Diana Kennedy obituary | Food and drink books
Food writer Diana Kennedy, who died at the age of 99, focused almost exclusively on Mexican cuisine. In a surprisingly active career spanning more than 60 years, she published nearly a dozen books unmatched by any of her contemporaries, which investigated and described the long and complex culinary traditions of her adopted homeland.
She was one of a group of women whose immersive technique, fine writing, and searing enthusiasm delivered a vast array of new things to eat while introducing new civilizations to our worldview. Elizabeth David, Claudia Roden, Paula Wolfert and Naomi Duguid are among them, and they and Kennedy have often been described as anthropologists, which Kennedy generally denied, but eventually accepted through constant repetition.
Although British by birth, she married, taught and published across the Atlantic. In Britain, his name was revered, but his impact relatively mild. His work was based on direct research, visits to cooks, surveying markets, knowledge of local products and constant note-taking. The results were recipes that can, for the home cook, be alarming in their willingness to go back to basics – not just using cornmeal, but soaking the grain with lime overnight, by removing the skins and grinding with lard to make corn dough (masa). Here again, the amateur risks being discouraged by the ingredients: someone for tamales iguanas, or brains with jalapeños? (And it may be useful to know how to gut the black iguana during this time.)
Born in Loughton, Essex, she was one of two daughters of a kindergarten teacher, Lily (née Miller) and a salesman, Ernest Southwood, described by her as “a friendly failed businessman”. The education at South Hampstead High School in London might have prepared her for further education, but the Second World War intervened. In 1941, she joined the Women’s Timber Corps, a division of the Army.
Training at a secretarial school and then as an accommodation manager got her a job in the Scottish mining estates after the war, but in 1953 she emigrated to Canada where she held a variety of jobs including managing a a cinematheque and the sale of Wedgwood porcelain. From Canada, she was able to travel to the West Coast of America and the Caribbean.
A diversion to Haiti in 1956, while returning home for a vacation, coincided with civil unrest which was covered by New York Times reporter Paul P Kennedy. They met and fell in love. They immediately moved to Mexico, where he was based as Central America bureau chief, and married in 1957.
Having learned Spanish and worked as a typist at the British Council in Mexico City, Diana was quickly captivated by the food and cuisine of her new home. She would ask her servants or the servants of friends about a dish and she would always be told that was how they did it in their village. So she would then trace it back to the source, always the source, and receive the instruction directly. Thus was established his infallible method – investigation, location, travel, interrogation. All of his recipes acknowledged their ancestors, all of his methods were, as far as possible, authentic.
In 1966, the Kennedys were forced to move to New York due to Paul’s need for cancer treatment. This was unsuccessful and he died a year later, leaving Diana somewhat adrift in a foreign town. She was lucky enough to meet New York Times editor Craig Claiborne when he visited them in Mexico. He not only showcased her work on Mexican cuisine, but also suggested that she start teaching small classes gathered in the kitchen of her apartment. As word spread, it was heard by an editor at Harper & Row publishers, Frances McCullough, who persuaded Kennedy to write her first book, The Cuisines of Mexico, published in 1972, which became a bestseller.
Recipes were established by repeated trips to the Mexican countryside, by bus, by train, later by his own motorhome (sometimes with a gun in the glove compartment), and after an initial struggle with the art of writing. But Kennedy’s professional life centered around America’s burgeoning culinary schools, where she was in constant demand. She did not move to Mexico permanently until 1976. In 1980, she purchased a few acres near the town of Zitácuaro, 100 miles west of Mexico City, where she planted myriad trees, set set up a smallholding of pigs, goats, chickens and very ferocious dogs, built what you might call an eco-house, largely off the grid, and set about establishing a center for research, education and sustainable living.
His books appear with impressive regularity: The Tortilla Book in 1975; Recipes from regional cooks in Mexico in 1978; Nothing Fancy, which was a diversion into lighthearted memoirs and an album of Everywhere’s Favorite Recipes, in 1984; The Art of Mexican Cuisine in 1989; My Mexico in 1998; From My Mexican Kitchen – Techniques and Ingredients in 2003; and finally – and perhaps most impressive of all – Oaxaca al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy in 2010.
Kennedy will be remembered for his candor and his criticism of the faulty ingredients, shortcuts and plagiarism of his work. But his enthusiasm and fervent insistence on doing things the right way had an immense and beneficial influence, especially on Mexican and North American chefs trying to produce good Mexican food. His contribution has been recognized in the United States by the James Beard Foundation, in Mexico by his admission to the Order of the Aztec Eagle in 1981, and in Great Britain by his appointment as MBE, with the award was awarded in person by Prince Charles during a lunch at her home in 2002.