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A tribute to Frida and her fiestas

Madonna may own some of Frida Kahlo's paintings, but has she sampled the black mole sauce from Oaxaca served at the artist's 1929 wedding reception?

Well, if she hasn't, she can now and so can you, thanks to Frida's Fiestas, a book of recipes and reminiscences co-written by Guadalupe Rivera, the Mexican painter's stepdaughter, and Marie-Pierre Colle, a journalist and author of Casa Poblana, Latin American Artists in Their Studios, and Mexico: Houses of the Pacific.

Kahlo, whose furry mono-brow is nearly as famous as her wonderfully rich and revealing self-portraits, is more revered in death than when she shared a home and a passion for art, politics and food with muralist Diego Rivera.

Since the late 1980s, the love affair with all-things Frida has sparked a revival of her work and some odd take-offs as well, including an eponymous blood-red lipstick marketed in Mexico.

The artist's popularity likely is due to the increasingly organized study of women's history. To present-day feminists, Kahlo is the poster child of perseverance and neglect. She maintained a measure of independence amid a time and culture of macho male dominance. Her struggles with physical ailments, a wandering husband and her inability to have children are laid bare in her earthy, morbid self-portraits, many of which show a bloody heart placed outside the artist's body.

Although Kahlo's personal and artistic triumphs and tragedies are legend today, her reputation as an entertainer and a creator of clever repasts is less well-known.

In fact, the authors paint a picture quite different from the long-suffering icon of depression.

Frida's Fiestas tells the story of a vibrant, nurturing woman who knew how to throw a party.

Guadalupe Rivera lovingly recounts her memories of Kahlo's fabulous feasts during 1942-43, the year the teenager and her sister came to live with Kahlo and Rivera.

The book goes through the year noting a seasonal meal each month that celebrated religious or Mexican holidays as well as birthdays and other personal occasions.

And always, despite their success and sophistication, Kahlo and Rivera tried to celebrate with the colorful foods of the Mexican masses.

(The only variation on the theme is the first chapter, a menu re-creation of Kahlo and Rivera's wedding reception in 1929.)

"At that time, Diego believed that only the bourgeoisie used silverware. So for the soup there were blue-enameled metal spoons,the most common kind for sale in the market, but the rest of this wonderful food had to be eaten with the sole aid of tortillas," the authors write of Rivera's culinary peccadilloes.

Many of the book's historical passages, with their intimate glimpses at two extraordinary lives, will make you wish that Kahlo had been a writer, a la M.F.K. Fisher.

She certainly had the fodder for charming _ and heartbreaking _ tales.

Her writing tablet, alas, was her canvas. The popularity of her self-portraits has eclipsed her still-lifes of food.

Kahlo's menu for Day of the Dead (celebrated on Halloween or Nov. 1) _ Fried Bread with Syrup (Mexican-style French toast), Dead Man's Bread (sugary, cinnamon-spiked rolls), Yellow Mole, Red Mole, Tamales in Banana Leaves and Pumpkin in Syrup _ is typical of the full-bodied peasant foods prepared by Kahlo and her staff.

Through Frida's Fiestas, the reader/cook comes to understand that the energy the artist brought to her art also permeated her kitchen.

For instance, each September, Kahlo joined the populace in preparing for Mexico's national holidays.

She collected little flags of red, white and green, using them to decorate fruit centerpieces, as well as including them in her paintings.

Frida's Fiestas is an unusual blend of cookbook, art history and biography held together by the luscious photography of Ignacio Urquiza.

Urquiza uses Rivera and Kahlo's home, the Blue House in Coyoacan, Mexico City, actually a house of many colors and flowers, all vivid, as the backdrop for his take on Kahlo's celebratory tableaux.

His table-settings for the chapter on Kahlo and Rivera's wedding reception are striking, vivid colors jumping from all corners.

Thanks to Urquiza's vision, it is easy to imagine sitting on a stool in Kahlo's kitchen, sipping a glass of sangria all the while listening to a raging argument on class wars, socialism, communism, or the latest artist to find his way to the top.

In addition, black-and-white photographs of the artist in her home environment and reproductions of her paintings are sprinkled throughout the book.

Frida's Fiestas is a must for anyone who is fascinated by the artist and her work.

A passion for Mexican food won't hurt either.


Recipe box: 100 recipes from Squash Blossom Quesadillas to Mango Sorbet.

Shopping list: Almost everything in Frida's Fiestas is available in local grocery stores. Some hunting may be required for tomatillos and other produce. Scour produce stands and specialty markets if you can't find them at larger markets.

Extra ingredients: Jam-packed with tidbits about Kahlo's life and the way she ran her kitchen, this cookbook offers interesting insights into how meals were planned and prepared in a home where entertaining was a revered activity.

Offtaste: Frida's Fiestas is a good bet for cookbook collectors or art lovers. It is not suitable for beginning cooks or those who need explicit directions, since many dishes aren't accompanied by photographs. A number of the recipes are fussy, requiring many ingredients and much equipment. Also, no nutritional information is included. However, with all the lard these recipes require, who really wants to know?

Eye appeal: Most of the sumptuous food photographs were taken in the place the meals were eaten, Kahlo and Rivera's Mexico City home. The Blue House in Coyoacan has been refurbished to its original state and is now a museum dedicated to the artists.

Dead Man's Bread

7{ cups flour, sifted

2 cups sugar, plus additional for dusting

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons vegetable shortening or butter

2 packages active dry yeast dissolved in 5 tablespoons warm milk

12 small eggs

1 tablespoon lard

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

{ cup milk

Mound the flour on the counter or in a bowl and make a well in the center. Place the sugar, shortening, yeast, eggs, lard, cinnamon, vanilla, and milk in the well. Work into a dough and knead until the dough pulls aways from the counter or bowl.

If the dough is too soft, knead in more flour. Shape in a ball, grease and flour it lightly, and place in a greased bowl. Let stand in a warm place for 2{ hours, or until doubled.

Cover with a towel and refrigerate overnight.

Shape the dough into balls the size of a peach. Decorate the tops with strips of dough to look like bones.

Place the rolls on a greased baking sheets and let rise in a warm place for about 1{ hours, or until doubled in bulk.

Dust with sugar and bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 30 minutes, or until the bottoms sound hollow when tapped.


by Guadalupe Rivera and Marie-Pierre Colle

Clarkson Potter, $35, 224 pages.