MEXICO CITY (AP) — Diana Kennedy, a sharp-tongued British food writer who devoted herself to Mexican cuisine, died Sunday. she was 99
Kennedy spent much of her life learning about and preserving the traditional cuisine and ingredients of her adoptive homeland, a mission that included driving hundreds of miles in a rattling truck through her adoptive homeland, even in her 80s, while exploring remote villages after hard tangible recipes.
Her nearly a dozen cookbooks, including Oaxaca al Gusto, which won the 2011 James Beard Award for Cookbook of the Year, reflect a lifetime of pioneering culinary contributions and her efforts to collect fading culinary traditions, a mission that has long since endured before the rest of the year began, the culinary world gave Mexican cuisine the respect it felt it deserved.
Her longtime friend Concepción Guadalupe Garza Rodríguez said Kennedy died peacefully just before dawn on Sunday at her home in Zitacuaro, about 100 miles west of Mexico City.
“Mexico is very grateful to her,” said Garza Rodríguez. Kennedy had lunched at a local hotel for her birthday on March 3, but had mostly stayed in her room for the past five weeks. Garza Rodríguez visited Kennedy last week and said she cried when she said goodbye.
Mexico’s culture ministry said Sunday via Twitter that Kennedy’s “life has been dedicated to discovering, compiling and preserving the richness of Mexican cuisine.”
“Diana understood like few that the protection of nature is the key to continue obtaining the ingredients that allow to continue creating the delicious dishes that characterize our cuisine,” said the ministry.
Her first cookbook, The Cuisines of Mexico, was written in 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 four decades later. She described it as a gastronomy that humbled her, and she praised those – usually women – who shared her recipes with her.
“When you cook, you learn that you’re not always in control,” she had said. “Cooking is the greatest blessing in life. Ingredients can fool you.”
She received the equivalent of being knighted in Mexico with the Congressional Order of the Aztec Eagle Award for documenting and preserving regional Mexican cuisine. The United Kingdom also honored her, giving her a Member of the British Empire Award for promoting cultural ties with Mexico.
Kennedy was born with an instinctive curiosity and love for food. Growing up in the UK, she ate what she called “good food, whole foods” if not a lot of food. During World War II, she was assigned to the Women Timber Corps, where food was simple and sometimes sparse—homemade bread, fresh cream, scones and berries on a good day, nettle soup or green beans and butter when rations were tight.
Millions across western Europe shared this simple food, but for Kennedy, these meals inspired an appreciation for flavor and texture that lasted a lifetime.
She talked about her first mango — “I ate it in Jamaica’s port of Kingston, standing in the clear blue warm sea, all that sweet, sweet juice” — the way some talk about their first crush.
In fact, this first mango and her husband, Paul Kennedy, a New York Times correspondent, came into her life around the same time. He was on duty in Haiti, she was traveling there. They fell in love and in 1957 she joined him in Mexico where he was deployed.
It was here that a number of Mexican maids, aunts, mothers and grandmothers of their new friends Diana Kennedy gave their first Mexican cooking classes – grinding corn for tamales, cooking rabbits in the adobo. It was another culinary awakening. While her husband wrote about uprisings and revolutions, Kennedy roamed a country that was “new, exciting and exotic” to her, sampling unique fruits, vegetables and herbs from different regions.
The couple moved to New York in 1966 when Paul Kennedy died of cancer.
Two years later, at the urging of The New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne, she led her first Mexican cooking class and scoured the Northeast for ingredients to replicate the exploding flavors of Mexico. She soon began spending more time in Mexico, establishing a retreat there that still serves as her home in the country.
In classes, cookbooks, and lectures, her basic tenet is simple: “There is never an excuse for bad food.”
She was known for her sharp-tongued comments, even as her pioneering work helped transform Mexico into a culinary mecca for foodies and the world’s finest chefs, transforming a cuisine long dismissed as tortillas stuffed in heavy sauces, cheese and sour cream smothered.
She once told Jose Andres, the James Beard Award-winning chef and owner of an acclaimed Mexican restaurant, that his tamales were “fucking awful.”
She feared that famous chefs who had flocked to Mexico in recent years to study and experiment with the purity of the flora, fauna and flavors were mixing the wrong ingredients.
“A lot of them use it as a novelty and don’t know what goes together,” she said. “If you’re messing around with ingredients, exotic ingredients, you need to know how to handle them.”
Kennedy was very shy and wary of who she would let into her sustainable Mexican retreat near the town of Zitacuaro in the embattled western state of Michoacan. No one was welcome unannounced. Cell phones were turned off and computers kept in a writing studio. Her companions included her paid help, a staff who treated her like a dear friend, and several beloved – if somewhat wild – dogs.
In Kennedy’s expansive and enchanting garden, remnants – and resurrections – of ancient culture grew along the stone walls. She worked hard to prevent the loss of local ingredients by creating a rolling farm of local herbs and other produce. Cultivation continued into a vine-filled atrium at the center of their home, a steaming culinary paradise of vanilla, oregano, mint, bananas and myriad local herbs.
“A rebellious activist, absolute defender of the environment, Diana Kennedy was and remains the prime example of concern for the environment and its biodiversity,” her editor Ana Luisa Anza wrote in a memoir on Sunday. She wrote that years ago Kennedy set a goal of reaching 100 years of age to complete her life’s work.
In 2019, the documentary Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy featured a still vivacious Kennedy enjoying the produce of her garden and navigating the bumpy roads of Zitacuaro.
In her later years, Kennedy had said she wanted to slow down but couldn’t.
“There are so many more recipes out there that will be passed from mother to daughter and will be lost. There are seeds and herbs and roots that might disappear. There is absolutely so much more to do!” she said.
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