Sitting in a leather chair at the Hotel Emma in San Antonio, leaning over a glass of Scotch, Diana Kennedy told me that every writer’s greatest enemy is mediocrity.
It’s 2019, when she’s 96, and decades of deep culinary research have made her a leading authority on Mexican food for British and American home cooks – both despite the fact that she’s a British-born white. Pham was a woman, and because of that . I thought of the moment when friends confirmed she had died at her home in Mexico on Sunday.
I met Ms. Kennedy on a two-day road trip from her home in rural western Mexico to the University of San Antonio, 800 miles north. By then I had followed many of his recipes, and I knew his voice on the page—confident, thorough, precise.
In person, she was more brilliant, brutal and devastatingly funny than I had imagined, telling crass jokes and having a mischievous, eloquent conversation. He happily shared the details of the long held revenge. She said in a huff. He complained about everything that didn’t meet his standards – cookbooks, compliments, foreign policies, muffins.
Ms. Kennedy was not trained as a journalist, and has never been identified as one, but she traveled across Mexico in her pickup truck, interviewing home cooks and farmers. Created their own model to report recipes for working together, and documenting their work. .
She then entered with book after book, demanding that British and American audiences recognize the depth and breadth of Mexican cuisine. He extolled the country’s diversity of ingredients, regional styles and techniques, lamenting shifts towards industrialization, monoculture and processed foods.
Among the articles about her, the image that always stood out to me was a variation of Ms. Kennedy in khakis and boots, standing next to her white truck in the Mexican countryside, her hair puffed up by the usual scarf. Underneath was wrapped and wide-brimmed hat. . She painted the food writer as a kind of adventurer, and she often spoke of sleeping on the road with a gun, swinging a hammock between two trees wherever she chose to rest. Anything for a prescription, she said.
Over the decades, the travel was constant, frenetic and obsessive — an escape, she would call it, though she never said from what. Ms. Kennedy lost the love of her life to New York Times foreign correspondent Paul Kennedy in 1967, and lived in Mexico City, where he was stationed, until he was diagnosed with cancer. Repeatedly, throughout her career, she recounted how, after her husband’s death, the newspaper’s food editor, Craig Claiborne, persuaded her to teach Mexican cooking classes.
Many of the home cooks Ms. Kennedy taught herself — the people she learned from and lived on the street with, the people on whose work she made her name and career — were rural Mexican women, indigenous women, and working-class women. were Some of them worked as cooks and maids in the homes of her friends.
Their cuisine had not previously been celebrated in English-language books, and rarely appeared in books published in Mexico. Ms. Kennedy saw beauty in her everyday cooking, and her enthusiasm was magnetic.
He changed the way millions of people understood Mexican food, and relished the power in that role. But when she appeared on television, teaching Martha Stewart how to make tamales de frijoles from Oaxaca’s Sierra Norte, was nothing lost? The answer will be negative. But the reality is that Zapotec cooks are still not in the international spotlight as their own food experts say otherwise.
Ms. Kennedy never considered her own adaptations or interpretations of her published recipes. Instead, he saw himself as a custodian and conduit of Mexican culinary history. Although she was very careful about credit, and most of her compositions name their sources, beginning with her first book, “Mexican food“In 1972, her work never managed to illuminate the women she learned from, only their food. And she never reckoned with her authority on Mexican cuisine as a white British woman. When she was asked about this stress – and she often resented it – she avoided or fought the question, as if the rigors of her work might make it insurmountable.
He emphasized specificity and technique, and he rarely suggested alternatives or shortcuts. Once he learned a recipe inside and out, practiced it, and published it, he guarded it fiercely. In his mind, the recipe was now his, and his job was to secure its survival, no matter the cost.
She never wavered from her absurd stance of rejecting Tex-Mex, California Mexican food and all the rich, regional cuisines born from the Mexican diaspora. He also scorned the creativity and adaptability among Mexican cooks in Mexico who dared to change classic dishes as he had recorded them—the most contradictory of his positions.
I often think about how Mrs. Kennedy, a cooking instructor with no street hunger, was compared to Indiana Jones. She envisioned the dishes as artifacts she could preserve, display and teach. And he did the extraordinary and necessary work of many documents.
The problem though, and I think it must have felt like a problem to Ms. Kennedy, is that the vessels cannot be placed behind glass like a specimen. Mexican food, like others, exists as both a shared idea and practice, belonging to a collective—not just alive, but swirling, impossible to sustain.