Diana Kennedy, author of famous Mexican cookbooks, dies

Diana Kennedy, the British-born author who translated her love of Mexican cuisine into cookbooks that made hundreds of regional recipes available to home cooks in the US at a time when many still thought Mexican cooking little more than mixed plates and tacos, he died at his home in the Mexican state of Michoacán. She was 99.

His death was confirmed by the Mexican government via Twitter and by a long-time friend and collaborator, chef Gabriela Cámara. She died Sunday morning at 5 am of respiratory failure, Chamber said.

“Everyone in Mexico or any moderately educated person in Mexico always knew that Mexico’s biodiversity and cultural diversity were out of this world, but for Americans it was certainly a surprise,” Cámara told The Times on Sunday. “She was the first person to write in English about the diversity of Mexican food, so she deserves that honor.”

Beginning with his first book, The Kitchens of Mexico, published in 1972, Kennedy did for Mexican cuisine what Julia Child had done for French cuisine. She provided regional versions of such familiar foods as enchiladas and tamales, and also introduced her readers to dishes as subtle and complex as duck in pumpkin seed mole and pumpkin flower cream. She also put in her books recipes for pies filled with a puree of water fly eggs and black iguana stews.

Throughout his career, he maintained his point of view that good Mexican food was equal to any in the world. “This, with its strong peasant roots, is the haute cuisine of Mexico,” he said of the more complex recipes in his books, in a 1992 interview with The Times. “As much time and effort should go into the preparation as any intricate French dish.”

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

She was a foodie anthropologist and 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 would add a taste of cultural life that would spice up a recipe. “Open the steamer and bless it with a double sign of the cross,” he wrote on the instructions for “tamales de espiga,” a type of corn tamale that threatened to be bland. They taught him to make the dish with devotion included, he wrote in “Mi México” in 1998, and he did it despite being a pantheist.

Kennedy’s books include “The Tortilla Book” (1975), “Mexican Regional Cooking” (1990), and “From My Mexican Kitchen” (2003), with his final release being a 2016 reissue of his semi-memoir “Nothing Fancy : Recipes and Memories of foods that satisfy the soul”.

Although Kennedy wrote for home cooks, he also inspired chefs and restaurant owners, who wanted to offer something new to generations of diners who loved Mexican food but were eager to try new styles for themselves.

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

“We knew that the type of food in that book was exactly what we wanted to serve in 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 chiles.

At home in his Mexican kitchen, Kennedy made everything from scratch, grinding corn kernels into flour to make masa for tamales and gutting a chicken to prepare it for roasting. She gave instructions for these techniques in several of her books, but she said that she did not 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 home library as a chronicle of culinary culture, whether or not cooks decide to turn their kitchens into canteens,” stated a 1989 review in Publishers Weekly of his book “The art of Mexican cuisine. .”

Since the late 1970s, he lived in an ecological house with solar and wind energy, surrounded by four hectares of organic gardens in Coatepec de Morelos, a town near the city of Zitácuaro, about 100 miles west of Mexico City. .

She spoke fluent Spanish and seemed fearless, even in her 80s, when she was still traveling the back roads of her adopted country in her camper van with a CB radio and a stack of opera tapes by her side.

When he liked a new dish he tried at a concession stand, or heard about it from a bus driver, farmer, fisherman or housekeeper he met on his travels, Kennedy headed to the kitchen of the one who prepared the dish. and followed them. taking notes while it was being prepared. Many of these recipes had been passed down only orally through family generations. He regularly credited his name to the men and women who taught him how to prepare a family recipe.

“There has never been a time that I can remember when I did not have plans for another search for some unregistered recipe, some legendary regional recipe, or some elusive herb or chili,” Kennedy wrote in “My Mexico.”

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

“I literally spent 20 years…eating, dining in cheap hotels and getting bitten by fleas,” she said during a food editors conference in 1977. “I went to the markets with maids. He harassed the grandmothers.

As her reputation grew, she became known as a purist with a generous side and a prickly side. She might thank the owners of a Mexican-American restaurant where she dined and then criticize each dish, usually with mixed reviews. “But I’ve had much, much worse,” she once comforted members of a family restaurant in Utah.

Admirers saw her irritability as proof of her uncompromising nature. “While most cookbook authors go from book to book looking for more recipes in a line their readers are comfortable with, Kennedy is adamant about making people stretch their limits,” one reviewer wrote. of The Times in 1999.

Kennedy traveled the vast expanses of Mexico in his campervan, collecting recipes and insights from home cooks for decades.

(Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times)

Born Diana Southwood on the outskirts of London on March 3, 1923, she was the daughter of picky eaters, even if 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 maintained Britain’s agricultural industry. After the war, she moved to Canada and worked at the Wedgwood Porcelain Company, creating board games.

On a trip to Haiti in 1957, he met Paul Kennedy, a correspondent for the New York Times who covered Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. She soon after she moved to Mexico where she and Kennedy married. “I was always 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 then-New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne, who visited the Kennedys in the mid-1960s. Claiborne encouraged her to write a cookbook.

Shortly afterward, she and her husband moved to New York City because Paul Kennedy was ill with cancer. He died in 1967.

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

He often visited Mexico during those years and began building his own house there in the late 1970s. Despite setbacks, including a fight to obtain water rights to his land, he persisted. The townspeople called her thecrazy gringa (crazy white lady).”

Her vision of the life she wanted to lead kept her going. “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 alive after so many years of neglect.”

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

He filled his hillside property with orchards and fruit trees, kept beehives that produced about 20 gallons of organic honey each year, and kept a pen of pigs, goats, chickens, and ducks.

He continued to travel and collect recipes as he had for more than 50 years.

“I always realize how little I know,” he said. “Never call yourself an expert and never pretend to write the whole book on anything.”

In 1981, the Mexican government awarded Kennedy the Order of the Aztec Eagle, the highest honor given to a foreigner, for teaching the world about Mexico’s gastronomic traditions.

Kennedy last appeared in Los Angeles in public in 2019, while promoting a documentary about her life and work, “Nothing Fancy,” in which she extolled her mantras of preserving original ingredients and culinary knowledge that she said was disappearing. and was about to turn. forgotten.

True to his often prickly nature, he predicted in the film that he had about five more years to live and characterized his death as a choice.

“I have planned only five [more] years, and no one can say no,” Kennedy says in the film. “There is a time, it is like the expiration, the date on the ingredients you buy, okay? Last a long time”.

Rourke is a former Times staff writer. Food editor Daniel Hernandez contributed to this report.

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