Thank You Forever, Diana Kennedy, For Helping Preserve Traditional Mexican Cuisine

Food & Drink

I was saddened to read that Diana Kennedy, the foremost authority on traditional Mexican cuisine and foodways published in English, passed away on July 24 at the age of 99. She had always said she’d live to be 100. I thought she’d live forever.

Her first cookbook, The Cuisines of Mexico, had just celebrated it’s 50th anniversary in June, having sold some 100,000 copies and widely credited with broadening the world’s understanding of traditional Mexican cooking. Yet as social media goes, people (most likely not Mexican) were quick to label her a neo-colonialist and accused her of cultural appropriation. Let me set you all straight.

Diana loved Mexico, and defended our cuisine and environment fiercely. She accomplished nine published cookbooks, filled with carefully sourced recipes from traditional Mexican cooks from all 32 states. Independent to a fault, she drove her crappy pick up and traveled on her own up and down the country, from the seaside to the sierras, to make sure even the smallest town’s recipes and ingredients were acknowledged and preserved.

She tirelessly detailed endemic edible plants, their flavors, and culinary uses, in a way that neither Mexican botanists nor chefs have ever done. Without her work, many of these ingredients and ancestral recipes would be lost forever. For her work, she received the honors of Order of the Aztec Eagle, the highest honor awarded by the Mexican government to foreign nationals, and the Order of the British Empire.

Eat that, social media.

For me, her tireless research and dogmatic stance on tradition were affirming as a young Mexican cook and, later, as a food writer and researcher.

The first time I met Diana, I was in awe. Not just because of her rock star-like status as a cookbook author, but because of how she, well into her 70s, kept everyone in check. Opinionated is too mild a word for Diana. A relentless critic and perfectionist, she would never shy away from expressing her disdain, even disgust, for things that did not fit her views, from food to politics.

My first experience with this trait of hers came in 1999 when, as a fledgling food writer and recent anthropology graduate, an essay I sent to a writing contest sponsored by Oxford University earned an honorable mention and was published in the prestigious Petit Propos Culinaires, a serious food history publication. My topic was the history of tamales.

Alongside a few copies of the publication came a letter of congratulations, signed by none other than the great food historian, Alan Davidson. “Thought you might like to read her commentary,” he said. Enclosed in the envelope was a four page, scathing criticism of my essay, from Diana Kennedy. It was a miracle I did not faint.

I had the fortune of meeting her in person at Austin’s legendary Fonda San Miguel in the early 2000s. Back in the late 70s, Diana helped owners Tom Gilliland and partner Miguel Ravago, Fonda’s late founding chef, to craft the menu for the pioneering interior Mexican restaurant. I introduced myself and she, searching the banks of her still sharp memory, remembered criticizing my essay. Hours of conversation followed.

A few years later she agreed to participate in the lecture series I curated and helped organize with the University of Texas Latin American Studies Department. She outright refused to let us videotape the presentation, stating that she “did not want people to steal her research” even thought her slides were over 40 years old. I had hoped to visit her at Quinta Diana, the ecological and sustainable home she built near Zitacuaro, Michoacan, but our schedules never coincided – or perhaps, she wanted to keep it that way. She always suspected, or was jealous of, other women food writers – even Mexican ones.

After the success of Julie and Julia, I thought I’d do the same with The Cuisines of Mexico, of which I have two editions. But since many of the ingredients are found only in Mexico, and at that, in specific regions and seasons, it proved difficult to do in Texas. And I was not keen on upsetting her, rather than honoring her, with my attempt.

On our last visit together I asked her to let me write her biography. “Nobody is interested in that,” she said quite seriously. She would not budge.

In 2019 she returned to Texas, to donate her collection of cookbooks, personal notes and correspondence to the University of Texas at San Antonio. At a meet and greet at Fonda in Austin, for the first time since I’d known her, she looked frail and tired. Surrounded by adoring fans wanting their books autographed, I chose not to overwhelm her further.

“Many recipes at Fonda San Miguel were inspired by our dear friend Diana Kennedy, who liked to describe herself as the ‘Mick Jagger of Mexican Cuisine’,” wrote Gilliland on the Fonda Facebook page accompanying a candid photo of Kennedy that hangs at the restaurant. “It captures the authority of Mexican cuisine as Fonda San Miguel will remember her: living her life on her terms, to the fullest much like her passion for Mexican food and its people. Viva Diana Kennedy!”

Indeed.

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