Diana Kennedy, cookbook author who promoted Mexican cuisine, dies at 99

MEXICO CITY — Diana Kennedy, a sour-tongued British food writer devoted to Mexican cuisine, died on Sunday. She was 99 years old.

Kennedy has spent much of her life learning and preserving the traditional cuisine and ingredients of her adopted home, a mission that, even in her 80s, has seen her travel hundreds of miles across her adopted country in a rattling truck as she scoured remote villages in search of elusive recipes.

His nearly a dozen cookbooks, including “Oaxaca al Gusto,” which won the 2011 James Beard Award for Cookbook of the Year, reflect a lifetime of groundbreaking culinary contributions and his efforts to collect culinary traditions. endangered, a mission that began long before the rest of the culinary world gave Mexican cuisine the respect it deserves.

Longtime friend Concepcion Guadalupe Garza Rodriguez said Kennedy died peacefully shortly before dawn Sunday at her home in Zitacuaro, about 100 miles west of Mexico City.

“Mexico is very grateful to him,” said Garza Rodriguez. Kennedy had lunch at a local hotel on March 3 for her birthday, but for the past five weeks has mostly stayed in her room. Garza Rodriguez visited Kennedy last week and said she cried when they broke up.

Mexico’s Ministry of Culture said on Twitter on Sunday that “Kennedy’s life was dedicated to discovering, compiling and preserving the richness of Mexican cuisine.”

“Diana understood, as few know, that the conservation of nature is essential to continue obtaining the ingredients that allow us to continue creating the delicious dishes that characterize our cuisine,” the ministry said.

Her first cookbook, “The Kitchens of Mexico”, was written for long hours with home cooks across Mexico. It established Kennedy as the leading authority on traditional Mexican cuisine and remains the seminal work on the subject even four decades later. She described it as food that humbled her and she credited those – usually women – who shared their recipes with her.

“Cooking teaches you that you’re not always in control,” she said. “Cooking is life’s greatest reward. The ingredients can fool you.

She received the equivalent of chivalry in Mexico with the award of the Congressional Order of the Aztec Eagle for documenting and preserving regional Mexican cuisines. The United Kingdom also honored her with a Member of the British Empire award for strengthening cultural relations with Mexico.

Kennedy was born with an instinctive curiosity and a love of food. She grew up in the UK eating what she called “good food, whole food”, if not a lot of food. During World War II, she was assigned to the Women Timber Corps, where food was simple and sometimes scarce – homemade bread, sour cream, scones and berries on good days, nettle soup or buttered green beans when rations were tight. lean.

Millions of people across Western Europe shared this simple food, but for Kennedy, these meals awakened an appreciation for flavor and texture that would last a lifetime.

She talked about her first mango – “I ate it in Kingston Jamaica Harbor, standing in a clear blue sea, all that sugary sweet juice” – the way some people talk about their first crush.

Indeed, this first mango and her husband, New York Times correspondent Paul Kennedy, came into her life around the same time. He was on a mission in Haiti, she was traveling there. They fell in love and in 1957 she joined him in Mexico, where he was posted.

Here, a series of Mexican maids, as well as the aunts, mothers and grandmothers of her new friends, gave Diana Kennedy her first lessons in Mexican cooking – grinding corn for tamales, cooking rabbit in the adobo. It was another culinary awakening. While her husband wrote about insurgencies and revolutions, Kennedy roamed a land that was, to her, “new, exciting, and exotic,” tasting unique fruits, vegetables, and herbs from various regions.

The couple moved to New York in 1966 when Paul Kennedy was dying of cancer.

Two years later, at the request of New York Times editor Craig Claiborne, she taught her first Mexican cooking class, scouting the northeast for ingredients to replicate the bright flavors of Mexico. Soon she was spending more time in Mexico, establishing a retreat there that still serves as her home in the country.

In courses, cookbooks, and lectures, its core principle is simple: “There is never, ever, an excuse for bad food.”

She was known for her scathing comments, though her pioneering work helped make Mexico a culinary Mecca for foodies and the world’s top chefs, and transformed a cuisine long dismissed as tortillas smothered in thick sauces, cheeses and sour cream.

She once told Jose Andres, James Beard Award-winning chef and owner of an acclaimed Mexican restaurant, that her tamales were “awful.”

She worried that celebrity chefs, who have flocked to Mexico in recent years to study and experiment with the purity of flora, fauna and flavors, were mixing the wrong ingredients.

“A lot of them use it as a novelty and don’t know the things that go together,” she said. “If you’re going to play with ingredients, exotic ingredients, you have to know how to deal with them.”

Kennedy was fiercely private and watched who she let into her enduring Mexican retreat near the town of Zitacuaro in the conflicted western state of Michoacan. No one was welcome out of the blue. Cell phones were turned off and computers were kept in a writing studio. Her companions were her paid helper, staff who treated her like a dear friend, and several beloved, if somewhat ferocious, dogs.

Growing in the vast and enchanting Kennedy Garden, remnants – and resurrections – of ancient culture scaled the stone walls. She worked hard to prevent the loss of local ingredients, creating a traveling farm of native herbs and other produce. Cultivation continued in a vine-filled atrium in the center of her home, a steamy culinary paradise of vanilla, oregano, mint, bananas and countless local herbs.

“Rebel activist, absolute defender of the environment, Diana Kennedy has been and continues to be the best example of protection of the environment and its biodiversity,” wrote its editor Ana Luisa Anza on Sunday. She wrote that years ago Kennedy set a goal of reaching age 100 as a goal to wrap up his life’s work.

In 2019, the documentary “Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy” showed an ever-feisty Kennedy relishing in produce from her garden and driving the bumpy roads of Zitacuaro.

In her later years, Kennedy said she wanted to slow down, but she couldn’t.

“There are so many other recipes, passed down from mother to daughter, that are going to be lost. There are seeds, herbs and roots that could be lost. There is so much more to do!” she says.

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