When the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo died in 1954, her wardrobe and personal objects were locked away for 50 years. This month, they will be exhibited for the first time outside of Mexico at the V&A. Kahlo was known for her self-portraits. Her personal style was modelled on the women who lived in Tehuantepec, a city in Oaxaca. These women wore long skirts with heavy embroidery, bright ribbons and flowers in their hair.
Frida’s entire life was a performance as deep and strong as the colours she used in her paintings — never more so than when she laid the table. Her table was an altar. It was where she offered edible gifts to her family, lovers and gods. She often packed elaborate picnics for her husband, muralist Diego Rivera, which always included flowers and beautiful napkins. These baskets didn’t just hold lunch. They were tokens of love that made art out of the essential. Anyone who knew her said she was as generous when pouring pulque (an alcoholic agave drink) as she was when sharing her emotions.
Her clothes exalted the indigenous and so did the food she served. Humble dishes like hominy stew or mole (a chocolate chilli sauce) were among her favourites. When she got married, the food at her wedding feast was eaten with tortillas instead of utensils. This was a nod to old Mexican traditions, as well as a symbol of solidarity with the poor. She and Diego were communists and silverware was bourgeois.
Though Frida considered herself a socialist, she saw no contradiction between harbouring Bolshevik friends and having domestic help. Eulalia, her cook, made most meals. Frida would help but presentation and menu selection were what really interested her. She was an artist: food was merely another medium and her table another gallery. She produced meals with the pageantry of the Catholic Church, whose tenets she didn’t believe but whose holidays she loved to celebrate. Whether welcoming Trotsky by covering a table with rose petals or decorating it with marigolds and a mountain of tamales to entice the dead, her creations were as detail-oriented as a Christmas feast.
When I was young, my mother had a recipe book called Frida’s Fiestas by Guadalupe Rivera, Frida’s step-daughter. The person who taught Frida how to cook was her husband’s ex-wife, the author’s mother, Lupe Marin. Another source of kitchen inspiration for Frida was a book she inherited from her own mother, Nuevo Cocinero Mexicano. It is organised like a dictionary. I know because I have an 1845 edition. Under ‘A’ there is a recipe for armadillo. ‘On the third day after killing the armadillo, you can cook it in water with a little salt.’
Food abroad was not to Frida’s taste. She always longed for the flavours of home. Coming from Los Angeles, a city with a Latin heartbeat, I can relate. One of the hardest things about moving to the UK in 2009 was the lack of good Mexican food. It is an Angeleno’s soul food. My first year here I pined for it. After I moved to London, the first book I bought was Rivera’s. Nothing cures homesickness like cornbread with chillis in cream.
For years, the English interpretation of Mexican food was uninspiring. The first time I tried guacamole in the UK, all the fresh zingy flavours I was expecting had been replaced by something with the taste and texture of mushy peas. It was a far cry from anything in Baja. I felt dejected. I went home and roasted chillis and tomatoes in a foil boat to make salsa. Lucy, my family’s housekeeper, taught me to do this as a child.
Ten years on, y gracias Jesûs, Mexican food in London has evolved. The Wahaca chain is still a long way from Oaxaca, but it was a great start, providing many Britons with a gentle introduction to the exotic flavours of Mexico. In its wake, a wave of burrito and taco places opened, including Benito’s Hat and Breddos. More authentic still is the taquería El Pastor, where they make the most satisfying Paloma cocktails in London. My favourite place in south London is Santo Remedio, where the soft shell crab tacos taste just like they do in Quintana Roo. They also serve Crema de Mezcal with orange slices dusted with Tajín — a condiment that tastes pleasantly of salt, spice, and citrus. In California I used to eat Tajín on mangoes. Thanks to La Tiendita in Fulham, I still do. They might not stock armadillo, but they do sell lots of other sundries including chapulines, toasted grasshoppers.
At Ella Canta in Park Lane, a special menu is being offered in Frida’s honour. They’ve even created a cocktail called La Casa Azul (the Blue House), named after her home in Coyoacán in Mexico City, where the Frida Kahlo Museum is based. The courses are arranged like an evening at the theatre. Chef Martha Ortiz insists her kitchen crew make their own masa, the most crucial ingredient for quality tortillas. They do this by soaking cooked corn kernels in lime, then grinding them into a powder. ‘You need to be Mexican to cook Mexican. There’s a magic that can’t be taught. You absorb it,’ says Ortiz. As Mexican cuisine is entrenched in myth and magic, I believe her. The Mayans considered cacao a gift from the gods and thought man was made from masa.
Frida’s Blue House was located on a street called Londres, but she never made it to the UK. In 1939 an exhibition was planned but she had to cancel. On Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, Mexicans leave out the deceased’s favourite foods to summon their spirits. I like to think Frida is coming to London because we can finally tempt her with something delicious to eat.
Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up is at the V&A from June 16 to November 4