Writers Talk About Writing
How do you capture the sense of a cuisine in words? To find out we called the acclaimed chef Rick Bayless, the author of six books on Mexican cooking and host of the PBS show "Mexico -- One Plate at a Time." We had a fascinating and wide-ranging conversation with him about food, language, 1940s anthropologists, and his latest cookbook, Mexican Everyday:
VT: How do you translate an unfamiliar food culture to an American audience?
Rick: Exactly the same way you would translate language. My graduate studies were in linguistics and anthropology. For me it's a very similar process to translate a cuisine from another culture into the target culture as it is to translate a language. You have to really understand both cultures. Not just the words, not just the ingredients or the dishes out of context, but you have to understand it on a much broader perspective.
VT: What do you mean?
Rick: A lot of people will cook a dish exactly the way it's done in the host culture, if you will, without considering the target culture. When they do that, it becomes this sort of relic that's not understandable. It's just like if I read a Pablo Neruda poem out loud to you in Spanish but you don't understand the language. You could be taken by the lyrical quality of the poetry, but you would have no idea what it's about. Of course, a good translator can capture both the lyrical quality of the words as well as their full meaning.
But it's never going to be complete because there's always something lost in translation -- or sometimes added in translation -- that gives a different or fuller meaning. I think about this a lot when I'm writing about food. I want to understand what the dishes are like on their home turf but I also try to give an adequate translation and fit it into a context that people will understand here in the United States. Sometimes it's a hard thing to do, especially for something unique where there's no touchstone for it here. But that becomes part of the prose about it.
VT: You got me thinking of an herb I tasted in Mexico had a sort of gasoline aroma to it. I can't remember what it's called.
Rick: You're talking about epazote. It's a really interesting herb but it's always cooked in something, and its flavor and fragrance changes completely when you cook it. In the United States we have this tradition of herbs where you always want them to be fresh if possible, and you want to add them in the very last second so you capture their fresh taste. But epazote is one of those herbs that's just not good eaten that way. The other version of that is oregano. Oregano changes its flavor when it dries, and you always want to use it in the dried form. It's too pungent in its raw state.
Then there's something called huitlacoche. It's a corn mushroom that grows right on the ear of corn. It's a fungus, a spore-related fungus in the exact same way that any of the mushrooms we eat are. But it has a much earthier flavor than most of the mushrooms we know, and certainly more than button mushrooms, which have very little flavor. This one's got loads of flavor, and an interesting sweetness because it grows literally in the kernel of corn. When it's fully ripened it's ashen gray on the outside and black on the inside.
VT: How do you approach describing that flavor, that appearance, in your writing?
Rick: Part of my job as a writer is to be an educator - although I use that word with some reticence. I consider myself to be an educator only in the sense that I might lead people into wonderful new experiences and they will learn from those experiences. I'm not one of those pedantic "I'm going to teach you what good food is" kind of food writer, because I don't believe that's how it works. Food teaches in a very different way, a very sensual way. All I can do is start people down a path that hopefully they'll be excited to explore. And once they get into the middle of it, if I prepared them well, they're going to have that full experience and become educated. That's what I consider to be my role.
VT: What's fascinating about your book "Mexican Everyday," is that you not only talk about the idea that there's a Mexican cooking beyond tacos and tortillas, but you also talk about the inherent healthfulness of the cuisine.
Rick: American Mexican food developed in a very different way than Mexican food did in Mexico because it was snatched up in the 1960s by theme restaurant people. It became this very dumbed down, cover-it-with-cheese-and-sour-cream-and-call-it-a-day kind of cuisine that was really best eaten when you were drinking lots of margaritas and beer. That's not the food that people eat every day in Mexico. The cuisine there has a different role, of course. I've always said that Mexican American cuisine developed as it did because you didn't have to eat it everyday. But in Mexico, you eat the food not only every day, you eat it three meals a day, sometimes four meals a day. So Mexican cooking developed into a very rich cuisine that could satisfy on many different levels, from the simple quick meal at home to the big blowout fiesta.
VT: To hear you describe this, it seems you're almost taking on the role of an anthropologist in a way, translating this eating culture for Americans. But maybe that's too high-falutin'.
Rick: It's not that high falutin; it's exactly what I do. I do consider that a part of my role, and that's my background, too. I'm really fascinated by how culture expresses itself in many different forms and it certainly expresses itself brilliantly through food. Most of the early anthropologists were never very interested in food, they were more interested in "caloric intake" and where it came from. They didn't want to know what form the calories took, and what seasonings were on them, and what role the food played. I read accounts from Mexico in the 1940s when anthropology was a still new discipline. A bunch of guys that never cooked were writing the stuff and that really did a disservice to their work - they didn't capture a whole segment of what people did! They were more interested in clothing, "costume" as they called it back then, than what people ate.
VT: So capturing that is your goal as a food writer.
Rick: There are people who come from the outside of a food culture whose personalities mesh beautifully with it. They pick up something that has yet to be expressed about the aesthetics of that cuisine, they internalize it and cook with it. I hope I do that for Mexican cuisine.