By Soll Sussman
Portrait by Kate LeSueur
After decades of traveling and writing about Mexican food and cooking it with flair and expertise, Diana Kennedy finds it uniquely challenging to settle on just one special recipe for today’s profile. When asked, she pauses thoughtfully for a moment, then admits she can’t entirely answer the question because “every recipe I have evokes a cook, a journey, a landscape, a flavor,” she says.
Never daunted by a challenge, though, she continues to ponder. Then, bypassing the recipes of childhood, the last dishes shared between dear friends before parting or those served every year during special holidays, she lands, oddly enough, on what some might consider a humble garnish. At a comfortable table in the bar of Austin’s Fonda San Miguel restaurant during the quiet time of cleanup, Kennedy recalls the trip where she first collected this chosen recipe.
“[Cuetzalan] is a lovely town on the Sierra Norte de Puebla…probably right on the border of Veracruz and Puebla states,” she says. “It was quite isolated. I was there in the seventies. Friends in Puebla had pointed me to a family in town. The market was so colorful—the men came in their white pants and shirts…baggy pants…typical indigenous garb, with hemp bags slung over their shoulders and their huarache sandals. Selling their coffee or their vanilla beans.”
She takes out her reading glasses to look at the recipe in a first-edition copy of her book My Mexico, and notes that the recipe is mistakenly entitled “Chilatas”—one of the copy-editing errors to be corrected in the upcoming reissue of the book. “Chiltatis,” she says with exaggerated enunciation, “is the crunchy, healthy topping that nobody ever does. It’s often sprinkled on a freshly made corn tortilla or on soup or beans. I’d even use it on a salad.” Once prepared and properly stored in an airtight container, it keeps indefinitely. Kennedy always has some on hand in her kitchen.
Photograph by Whitney Arostegui
The recipe is a simple nut and seed combination, but each ingredient must be toasted separately in a heavy pan because they toast at different heat levels. “You can leave the brown skins on the peanuts; you don’t have to make a fuss,” she says. However, Kennedy’s infamous reputation as being somewhat prickly shows up with the next instruction. “For goodness’ sake, no nonstick stuff,” she says. “No Teflon! Any little gimmick like that is lazy cooking.”
After the ingredients cool, they’re ground separately to a textured consistency. “I use an electric coffee and spice grinder,” she says, noting that she uses one grinder for coffee and another for spices. The ground components are then mixed with chile powder, but “not one of the chile powders you buy out of a little glass jar,” Kennedy says with unabashed admonition. “You use a dried chile…dried chile de árbol with the seeds.” Toast it lightly in a dry pan then grind it.
The final step is the addition of salt, but again Kennedy is abundantly clear about direction. “For goodness’ sake, please use a good sea salt…and no kosher salt! Do not use kosher salt!” she repeats. “DK says, ‘off with their heads!’” she jokingly continues—not directed at the salt, per se, but meant in general, as a lighthearted theme of that well-known prickliness.
To further the theme, Kennedy then admits she chose chiltatis as her recipe partly because she’s still irked by a recent New York Times article about the Middle Eastern peanut condiment known as dukkah. The writer had suggested a Mexican variation of dukkah using pumpkin seeds and chile. Obviously miffed that a beloved, authentic regional recipe would be referred to as a “Mexican variation,” Kennedy pointedly asks: “Why don’t they read my books?"