Author's Note: I recently built myself a new bookshelf in the kitchen, and in the process of reorganizing my ever-expanding book collection, I ended up blowing the dust off of more than a few majorly dog-eared pages. Old friends that carried me through college, my early days of faking it in fancy restaurants, my time as a test cook and writer, and some newer volumes as well. So, every weekday through the end of October, I'll be writing a short post featuring a food book that I really like. All of these books had a major influence either on my career or on my day-to-day cooking. They aren't necessarily the best or most essential cookbooks out there, but they are all worthy reads.
Some folks would suggest that no list of influential cookbooks is complete without something by Rick Bayless, the Oklahoma kid turned Mexican-cuisine scholar/restaurateur/TV personality, and I'd rather live a life bereft of guacamole than give up my copy of Authentic Mexican.* Others might find it offensive that I choose to include him at all. Perhaps no other chef has been accused of cultural appropriation as fiercely or as frequently as Bayless (he's also been equally fiercely supported), and the topic is one that seems to be gaining traction rather than fading. This is a good thing for food and culture, but not particularly great for someone like Bayless, who, despite the occasional bout of foot-in-mouth disease,** has done just about everything right when it comes to being a white guy cooking other people's food.
* This is actually not true. Guacamole is too good.
** Like claiming to be a victim of "reverse racism" in a Sporkful episode.
For starters, he did the research, living in Mexico and not just learning about its regional cuisines, but immersing himself in the culture with his wife for over 10 years before releasing his book. Before Bayless wrote his book, a comprehensive English-language collection of regional Mexican cuisine did not exist, and it remains the standard to this day. More importantly, his book is packed with references to the restaurants, street vendors, and individual people from whom he learned his recipes, and in most cases, he calls them out by name. The enchiladas a la plaza from a server in Morelia. The pozole verde from a friend in Almolonga, Guerrero.
His follow-up TV show, Mexico: One Plate at a Time, is one of the greatest bits of accidental tourism PR ever created. It's no exaggeration to say that Bayless's output is directly responsible for my love of regional Mexican cuisine, and for several past and future trips around Mexico to taste on their home turf the foods I've tried to re-create at home through his instruction.
In other words, Bayless is thorough, understanding of his role as both a visitor and an ambassador, respectful of culture, appreciative of other people's work, and an advocate.*** I have vague-to-concrete future plans to strap my baby to my back and take some time off to travel throughout my wife's native Colombia, with the idea of learning more about her culture (and introducing our daughter to her mother's country in the process). All the while, I hope to collect stories, photographs, and recipes for a book that will introduce American audiences to Colombia's hugely varied regions and cuisines. If it manages to do the job half as well as Bayless's Authentic Mexican, I'll consider it an immense success.
*** I've seen people suggest that there is more Bayless could do. Make a public statement acknowledging, or at least be aware of, the privilege that his ethnicity and background have offered him in his career, or start a cultural coalition to help share his success with more Mexican cooks. Both of those things sound like good ideas to me.
I've always seen his work as a four-way win. He gets his books and his show and his restaurants, and Mexico gets the right kind of exposure (and the visitors that surely come with that). The individual folks he invites on his show or asks to contribute recipes for his work get credited for their creations, and, most importantly, we the readers have access to all of it.
And what a trove it is! There's simple weeknight home cooking, like gently poached chicken breast cloaked in green mole made with tomatillos, pumpkin seeds, and romaine lettuce leaves. Pork enchiladas in a simple dried-chili and tomato sauce thickened with a slice of bread. There are massive sections on snacks and antojitos, the tacos, turnovers, and quesadillas made with masa that form the backbone of a good fiesta. And, of course, there's the more esoteric fare—empanaditas stuffed with calves' brains, or birria that starts with a young goat's hindquarter.
Bayless's skills as a recipe writer are also exemplary. As is true of any good recipe writer, his recipes are meticulously tested and designed with the constraints and knowledge of the home cook in mind. There are only a few photographs, interleaved on glossy inserts, but the printed pages of the book are sprinkled with clear illustrations that demonstrate unfamiliar techniques, such as how to tuck banana leaves around chicken for pollo pibil (the original pit barbecue from the Yucatán) or how to fillet whole fish for pescado a la veracruzana (poached fish topped with tomatoes, capers, and olives).
Every single recipe in the book has a sidebar that lists and cross-references every technique you'll be using while preparing the recipe, in case you need to brush up on basics before beginning. Each recipe also has a miniature glossary of every unique ingredient you might come across, with suggestions for substitutions you'll readily find in supermarkets. All the recipes also include a section on how to prepare the dish in advance when possible, as well as traditional and contemporary variations to try out once you've mastered the basic recipe. It really makes you wish every recipe book came with these features (and now has me thinking I'll probably add some of them to my next book).
You can buy Authentic Mexican here.