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Diana Kennedy’s Complicated Relationship with Mexican Cuisine

Diana Kennedy's Complicated Relationship with Mexican Cuisine

Diana Kennedy sank into a dimpled leather chair at the Hotel Emma in San Antonio, leaned over her glass of whiskey and told me that every writer’s real enemy was mediocrity.

This was in 2019, when she was 96, and decades of in-depth culinary research had made her a leading authority on Mexican food for British and American home cooks – both despite being a British-born white woman, and therefore . I thought about that moment when friends confirmed she had passed away on Sunday, at her home in Michoacán, Mexico.

I met Mrs. Kennedy on a bumpy, two-day road trip from that house in rural western Mexico to the University of San Antonio, about 800 miles north. By this time I had followed many of her recipes and I knew her voice on the page – confident, thorough, precise.

Personally, she was more brilliant, brutal and terribly funnier than I imagined, telling libidinous jokes and interrupting conversations with vicious, eloquent swearing. She shared the details of long-cherished vendettas with joy. She cackled and growled. She complained about everything that wasn’t up to her standards: cookbooks, compliments, foreign policy, muffins.

Ms. Kennedy was not trained as a journalist, and never really identified as one, but she formed her own recipe reporting model as she traveled through Mexico in her pickup truck, working alongside home cooks and farmers, and documenting their work.

Then she burst into book after book demanding that British and American publics recognize the depth and breadth of Mexican food. She praised the country’s diversity of ingredients, regional styles, and techniques, and lamented changes toward industrialization, monoculture, and ready-to-eat foods.

In articles about her, the image that always struck me was a variation of Mrs. Kennedy in khaki and boots, standing in rural Mexico next to her dented white truck, her tuft of hair usually wrapped under a scarf and wide-brimmed hat. It depicted the food writer as some sort of adventurer, and she often spoke of carrying a gun and sleeping on the road, tying a hammock between two trees wherever she wished to rest. Anything for a recipe, she said.

For the past few decades, the travel has been constant, hectic and obsessive—an escape, she’d call it, though she never said from what. Mrs. Kennedy lost the love of her life, Paul Kennedy, a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, in 1967, and until he was diagnosed with cancer, they lived in Mexico City, where he was stationed. Throughout her career, she recounted how Craig Claiborne, the newspaper’s food editor, persuaded her to teach Mexican cooking classes after her husband’s death.

Many of the home cooks Mrs. Kennedy was apprenticed to—the people she learned from and lived with along the way, the people on whose work she built her name and career—were Mexican rural women, indigenous women, and working-class women. Some of them had jobs as cooks and maids in her friends’ houses.

Their food hadn’t been celebrated in English-language books before and was also rarely featured in books published in Mexico. Mrs. Kennedy saw beauty in their everyday kitchen and her enthusiasm was magnetic.

She changed the way millions of people saw Mexican food and reveled in the power in that role. But when she appeared on television and taught Martha Stewart to make tamales de frijol from the Sierra Norte of Oaxaca, hadn’t something been lost? Her answer would be no. But the fact that Zapotec chefs are still not in the international spotlight, because experts on their own food say otherwise.

Mrs. Kennedy never regarded the recipes she published as her adaptations or interpretations. Instead, she saw herself as a custodian and conduit for Mexican culinary history. Though she valued credit highly, and most of her recipes cite their sources, starting with her first cookbook, “The cuisines of MexicoIn 1972, her work never failed to enlighten the women she learned from, only their food. And she never considered her authority over Mexican cuisine as a white British woman. Asked about this tension – and she often was, much to her chagrin – she evaded or fought away, as if the accuracy of her work would make it unassailable.

She emphasized specificity and technique, rarely suggesting substitutions or shortcuts. Once she learned a recipe inside out, practiced it and published it, she guarded it relentlessly. In her mind, the recipe was hers now, and her job was to ensure its survival, no matter the cost.

She never came out of her preposterous position to reject Tex-Mex, California Mexican food, and all the rich, regional cuisines that have emerged from the Mexican diaspora. She also scorned creativity and adaptation among Mexican chefs in Mexico who dared to alter classic dishes as she incorporated them—the most paradoxical of her views.

I often think about how Mrs. Kennedy, a cooking instructor with an insatiable appetite for the road, was compared to Indiana Jones. She imagined dishes as artifacts that she could save, display, and teach from disappearance; and she did the extraordinary and essential job of documenting so many.

The problem, however, and I think it must have felt like a problem to Ms. Kennedy, is that dishes can’t be kept behind glass as artifacts. That Mexican cuisine, like all others, exists as both a shared idea and a practice, belonging to a collective – not just alive, but meandering, impossible to keep still.