An interview with Karen Hursh Graber

articles Food & Cuisine

Alan Cogan

You can find Karen Hursh Graber’s contributions in many places in MexConnect. She’s a regular contributor with her monthly cooking column, “The Mexican Kitchen”. She also contributes to the food department, “The Cuisines of Mexico”. And she also assists with the web-site’s Food Forum. Here, Kitty, (as she’s known to her friends) came out of the kitchen long enough to talk about one of her favorite subjects – Mexican food and its preparation.

She originally came to this country twelve years ago from California to teach at the State University of Puebla. Since then she has continued teaching, has written ESL teaching guides and a cookbook along with travel articles for various publications. She lives in Cholula, Puebla, with her husband, Larry.

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According to your MexConnect biography you originally came here to teach at the university. The subjects you taught had nothing to do with cooking. How did you get into this change of careers?

I guess there are two reasons. One is that we came here to work. We didn’t come to retire. So we found we had more interaction with students and friends and neighbors than, say, older people and retirees who come to Mexico. We found ourselves being invited into people’s homes and into their kitchens and found ourselves taking a greater part in Mexican life. There’s one family we were really close to and they have sixteen children. So we were frequently invited to baptisms, weddings, birthday parties and other events, which gives us a lot of exposure to real Mexican cooking. And, actually, in Mexico it’s in the home that you’ll find the really high cuisine. It’s not in the restaurants. You can go to a really damned good restaurant and still not find anything like what you’ll find these women making in the home.

Is it better?

Yes – it’s better and it’s different, too.

You said there were two reasons?

Yes, the second one is the Cholula market. It’s absolutely one of the best markets I’ve seen in Mexico. The produce is wonderful and they have all the ingredients you could possibly want. And they put everything together so well. I’d keep discovering all these new dishes and ingredients I knew nothing about. Like guajes, for instance. A guaje is a hideous little purple pod with tiny beans inside. It doesn’t look like anything you’d ever want to eat. Anyway, I don’t hesitate to talk to people and ask a lot of questions. I also read a lot about pre-Hispanic foods and cooking traditions. In the case of the guajes I found that they taste something like garlic with an interesting and delicious flavor. I’ve learned how to use them, along with a lot of other ingredients.

The ladies in the market, for instance, are so enthusiastic and they love it that I actually want to learn about their cuisine and their traditions.

So really, if I know anything about cooking it’s from being around kitchens and being so exposed to Mexican cooking and knowing people who are only too happy to teach me. It’s all of that, plus the presence of a really great market.

You can add a third reason – I discovered that I really like writing.

What’s the title of your book and where can we buy it?

It’s called “ Take This Chili and Stuff It.” It’s a title that came to mind at 4 o’clock on a sleepless night. You can order it from Golden West Publishers in Arizona.

Did you make money from it?

Yes, I made money. At first I did a lot of peddling on my own. Self-publishing is the rather dignified term that’s used to describe that process. It means I sold it to friends to give for Christmas presents and I went to places like the Chili Cook-Off in Ajijic and sold it there. But eventually I took the advice of a man I met in Ajijic and made the book longer and sold the rights to a publisher for a lump sum.

Is it a big coffee table book?

No – just the opposite. I love looking at coffee table cookbooks. They’re usually so beautiful. But mine is meant to be taken into the kitchen and used. My intention is to get people to try these dishes at home.

Where do your recipes come from?

I collect them constantly on our travels through Mexico. We travel a lot in this country. One of my favorite things about visiting other areas is asking people: “How did you make this? It’s really good.” I don’t mind asking in restaurants and markets. Fortunately, most people are only too happy to tell me. Chefs in restaurants invite me into their kitchens. Women in markets don’t mind taking the time to tell me – or show me – how they do things.

The other day we unpacked a small bag of odds and ends from a recent Yucatan trip and a piece of paper fell out. I remember the woman who wrote it. She had made a really good dish and I had asked her about it. She immediately sat down and wrote everything out for me. It was belabored writing and it took her a while but she did it. I’ve got a collection of scribbled notes like that. Another method is that occasionally I’ll see an ingredient – an herb or a species of chili I haven’t seen before. I’ll experiment with it or I’ll ask the person in the market what you do with it. I have a lady in the Cholula market I call her my market guru – who loves to explain all these things to me.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m preparing a book of recipes from Puebla. Then I definitely want to cover Vera Cruz, Oaxaca and the Yucatan. There’ll be books on all those cuisines eventually.

Are the various state cuisines in Mexico really all that different and varied?

Yes, they are that different. You’ll find some basics – the same ingredients and techniques – throughout the country. But a mole in a Oaxacan kitchen will be different from a mole in a Pueblan kitchen. The ingredients will be different. A shrimp cocktail in the Yucatan will be very different from the same dish in Sinaloa. Mexico simply isn’t as homogenous as other countries like, say, the United States.

What’s your aim in writing your books? After all, there are several other people producing books about Mexican cuisine. Are you trying to do something different from them?

I’m trying to make Mexican cooking a little more accessible. I know, for instance, that a lot of people complain that the really excellent books can be too complicated. Mexican food is so popular now. I’m not trying to simplify or change the flavors. I do tell people where to get the ingredients for a lot of the dishes. For example, I just came across a recipe that calls for tomates verdes. Now tomates verdes look like little green tomatoes. They have a husk but they really are miniature. They’re about the size of marbles and they have a slightly different flavor from the green tomatoes most of us are familiar with. Now I’d never tell anyone to use a canned sauce but if you can’t find tomates verdes don’t hesitate to use small green tomatoes. In other words, in creating some of these dishes, you don’t always have to go too far. And occasionally I think that some of the cookbook writers do just that.

How do you rate Mexican cuisine in comparison to other international cuisines?

Mexican is one of the great ones. It’s so sophisticated. It blends so many ingredients – from two continents – in so many different ways.

The great cuisines are Chinese, French, Italian and Spanish but I would place Mexican alongside all of them. I remember interviewing a woman in Tlaxcala and she described Mexican cooking as artisanal. It’s the same kind of hand-created art as their talavera pottery or tinwork. And it’s very tactile. But really, the big achievement was blending two completely different sets of ingredients so successfully.

Do the visitors to the MexConnect website exhibit much interest in Mexican food?

Yes, definitely. I get letters from South America, Australia, Europe and all over the United States. I recently had letters from people in England and Brazil who are opening Mexican restaurants. I get letters, sometimes in Spanish, from Mexicans who remember their mothers making certain dishes. And they send me recipes, too. Most every day I get mail as a result of writing for MexicoConnect. I try to help people when I can. I learn so much and it’s so much fun.

Do you make a recipe over and over before you publish it?

First I always make it the way it’s described to me. But if I get the recipe from a restaurant I usually have to reduce the quantities, which calls for some experimentation. Some of the family recipes, too, are often for large quantities, so I have to make adjustments. Then there are several things that I take for granted, that people in the U.S., say, don’t automatically do. Someone will tell me to ‘roast and sweat” the chilis, for instance. I realize that the reader may not know exactly what’s involved in that process. So I’ll take the time to explain it. I’m just trying to be the middle-man in this process. I’m not taking credit for this terrific stuff. I just want to be helpful in making it more available.

How many times would you make something?

It depends on the recipes. For instance, I got two recipes from a friend in Tlaxcala. She owns a restaurant and she gave me permission to use them in Mexico Connect. She’s very organized and I simply cut the recipes in half and invited a few friends for dinner and that was all I had to do. But the recipes from people’s homes can often require more experimentation. But that’s more authentic and more fun for me.

Actually, what I like best of all is when someone comes over to the house to work with me. That’s how I learned how to make mixiotes. Someone can explain that endlessly, but it’s very hard to describe for a third party unless you’ve actually done it.

Do you know any of the other people who write Mexican cookbooks?

No, I’ve never met Diane Kennedy, who is probably the best known. She lives in Michoacan. Nor have I met Patricia Quintana who lives in Mexico City. She’s more involved in the nouvelle cuisine. It’s basically the same as what we have here, but there’s more emphasis on artistic presentation. They use the same recipes and ingredients but have a more artistic touch with the garnishes. I’d recommend that people buy and read her books. Both these ladies also do something I try to do and that is to add something about the culture and the origins of the various foods I’m talking about. But I have to say that Diane Kennedy was the first. She really does her research. She’s a very hands-on individual.

Do you invent dishes or are you mainly concerned with locating existing recipes in various parts of the country?

I’m more into capturing the cuisine as it exists. But I do invent things. I’ve been cooking Mexican food – particularly Poblano food – for a long time so that I don’t need to constantly follow a cookbook. I might find myself improvising, sometimes based on the ingredients that are there. Occasionally that becomes a form of invention.

Are there still recipes out there, waiting to be discovered?

As long as there’s a cook left in Mexico, there’ll be recipes waiting to be discovered.

Are the ingredients for Mexican dishes easy to find in other parts of the world?

Yes, it’s so much easier now that we have the internet. One of the things I’m trying to do is develop a decent database of places where you can obtain ingredients and how to get them. I try to provide this in Mexico Connect. I can now give people web-sites. For example, somebody asked me where to get achioto seeds and there’s actually a web-site where you can get them. You can actually click on the site and find out if they’re available and the cost and what the method of payment will be and their 1-800 number. There are many companies in the business of importing and selling Mexican, Caribbean and Latin American ingredients to cooks all over the world.

For those who don’t know, where do they find you on MexConnect?

I have my own column, ” The Mexican Kitchen”, along with several other people who write regular monthly columns. And then we have an award winning Mexican Cuisine section called “ The Cuisine of Mexico”. Its also available in Español! I make contributions to that, along with some other people. It’s a kind of recipe bank with recipes from me and from other people. And it’s set up by categories – meat, poultry, seafood, etc.. I don’t run The Food Forum. It’s intended to be run by the readers of Mexico Connect themselves. It’s a place where they can ask questions and get answers. But the answers come from other readers, not necessarily from me.

Published or Updated on: July 1, 1999 by Alan Cogan © 1999


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