Death of Diana Kennedy: author of famous books on Mexican cuisine

Diana Kennedy, the British-born author who translated her love of Mexican cuisine into cookbooks that made hundreds of regional recipes accessible to home cooks in the United States at a time when many still considered cooking like little more than plates and tacos combined, a died at her home in the Mexican state of Michoacán. She was 99 years old.

His death was confirmed by the Mexican government by Twitter and by longtime friend and collaborator chef Gabriela Cámara. She died Sunday morning at 5 a.m. from respiratory failure, Cámara said.

“Anyone in Mexico or anyone who was half grown in Mexico always knew that Mexico’s biodiversity and cultural diversity was out of this world, but for Americans it was definitely a surprise,” Cámara told The Times. sunday. “She was the first person to write in English about the diversity of Mexican cuisine, so she deserves this honor.”

Beginning with her first book, “Les Cuisines du México”, published in 1972, Kennedy did for Mexican cuisine what Julia Child had done for French cuisine. She provided regional versions of familiar dishes such as enchiladas and tamales and also introduced her readers to dishes as subtle and complex as Duck in Pumpkin Seed Mole and Cream of Pumpkin Blossom Soup. She also slipped into her books recipes for pies filled with mashed water fly eggs and black iguana stews.

Throughout her career, she remained convinced that fine Mexican cuisine was the equal of any cuisine in the world. “This, with its strong peasant roots, is Mexico’s haute cuisine,” she said of the more complex recipes in her books, in a 1992 interview with The Times. “As much time and effort should be put into the preparation as any complex French dish.”

“Diana went to Mexico and immediately understood that she was in the presence of something extraordinary, something that was not particularly appreciated even by the Mexican people,” said Fran McCullough, editor-in-chief of Kennedy for more than 20 years, to The Times. .

She was an amateur food anthropologist as well as a cook who traveled the country to learn more about her subject. Her writing exudes a “fierce desire to explore, reveal and preserve” traditional Mexican dishes, noted a 1999 review in The Times.

Sometimes Kennedy added a taste of cultural life that flavored a recipe. “Open the steamer and bless it with a double sign of the cross,” she wrote in the instructions for “tamales de espiga,” a type of corn tamale that threatened to be bland. She was taught to make the dish with devotion included, she wrote in “My Mexico” in 1998, and she did it even though she was a pantheist.

Kennedy’s books include “The Tortilla Book” (1975), “Mexican Regional Cooking” (1990) and “From My Mexican Kitchen” (2003), his latest release being a 2016 reissue of his semi-memoir “Nothing Fancy: Recipes and Soul Satisfying Food Memories.

Although Kennedy wrote for home cooks, she also inspired restaurant chefs and owners, who wanted to offer something new to generations of eaters who loved Mexican cuisine but were eager to try styles new to them. .

“Diana wants things done right. Her integrity stands out,” said Tom Gilliland, a friend of Kennedy and owner of the Fonda San Miguel restaurant in Austin, Texas. She helped him plan the restaurant’s first menu. after her visit in the early 1970s. Gilliland and the restaurant’s late chef and co-owner, Miguel Ravago, had both read her book “The Cuisines of Mexico” before meeting her, and were impressed by the range of regional dishes.

“We knew the type of food in this book was exactly what we wanted to serve at the restaurant,” Gilliland said. At first he couldn’t find the fresh ingredients he needed, even in Texas, so he imported chipotle and a wide variety of chili peppers.

At home in her Mexican kitchen, Kennedy made everything from scratch, grinding corn kernels into flour to make tamale batter and gutting a chicken to prepare it for roasting. She gave instructions for these techniques in several of her books, but said she didn’t expect most of her readers to follow them. “My books are for learning and for cooking,” she said.

“Kennedy’s labor of love and scholarship belongs in the personal library as a chronicle of culinary culture, whether or not cooks decide to turn their kitchens into canteens,” said a 1989 review in Publishers Weekly of his book “The Art of Mexican Cooking”. .”

Since the late 1970s, she had resided in an eco-friendly solar and wind-powered house, surrounded by four acres of organic vegetable gardens in Coatepec de Morelos, a village near the town of Zitácuaro, about 100 miles west of Mexico City. .

She was fluent in Spanish and seemed fearless, even in her 80s, as she still roamed the back roads of her adopted country in her campervan with a CB radio and a stack of opera tapes by her side. sides.

When she liked a new dish she tasted at a food stand, or heard about a bus driver, farmer, fisherman or housekeeper who she met on her travels, Kennedy spoke up to the kitchen of whoever prepared the dish and followed them. taking notes as they prepared it for her. Many of these recipes had only been passed down orally through family generations. She regularly cited by name the men and women who taught her how to prepare a family recipe.

“There was never a time that I can remember when I didn’t have plans for another search for an unrecorded recipe, a legendary regional cook, an herb or a chili pepper. elusive,” Kennedy wrote in “My Mexico.”

If anyone asked her how a native of England could master the foods of Yucatan, Mexico City, Dolores Hidalgo, Veracruz and surrounding areas, she was ready for them.

“I literally spent 20 years… eating, dining in cheap hotels and getting bitten,” she told a 1977 editors conference. “I went to the market with maids. I harassed the grandmothers.

As her notoriety grew, she became known as a purist with a generous side and a spicy side. She might thank the owners of an American Mexican restaurant where she had dined, then critique each dish, usually with a mixed review. “But I’ve had much worse,” she once consoled members of a family restaurant in Utah.

Fans saw his irritability as proof of his uncompromising nature. “While most cookbook authors go from book to book looking for more recipes in a vein their readers feel comfortable with, Kennedy continues to imperiously push people to push their limits,” wrote a Times reviewer in 1999.

Kennedy has traveled the vast expanses of Mexico in his motorhome, collecting recipes and ideas from home cooks for decades.

(Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times)

Born Diana Southwood near London on March 3, 1923, she was the daughter of parents who were choosy about food even though they cooked a meal of soup and bread. “Nothing Fancy” includes some of her favorite family recipes.

During World War II, she served in the Women’s Timber Corps, a group that kept Britain’s agricultural industry going. After the war, she moved to Canada and worked for the Wedgwood porcelain company, creating table decorations.

During a trip to Haiti in 1957, she met Paul Kennedy, correspondent for the New York Times covering Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. Soon after, she moved to Mexico where she and Kennedy were married. “I’ve always been an adventurer,” she said.

As a newcomer to the country, she was inspired by “the wonderful markets, the wonderful colors, the exotic surroundings,” she said in a 1998 interview with The Times. After several years of practice, she cooked a traditional Mexican dinner for Craig Claiborne, then a New York Times food critic, who came to visit the Kennedys in the mid-1960s. Claiborne encouraged her to write a cookbook.

Shortly after, she and her husband moved to New York because Paul Kennedy had cancer. He died in 1967.

Back in New York, she taught and wrote in New York for over 10 years, mostly from home. Ingredients for Mexican cuisine were hard to find there back then. On a trip to California in 1976, she packed a suitcase with fresh poblano peppers, semi-soft cheeses and spices commonly found in a Mexican kitchen. She also dug up an epazote, an herb that grows wild in California and Mexico, and brought it east.

She visited Mexico often during these years and began building her own home there in the late 1970s. Despite setbacks, including a struggle to secure water rights for her land, she persisted. The townspeople called it the “gringa loca (crazy white lady).

Her vision of the life she wanted to lead drove her forward. “I wanted a center for my Mexican food studies,” she said of her decision. That and living like a local and “planting trees and helping the land come back to life after so many years of neglect”.

Sometimes she taught cooking classes for small groups in her home, with the kitchen shelves lined with terracotta pots and a beehive oven outside the door.

She filled her hillside property with vegetable gardens and fruit trees, kept beehives that produced about 20 gallons of organic honey each year, and had a barnyard of pigs, goats, chickens, and ducks.

She continued to travel and collect recipes as she had for over 50 years.

“I always realize how little I know,” she said. “Never call yourself an expert or claim to write the complete book of anything.”

In 1981, the Mexican government presented Kennedy with the Order of the Aztec Eagle, the highest honor given to a foreigner, for teaching the world about Mexican culinary traditions.

Kennedy last appeared in Los Angeles in public in 2019, while promoting a documentary about her life and work, “Nothing specialin which she touted her mantras of preserving original ingredients and culinary knowledge that she believed were dying out and on the verge of being forgotten.

True to her often prickly nature, she predicted in the film that she still had about five years to live and called her death a choice.

“I only planned five [more] years, and no one can say no,” Kennedy says in the film. “A while ago, it’s like the lapse, the date on your ingredients that you buy, OK? They last so long.

Rourke is a former Times writer. Editor Daniel Hernandez contributed to this report.

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