Diana Kennedy slumped into a dimpled leather chair at the Emma Hotel in San Antonio, leaned over her glass of scotch, and told me that the real enemy of every writer is mediocrity.
It was 2019, when she was 96, and decades of extensive culinary research had made her a leading authority on Mexican cuisine for British and American cooks – both despite the fact that she was a white woman of British descent and because of that. . I thought of that moment when friends confirmed she had died Sunday at her home in Michoacán, Mexico.
I met Mrs. Kennedy on a bumpy two-day trip from this home in rural western Mexico to the University of Texas at San Antonio, about 800 miles north. By then, I had followed many of her recipes and knew her voice on the page – confident, thorough, precise.
In person, she was brighter, grittier, and terrifically funny than I had imagined, telling libidinous jokes and punctuating conversations with vicious, eloquent swear words. She happily shared details of long-running blood feuds. She giggled and groaned. She complained about anything that didn’t meet her standards – cookbooks, compliments, foreign policies, muffins.
Ms Kennedy was not trained as a journalist and never really identified as such, but she formed her own pattern of reporting revenue as she went, traveling around Mexico in her van, working alongside home cooks and farmers and documenting their work. .
Then she burst out with book after book, demanding that British and American audiences recognize the depth and breadth of Mexican foods. She extolled the country’s diversity of ingredients, styles and regional techniques, lamenting the shifts towards industrialization, monoculture and convenience foods.
In articles about her, the image that always stuck with me was a variant of Mrs. Kennedy in khakis and boots, standing in the Mexican countryside beside her bumpy white truck, her tuft of hair usually wrapped under a scarf and a wide-brimmed hat. . It portrays the food writer as something of an adventurer, and she would often talk about carrying a gun and sleeping on the road, tying a hammock between two trees wherever she chose to rest. Anything for a recipe, she said.
Over the decades, the travels have been constant, frantic and obsessive – an escape, she would say, though she never said of what. Mrs. Kennedy lost the love of her life, New York Times foreign correspondent Paul Kennedy, in 1967, and until he was diagnosed with cancer, they lived in Mexico City, where he was stationed. Time and time again throughout her career she has recounted how, after her husband’s death, Craig Claiborne, the newspaper’s editor, persuaded her to teach Mexican cooking classes.
Many of the home cooks Mrs Kennedy apprenticed with – the people she learned from and lived with on the road, the people she built her name and career on – were rural Mexican women , indigenous women and working class women. Some of them worked as cooks and servants for his friends.
Their food had never been celebrated in English books before and had rarely been featured in books published in Mexico. Mrs. Kennedy saw the beauty in their everyday cooking and her enthusiasm was magnetic.
She changed the way millions of people perceived Mexican food and savored the power of that role. But when she appeared on television, teaching Martha Stewart how to make tamales de frijol from the Sierra Norte of Oaxaca, wasn’t that something lost? His answer would be no. But the fact that Zapotec cooks are still not in the international spotlight as experts on their own foods indicates otherwise.
Mrs. Kennedy never considered the recipes she published as her adaptations or interpretations. Instead, she saw herself as a guardian and relay of Mexican culinary history. Although she cares deeply about credit, and most of her recipes name their sources, starting with her first cookbook, “The Cuisines of Mexicoin 1972, her work never managed to enlighten the women she learned about, only their food. And she never reckoned with her authority over Mexican food as a white British woman. Asked about this tension—and she often was, to her annoyance—she evaded the question or fought it, as if the rigor of her work could make it unassailable.
She emphasized specificity and technique, and she rarely suggested substitutions or shortcuts. Once she learned a recipe thoroughly, practiced it, and published it, she fiercely guarded it. In his mind, the recipe was now his, and his job was to ensure his survival, whatever the cost.
She has never backed down from her ridiculous position of rejecting Mexican Tex-Mex, Californian cuisine and all the rich regional cuisines from the Mexican diaspora. She also disparaged the creativity and adaptation of Mexican cooks in Mexico who dared to alter classic dishes as she recorded them – the most paradoxical of her positions.
I often think of how Mrs. Kennedy, a cooking teacher with an insatiable appetite for the road, was compared to Indiana Jones. She imagined the dishes as artifacts that she could save from vanishing, display and teach; and she has done the extraordinary and essential job of documenting so much.
The problem though, and I think it must have felt like a problem for Mrs. Kennedy, is that the dishes cannot be contained as artifacts behind glass. This Mexican cuisine, like all the others, exists both as a shared idea and as a practice, belonging to a collective – not only alive, but wriggling, impossible to keep in place.