He had traveled in Mexico before, but this time, Rick Martínez was on a mission. The New York Times contributor and former Bon Appétit senior food editor, took a trip back in 2019 with a serious purpose: to research his new cookbook “Mi Cocina: Recipes and Rapture from My Kitchen in Mexico.”
He found himself there when the pandemic broke out, and at that time the U.S. had more cases. So he decided not to return to his home in New York, thinking the move would be temporary — instead it was life-changing.
He traveled 20,000 miles, covering all 32 states and 156 cities, and the more he explored, the more enchanted he became with the country’s culture and cuisine. Now the native Texan calls Mazatlan home. That’s where he lives in a house near the beach with his sidekick, a chocolate lab he named Choco.
Dedicated to Mexico, his cookbook is filled with more than 100 recipes and dazzling on-location color photography. It’s been lauded by Time magazine, Food & Wine, Eater, Food52, Salon and Thrillist.
It’s also a heartfelt memoir. Martínez grew up in Austin and during his elementary school days, students and teachers offered him charity he didn’t need, like school lunches and a fund drive to buy him a coat. They didn’t know he did not grow up speaking Spanish, that his family owned lake property or that he lived in a house with a swimming pool.
His mother, who died just months after seeing her son graduate from culinary school, was his inspiration and the reason he cooks. She had an uncanny sense of smell and never had to taste-test her recipes. She made tamales with him but also cooked for the family from her Betty Crocker book.
So when Martínez writes about Mexican food, it’s from an American’s perspective, but one who continually seeks connections to the cuisine that speaks to his soul. The recipes bear this out with familiar and exotic flavors, and they’re tailored for the home cook.
We caught up with him to find out more about his background and to get his take on one of our nation’s most popular ethnic cuisines.
Q. I love that this book is personal. Even as a Bon Appétit subscriber, I wasn’t aware that you were Tejano. I’m from San Antonio, so I really relate to your backstory. Now that you’ve been living in Mexico, your Spanish must be fantastic.
A. It’s much better, but actually when I started the trip, I didn’t know Spanish and that was definitely a deficit. But as I wrote in the book, that was a choice that my parents made because of where we grew up, and what it was like in Texas at that time.
Q. Totally understand. My father felt the same way. Was it important to let readers know, especially if they’re not sure about taking a deep dive into Mexican cuisine, that you’re making this journey with them?
A. Yeah. I feel like most Americans love Mexican food and I think the majority of them are only really aware of a few dishes, right? The dishes that people make most and order most are enchiladas, tacos, burritos and nachos. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s so much more to Mexican cuisine and I felt the only way to successfully convey that was to actually go on the journey myself.
Q. What else was on your mind?
A. I wrote this book proposal in 2019. Trump was in office, immigration was a big issue and it still is. It’s politicized. At the time, whenever you heard about Mexico, it was about the border, a crisis. It was kids in cages, it was people trying to illegally cross the border. I wanted to change that conversation. I wanted to present it in a positive light and show the beauty of the country and of the people.
Q. This is more than a cookbook. The intros are longer, more informative. You’ve written these mini essays that are really thought provoking.
A. The story that I told in this book came out of everything that happened with George Floyd and all of the things that followed, and it made me contemplate my own position and what I had been doing in my own job and everything that I had gone through. I tried very hard not to come across as angry or as anything other than I just wanted to tell the story. If you want to just cook the recipes, then you should be able to do that. But if you want to know a little bit more about me and what it was like growing up Hispanic in Texas and working in the food media as a professional, you have access to that story as well.
Q. Did you find that you thought a little bit differently than you might have if you had just jetted back to the U.S. to write it up?
A. Oh yeah. That probably was the biggest change for me is self acceptance. I don’t want to speak for everybody, but I feel like a lot of people of color, a lot of Latinos, you exist in a world where you want to hold onto your heritage and your culture and you want to celebrate those aspects of your life. But there are times, at least for me, that I felt like I didn’t necessarily have to hide it, but I knew that in order to play the game, in order to get the promotion, in order to get the story, in order to get my book contract, I had to write a certain way. Or I had to position it so that it was appealing to a White audience or a White editor or a White boss. Once I actually did start to question it, I made the decision, I’m not gonna do this anymore.
Q. And it all worked out?
A. That was what really changed my life and my outlook. I decided to live in Mexico because it felt comfortable to me. For the first time in my life I wasn’t the only brown person in the room. I wasn’t the only Mexican American in the bar or in the conference room or in the boss’s office. And I felt something that I’d never felt before.
Q. Well, you made a big leap. When I interviewed Molly Baz, we talked about how you guys you were at Bon Appétit during a golden time. Why did you leave?
A. When Sohla (El-Waylly) stood up and said, “I’m not getting paid fairly.” That took a lot of courage. And I thanked her for that. And then, I was like, why am I accepting this? Honestly, I was making $350 per video and the next person up that had a contract — and we know this because we had all shared this information when we started negotiating our contracts — was a White person making $1,000…we negotiated for months and we couldn’t get a deal that was even close to that. … And I was like, you know what? I am worth more than that. I’m not going to beg to be on your YouTube channel. So, goodbye.
Q. You really make Mexico come alive in this book.
A. It is so vibrant and so bright and colorful and beautiful. I wanted you to pick up the book and feel what I feel when I’m in Mexico, all of that positive energy, all of those bright colors, all of that beautiful food.
Q. To me it’s as sophisticated as French cuisine, but you graduated from the French Culinary Institute, what’s your take?
A. It’s a complex cuisine. Take mole for example. When I started this journey and I met with a lot of people and I watched a lot of people make mole and there were just steps that I did not understand. I was like, I don’t know why you’re doing this because it’s a lot of trouble … There are a lot of techniques, like the refrying, it’s not just for beans.
Q. How does it work?
A. You blend up tomatoes, onions, garlic, chilies. And then you pour it into hot oil … So you’re going to make a mess on your stove. Let’s be honest. I can see when you do it with beans, you are actually frying and you are getting caramelization, but if you’re throwing liquid into fat, you’ve gotta burn off all that water before you can actually produce any caramelization.
Q. Does it make a big difference?
A. It really does. There’s something about the rapid heating of those vegetables, chilies and the spices that adds this other depth of flavor. You just can’t make a good mole without doing these steps.
Q. The recipes are delicious: citrusy carne asada, buttery esquites, aromatic beans with epazote and guacamole with lots of fresh jalapeños. I liked that you give readers choices. You don’t say make this exactly this way. When I interviewed Josef Centeno he said Tex-Mex food shouldn’t be marginalized because it’s not “authentic.” Do you think it’s time for foodies to free themselves from that term?
A. 1,000%. I hate that word because I think that it is a complete American construct. To me, it is literally where marketing and racism intersect because as a person of color, when you write a book about food that is not American, then the highest praise that you can get is that your food is authentic. They were trying to push that kind of language on me.
Q. So you fought that word?
A. Everybody’s entitled to their opinion about how to prepare a particular dish. So why can’t my food just be Rick’s interpretation of these Mexican dishes? And the reality is that in Mexico, nobody goes around saying, oh, you did it wrong. If I asked 10 people in Mazatlan to come over and make Tacos Gobernador you would get 10 versions of that dish. And each one would probably be incredible and they would all be different and no one would be upset about it. It would just be like, whoa, we’re tasting different people’s food, and it’s gonna be great. And you would celebrate those differences.
Q. Was there anything else you wanted readers to know about this book or about Mexican cuisine?
A. If I couldn’t find an ingredient in Mazatlan, chances are you are not going to be able to find it in Kansas. So I did not want anyone to have to special order ingredients or buy special equipment. This should be, “I’m going to the grocery store, I’m going to H.E.B. or Randalls or Safeway and everything’s gonna be there and I’m gonna make it. And it’s gonna be really, really amazing.” But I also want you to buy that ticket to Oaxaca and go eat mole there, because that is the true experience of Mexico.
Publisher: Clarkson Potter
Meet the author: At 6 p.m. on Wednesday, May 18, Rick Martínez will appear at Tallula’s at 118 Entrada Drive, Santa Monica. $65 per person includes the book, two cocktails, snacks and a bag of masa harina. For tickets, visit tallulasrestaurant.com. At 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 19, Martínez will be on hand for an event titled, “Rick Martínez in Conversation” at Second Home Hollywood, 1370 N. St. Andrew’s Place, Los Angeles. Tickets are $45 and include a signed copy of the book. For more information, visit nowservingla.com.
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This story was originally published May 16, 2022 5:30 AM.