In his latest work, The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo: A Novel, F.G. Haghenbeck reminds us that even the most elaborate meal is only half the story. The people for whom we cook, the ingredients we seek out, and the love or praise given in return, are all part of a larger narrative. Set against the remarkable life of Frida Kahlo, Haghenbeck has plenty of story to work with.
The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo is partly inspired by a collection of notebooks discovered in La Casa Azul, Kahlo’s home-turned-museum in Coyoacán, Mexico City. Haghenbeck transforms these findings into “El Libro de Hierba Santa” or the “Hierba Santa Book.” In this imagined journal, Kahlo describes the dishes she prepares to honor the Day of the Dead. Haghenbeck, a mystery novelist and screenwriter, tells us the book disappeared from the Palacio de Bellas Artes on the day it was to be exhibited.
Like apparitions, fragments of the missing notebook end each chapter with detailed recipes that connect to a person or time in Kahlo’s life. Moments before a fateful streetcar accident, she sneaks out of school with friends and enjoys a Red Pozole to celebrate a narrow escape from expulsion. Newly married, she reluctantly accepts a cooking lesson from Diego Rivera’s first wife which begins with food being thrown, quickly dissolves into laughter, and ends with Lupe’s Chiles En Nogada. During a brief separation from Rivera, Kahlo prepares Lomo al Tequila for her lover, photographer Nicholas Murray. For Leon Trotsky, known here as the “Goateed Man”, there is Snapper with Cilantro and for Georgia O’Keefe, Mole de Olla.
Though Rivera and a slew of famous friends and lovers are prominent throughout the novel, it is Death - depicted as The Godmother, a Catrina-like skeletal figure - who drives the story. Together with The Messenger who does her bidding, they visit Frida at critical moments. Sometimes they are invited inside for a tequila, sometimes they are greeted with the candles, flowers, and sugar dusted bread of a traditional ofrenda, and sometimes the door is shut in their face - but always there is a negotiation.
Alongside her nanny’s recipe for Pumpkin Tamales, Kahlo writes down her words of advice: “'The dead only come for Mass, to show where gold is buried, or to annoy. That’s why you always have to give them something to eat, so they’ll go away,” she’d say with a big smile.'”
More than a fictionalized account of Kahlo’s well-documented life, The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo is a kitchen window view into the soul of an endlessly fascinating and intriguing woman. Translated from the original Spanish to English by Achy Obejas, the book offers an addendum of well-tested recipes, so readers are invited to taste for themselves.