Sinking into a dimpled leather chair at the Emma Hotel in San Antonio, Diana Kennedy bent over her glass of Scotch and told me that the true enemy of every writer is the mediocre.
This was in 2019, when she was 96, and decades of deep culinary research had made her a leading authority on Mexican food for British and American home chefs — despite the fact that she was a British-born white woman, and because of that. I thought at that moment when friends confirmed it She died on Sundayat her home in Michoacan, Mexico.
I met Mrs. Kennedy on 2 day bumpy road trip From that home in rural western Mexico, to the University of Texas at San Antonio, about 800 miles to the north. By then, I had followed many of her recipes, and knew her voice on the page—confident, thorough, and precise.
On a personal level, she was smarter, brutal, and devastatingly funny than I could have imagined, telling lewd jokes and punctuating conversations with vicious and eloquent curses. She shared the details of her drawn-out revenge with joy. She was giggling and snarling. She complained about everything that didn’t meet her standards – cookbooks, compliments, foreign policies, cake.
Mrs. Kennedy is not trained as a journalist, nor has she been identified as a journalist, but she has formed her own model for reporting recipes as she goes, traveling to Mexico in her pickup truck, working alongside cooks and home farmers, and documenting their work.
Then it went into book after book, asking British and American audiences to learn about the depth and breadth of Mexican food. She raised the country’s diversity of ingredients, regional methods and technologies, and lamented changes toward industrialization, monoculture and prepared foods.
In the articles around, the image that has always stood out to me is a different image of Mrs. Kennedy in khakis and boots, standing in rural Mexico next to her dented white truck, usually with her hair wrapped under a scarf and a wide-brimmed hat. She portrayed the food writer as some sort of adventurous, often speaking of carrying a gun and sleeping on the road, tying a hammock between two trees wherever she chose to rest. She said anything for a recipe.
Over the decades, travel was incessant, frantic, and obsessive – an escape, she called it, though she never said anything of it. Mrs. Kennedy lost the love of her life, Paul Kennedy, foreign correspondent for the New York Times, 1967, Until he was diagnosed with cancer, they lived in Mexico City, where he was stationed. Repeatedly, throughout her career, she told how, after the death of her husband, Craig Claibornethe newspaper’s food editor, convince her To teach mexican cooking lessons.
Many of Ms. Kennedy’s self-trained home cooks—the people she learned from and lived with down the road, the people whose work built her name and career—were rural Mexican women, indigenous women, and working-class women. Some of them took jobs as cooks and maids in her friends’ homes.
Their food has never been celebrated in English language books before, and has rarely appeared in books published in Mexico. Mrs. Kennedy saw beauty in their daily cooking, and her enthusiasm was a magnet.
She changed the way millions of people viewed Mexican food, and she enjoyed the strength in the role. But when she appeared on TV, teaching Martha Stewart to make tamales de frijoles from Sierra Norte in Oaxaca, wasn’t there anything lost? Her answer would be no. But the fact that Zapotec chefs still haven’t caught the eye of the world is what their food experts would say otherwise.
Ms. Kennedy never considered the recipes she published to be her adaptations or interpretations. Instead, she saw herself as a keeper and conduit for Mexican culinary history. Although she takes great credit, and most of her recipes cite their sources, beginning with her first cookbook, “Kitchens from MexicoIn 1972, her work never managed to shine a light on the women she learned from, only their food. And she never counted her authority over Mexican cuisine as a white British woman. When asked about this tension—and often it bothered her—she either evaded the question or repelled. to him, as if the rigor of her work could make him insurmountable.
She emphasized privacy and technology, and rarely suggested alternatives or shortcuts. Once she learned a recipe inside and out, practiced it and spread it, she guarded it fiercely. In her opinion, the recipe was now hers, and her job was to secure her survival at all costs.
She has never held back from her hilarious stance of rejecting Mexican food from Tex-Mex, California, and all the rich regional cuisine that originated from the Mexican diaspora. She also underestimated the creativity and adaptability of Mexican chefs in Mexico who dared to alter classic dishes as she recorded them—the most paradoxical of their positions.
I often think about how Mrs. Kennedy, a cooking teacher with an insatiable appetite for the road, would compare to Indiana Jones. I imagined the dishes as artifacts that could be saved from disappearing, displayed and taught; She has done the extraordinary and essential work of documenting so much.
But the problem, and I think it felt like a problem to Mrs. Kennedy, is that the dishes cannot fit like artefacts behind the glass. This Mexican cuisine, like all others, exists as a common idea and practice, belonging to a group – not just alive, but shimmering, impossible to remain still.