans thought that Soulé provided not only the finest meals in Manhattan but also eclipsed those in France. In his memoirs, famous food critic Craig Claiborne [him again! Networking!] recalled the food as “fit for the gods,” and a throng of celebrities passed through, from the duke and duchess of Windsor to the Kennedy clan (well, until they quarreled with the irascible Soulé during John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign).
But the real, or at least the most culturally important reason, is the loss of a certain archetype of American life. A glance at the “homey” details in Hirsch’s travelogue gives us some clues.
Diana is a real pistol. In addition to teaching and travelling, she grinds her own corn, roasts her own coffee beans, and shops at the local market, though the native’s viands are often not good enough (“They have no taste!” she scoffs at one vendor).
Her house is surrounded by a “mess” of trees, chilies, and herbs: “This is a mess. This is how I like it; nature interspersed with things to eat.” She is full of opinions, and not shy to offer them, often at the top of her lungs:
“The Spanish f—-ed everything up! The only thing they did right was seduce the pig.”
“You want to start by flavoring the oil. Flavor! At every stage, flavor!”
“People cook the shrimp too much and never cook the sauce enough.”
“They add so much chili it burns your mouth. There’s a type of bravado around how much you can handle. But that is a palate killer.”
And there’s plenty of mezcal, which he “is quick to press on – not offer – her guests.” But she must restrict herself: “I only allow myself two ounces a week. There’s nothing worse than these funky old ladies who have hit the bottle.”
She may not be a “funky old lady,” but she is, in fact, a Tough Old Bird, scrawny and beaky, ready to have her neck wrung and then dropped into a pot of coq au vin. Think Vanessa Redgrave as suffragist Olive Chancellor in The Bostonians (1984), or Amanda Plummer as Honey Bunny in Pulp Fiction (minus Pumpkin, of course).
She crops up throughout Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae (Yale, 1990) – she is, indeed, Diana! – and Paglia is somewhat of one herself. I suspect, and I suspect Paglia would agree, that though they were suffragette leaders, they have now, with the triumph of Second Wave Feminism, become angry, tenured Academic Lesbians and Gender Fluid Students demanding protection from micro-aggressions, and bitter Career Women wondering why that invisible glass ceiling is still keeping them in their place.
The Tough Old Bird often has a male counterpart – ironically, it’s the Academic or Career Woman who is companionless. He’s not so much Pumpkin to Honey Bunny as quiet and largely useless Pa Abner to Ma Abner (Appalachia), or Pa Kettle to Ma Kettle (rural Washington state).
The examples show that by the ‘40s, she was usually found only among the lowest classes. Among the upper classes, the NPR/PBS crowd, he now finds he must fend for himself; Vermont’s Christopher Kimball, bow tie tightly wound about his pencil neck, banging around the house alone, trying to figure out this cooking business in his “Test Kitchen.”
But by and large, the upper classes no longer produce Teddy Roosevelt-style roustabouts, bursting with Emersonian self-reliance, reveling in doing their own hunting, cooking, and cleaning “up at the cabin,” but now prefer to just hire immigrants to do the chores: shopping (or hunting; no longer done with the help of the “native guide”), cleaning (house, pool, and yards) and, of course, the cooking.
We no longer seem to have the archetype of the Bold Aryan Woman who slashes through the jungle, dragging her man behind her (Kate Hepburn and Bogart), masters the native cuisine, and brings it back home for our enjoyment, improved and far superior to anything that’s supposedly “authentic” because made by some native.
But that’s no reason for the rest of us to just sit back a flood the country – our country – with immigrants. Try out Diana Kennedy’s recipe for yourself, and see if you feel a need for any more of them.
1. The Zman, “The Moron in Full,” The Burning Platform, May 6, 2017.
2. Ruchir Sharma, “To Be Great Again, America Needs Immigrants,” The New York Times, May 6, 2017.
3. Researching this article from my digs in Old Blighty, I had a hard time remembering the name of the truck, but finally narrowed it down to “Caliexico,” the Cali-Mexico border town the brothers called home. The truck, apparently, is no more, but after winning the coveted “Vendy Award” for Best Food Truck, they’ve started a brick and mortar restaurant. Good to know that Americans can still compete and win!
4. And according to Wikipedia, the start of a Trump-style media empire: “Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street is a multimedia, instructional food preparation organization created by Christopher Kimball. It is headquartered at Milk Street Kitchen near Boston Harborwalk. It is named after and located on Milk Street in Boston, Massachusetts. The organization comprises a magazine called Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street, a cooking school, Milk Street Radio, and a website for video podcasts. In September 2017, the organization will begin Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street Television.”
5. See Stephen Birmingham, Life at the Dakota: New York’s Most Unusual Address (New York: Random House, 1979; Open Road, 2015).
6. E.g., Julia Child, who goes to Paris with her husband, and fellow spook. See “Julia Child Cooked Up Double Life as Spy.” To be fair, there is the messier version in Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky, as well as in his own life with Jane.
7. Paul Freedman, “How was French cuisine toppled as the king of fine dining?”[Chester D. Tripp, Professor of History, Yale University, you peons!].
8. The noble Roman nose, not the hooked one of the Tribe.
9. A fourth Best Actress Academy Award nomination; as well as such other roles as, according to Wikipedia, transsexual tennis player Renée Richards in Second Serve (1986), Blanche Hudson in the television remake of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1990) [and indeed, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in the original are classic examples], Mrs. Wilcox in Howards End (1992, her sixth Academy Award nomination, this time in a supporting role), crime boss Max in Mission: Impossible (1996; when discussing the role of Max, DePalma and Cruise thought it would be fun to cast an actor like Redgrave; they then decided to go with the real thing); Oscar Wilde’s mother in Wilde (1997); Clarissa Dalloway in Mrs. Dalloway (1997); and Dr. Sonia Wick in Girl, Interrupted (1999).
11. Among other outrages committed as George Costanza of Seinfeld travels through the upper-class Ross family like a Judaic wrecking ball, he burns down the cabin by the lake that Susan’s grandfather built with his own hands (Season 4, Episode 6, “The Bubble Boy”). George W. Bush’s much mocked brush-clearing was a degenerate example of his family’s pseudo-rustic life up in Maine. Maine’s Stephen King presents the upper-class rustic hideaway as an Indian spirit-haunted gate to Hell in The Shining. And who wants to hunt with Dick Cheney? (Parodied on Mad Men, when the rich but barbaric Midwestern Chevy executives in Detroit force Ken Cosgrove (from New York via Vermont!) to go hunting and shoot out one of his eyes (“Quality of Mercy“).