Diana Kennedy, cookbook author who promoted Mexican cuisine, dies at 99
Ms Kennedy first moved to Mexico in the late 1950s after marrying a foreign correspondent based there for The New York Times. She painstakingly researched the traditional recipes of Mexican home cooks and documented native edible plants like a scholar in search.
Over the decades, she became known as the “Julia Child of Mexican Cuisine” or the country’s “high priestess of the kitchen” — monikers she usually dismissed with a wave of her hand, like so many June bugs in his outdoor Mexican kitchen.
She has described herself as a “dismissed scourge” of fine dining, promoting cuisine from the humble to the refined, from meatballs in chipotle sauce to cream of pumpkin blossom soup. She also shamelessly pursued more adventurous recipes for iguana tamales and beef brains with jalapeños.
Fearless, salty and outspoken, Mrs. Kennedy had no patience for inefficiency, inaccuracy or waste, and she often punctuated her statements with a choice expletive. An oversimplified explanation of how corn tortillas are made could lead him to confront a cookbook author face to face or write letters of rebuke to the Washington Post, the Times and Saveur magazine.
Yet her commanding reputation led future superstar chefs, including José Andrés and Rick Bayless, to make pilgrimages to Mrs. Kennedy to soak up her knowledge.
“I can’t tell you how precious my dear friend Diana Kennedy has been to me and my cooking,” Andrés said. “She is the ultimate storyteller of Mexican cuisine and has been so influential in teaching Mexican cuisine to the rest of the world. Every time I cooked with her, I learned to listen to the whispers of Mexican ingredients.
Andrés offered Washingtonians visits with Mrs. Kennedy every few years beginning in 2008, during which time she consulted at one of her restaurants. Ms Kennedy said she could tell how well a professional kitchen works by seeing what’s in her rubbish bucket.
Ms. Kennedy has spent the last four decades of her life working from her adobe house and ranch in the Mexican state of Michoacán. “I wanted a home made from locally made materials that would address the resources of the area and be in tune with the restrictions my neighbors had to live with and had survived for many years,” she writes in her cookbook. My Mexico” (1998).
In 2014, she began converting her farmhouse into the Diana Kennedy Center, a nonprofit educational center that houses her extensive collection of vintage Mexican cookbooks and will continue her cooking classes.
From her first work, “The Cuisines of Mexico” (1972), to later volumes such as “Nothing Fancy: Recipes and Recollections of Soul-Satisfying Food” (1984), Mrs. Kennedy was synonymous with meticulous study and patience. A single recipe can fill several pages.
“Never before in history have more people had more kitchens, more equipment, more ingredients to cook with, and more time to cook than the average American today,” he said. she writes in ‘Nothing Fancy,’ “so why not relax and try some recipes that span four days.
Early fascination with food
Diana Southwood was born in Loughton, a town northeast of London, on March 3, 1923. Her mother was a kindergarten teacher and her father was a salesman. Diana and her sister loved to visit a nearby grocer and browse crates filled with food from faraway places.
Her godmother paid for young Diana to attend a girls’ school in Hampstead, where she began to learn the culinary arts. She went to Wales during the Second World War to work in the forestry corps and came to enjoy the fresh, local produce and cheeses cooked over a wood fire on the job.
She worked after the war as an accommodation manager in mining villages in Scotland and asked cooks to share their recipes and techniques with her. It’s a practice she continued by traveling and doing odd jobs whenever she could: in Spain, France and Austria and, eventually, when she emigrated to Canada.
From there she began her tropical culinary love affair, with trips to Puerto Rico and Jamaica. She was in Haiti when anti-government protests broke out in 1956. Paul P. Kennedy, a Times correspondent, was there to cover it and was staying at the same hotel in Port-au-Prince.
The pull was fast and fierce. She soon joined Kennedy in Mexico City, where he was stationed, “with a $500-and-a-half promise of marriage.”
The couple married in 1957 and spent nine years in Mexico. She cooked, learned techniques from her housekeepers and studied Spanish. Paul Kennedy collected recipes for his wife when she could not accompany him on trips through Central America and the Caribbean.
In “Nothing Fancy,” she recalls a story that shows how refined their palates had become in 1966, when the couple were on their way to New York because of Paul Kennedy’s advanced cancer:
“We were in a motel dining room somewhere in Texas. Paul put down his knife and fork shortly after starting his meal. “I don’t know if I should thank you or not,” he bellowed. ‘Most of my life I could eat anything anywhere, but now look what you did to me. That damned garbage…’ With that, he pushed his plate away in disgust.
It was also in Mexico that Ms. Kennedy met Craig Claiborne, Times editor and food critic. The Kennedy home “was an international gathering place,” he wrote in the revised 1986 foreword to “The Cuisines of Mexico,” in which he recalled his very good cooking, his enthusiasm for the ingredients natives of the country and his offer to buy Claiborne a Mexican Cookbook when they first met.
Paul Kennedy died in New York in 1967; two years later, at Claiborne’s urging, Mrs. Kennedy began giving classes in Mexican cooking, which were rare at the time. She used her earnings to fund several trips back to Mexico over the next nine years, gathering research and recipes.
Frances McCullough, editor at Harper & Row, took one such course. She and Claiborne pushed the idea of Mrs. Kennedy doing a Mexican cookbook. McCullough caught the wealth of detail and Mrs. Kennedy’s passion in the manuscript for ‘The Cuisines of Mexico’, asking why the author preferred feet, tongue, nose and ears to chicken breasts and beef tenderloin .
Mrs. Kennedy returned to live in Mexico in the late 1970s. In 1980, she purchased the Michoacán property, which she eventually named Quinta Diana. She received Charles, Prince of Wales, there in 2002, serving him tequila appetizers, fresh tortillas, pumpkin flower cream soup, pork loin cooked in banana leaves and mango sorbet. . She also kept a home in Austin, Texas.
Over the years, she has always refused to write her autobiography or work with a biographer, but she allowed a documentary crew to film her in 2014. In 2019, the documentary “Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy” featured interviews with chefs Alice Waters, Bayless, Andrés and more.
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The list of survivors was not immediately available.
Ms. Kennedy received a 2003 Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Association of Culinary Professionals and a James Beard Foundation Cookbook of the Year Award for her 2010 volume “Oaxaca al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy”. In 2014, she was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Cookbook Hall of Fame, which recognized the groundbreaking legacy of “The Cuisines of Mexico.”
His other honors included the Order of the British Empire in 2002 and the Order of the Aztec Eagle in 1981 from the government of Mexico, his highest honor for a non-native Mexican.
The Mexican state of Oaxaca has fascinated Mrs. Kennedy since she made her first trip there in 1965. “Oaxaca al Gusto”, her last book, took 14 years to research, requiring many backpacking trips to find herbs and research varieties of peppers. that grow wild nowhere else.
“Perhaps I am surprised and very happy that Mexicans themselves use my books,” Ms. Kennedy wrote, “and are so generous in acknowledging, as they say… ‘what I have done for their regional cuisines .’ ”