Diana Kennedy & Me
Thoughts on her life and work.
I never met Diana Kennedy, the British food writer and authority on Mexican cuisine, who passed away on July 24 at the age of 99. More than anyone, she helped dispel the myths surrounding Mexican cuisine outside of Mexico. Through her 9 cookbooks, she helped teach the world that the country’s regional cuisines are as rich, if not more so, than those of France or Japan or China.
She was relentless in her pursuit of recipes. As Daniel Hernandez wrote in the Los Angeles Times:
“Despite the risks, she’d visit every market possible in every town she could. She’d return multiple times after befriending locals, and in her publications, she’d meticulously credit the women originators of the recipes she’d perfect alongside them.”
“She tirelessly detailed endemic edible plants, their flavors, and culinary uses, in a way that neither Mexican botanists nor chefs have ever done,” Claudia Alarcón wrote in Forbes. “Without her work, many of these ingredients and ancestral recipes would be lost forever.”
In a 2019 profile of her in The New York Times, during an 800-mile road trip to deliver her personal archives to the University of Texas at San Antonio, Tejal Rao wrote:
“To Ms. Kennedy, who moved back to Mexico full-time in the 1970s, recipes weren’t just step-by-steps, or methods to be followed. They were crucial regional histories, socioeconomic documents and records of ecological diversity. ‘I’m out to report what is disappearing,’ she said as the car bumped along. ‘I drive over mountains, I sit with families, and I record.’”
This is important work. Regional cuisine is disappearing throughout Latin America, not to mention other parts of the world. While my almost 20 years of work across the region is much less than Kennedy’s seven decades in Mexico, I’ve seen how fragile it can be. The threats today have become even more dramatic. The ecosystems and communities that make many foods possible are far more vulnerable than they were even a couple of decades ago. Many traditional recipes are only practiced on rare special occasions, sometimes just annual fairs and holidays when local municipalities have a budget for it, but a skipped year because of migration, gentrification, political uprisings, war, drought, fires, over-fishing, over-hunting, land degradation, soil contamination, water contamination, earthquakes, exploitation, industrialization or a pandemic are all that is keeping the knowledge of making them from being passed from one generation to the next.
While I never met her, her work was in inspiration for my own in many ways, aside of the obvious overlaps. I have long admired her books and refer to copies of The Essential Cuisines of Mexico and Oaxaca al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy on my bookshelf regularly. While it may seem obvious now, how she credited the indigenous women whose recipes she worked with was far ahead of its time.
My own research into documenting the cuisines of Latin America, most specifically Peru and the Amazon Basin, but also generally throughout the continent, is not entirely different from hers. I got into this line of work in this part of the world as a young food writer following my curiosities. It’s what I’m still doing. I spend many of my days driving long hours, sitting like a sardine in over-packed ferries, riding in bumpy buses or taking flights in small planes with questionable safety records to remote areas to simply listen, with respect and an open mind, to what different people have to say and to share a meal. It’s often lonely and unrewarded, but it’s essential in presenting a wider understanding of what people are eating in certain places and periods of time, to document how and why it changes. In my humble opinion, many more people should be doing it.
However, I would be remiss to say that the work someone did that was born in 1923 should be done in the same conditions as someone that was born in 1980. As author and radio host Evan Kleiman wrote in her newsletter:
“The world of nearly unlimited access to information and people that we have today didn't exist. So cookbook authors who were amateur anthropologists and communicators through the cookbook medium, like Diana was were crucial. At a basic level they transmitted knowledge, but more than that they shared a singular, obsessive passion. People say, yes she credited the cooks she learned from but they didn't become famous like she did. That’s true. But several decades ago you needed an obsessive drive combined with attributes that often made others characterize you as “opinionated” or “attention seeking” “aggressive”, a “loudmouth” “prickly,” or my favorite, “difficult.” The need for external acknowledgment is not universal and to achieve the kind of mixed attention Diana Kennedy received was the result of decades of dogged work often in obscurity. Obscurity is more difficult to find now.”
Times have changed since Kennedy began her work. While the goals might be similar, the terrain is vastly different.
As someone often writing about cultures that are not my own, I obviously don’t believe that writing about (or cooking) a cuisine should be confined to strict cultural lines. It doesn’t matter how many years I spend doing the work, some will never be satisfied by that. And that’s OK. I don’t think they should be. Too few cuisines have been ignored until a white person claims to be an expert. I should be uncomfortable. I should have to work harder. I should have to travel further and to listen more, because the job demands it, and I think I do. I should be the exception, not the rule.
I do not consider myself the definitive expert on Peruvian cuisine, or any other cuisine I cover, just a student of them. I do feel I have earned a place to be a part of the conversation. Nothing more, nothing less.
Representation does matter. There had been other Mexican food writers before Kennedy, such as Josefina Velázquez de Léon, an influence of hers. She should have been just as celebrated. I think today she would have been, though that’s not something that happens without relentless provocation.
In the Los Angeles Times, columnist Gustavo Arrellano described how he appreciated her celebration of Mexican cuisine, while at the same time criticized her for her dismissive attitude of Mexican-American cuisine. She was an authenticista, many have claimed. Once she tracked down a particular cook and their recipe, it was as if that recipe was locked in a glass case. An artifact. The very air of that moment to be preserved. A formula that should never alter despite changes in the surrounding conditions.
Kennedy was unapologetic about this. It was a narrative she played into, but I imagine she probably felt like she had to appear that way. Preserving traditional recipes and ingredients can help preserve the landscapes they are produced in and the cultures that have nurtured them, though the odds are not in their favor. The onset of industrial foods, gradually displacing traditional ones, extending to the furthest reaches of the continent seems unstoppable, a dark cloud obscuring our vision from the things that are really important.
My own view is less rigid than hers. I would suggest that the stories behind recipes are just as important to document and try to understand as their techniques. Recipes are not just lists of ingredients prepared in a certain order, but the poetry of their practice as well. The reasons someone might make a mole - or bouillon d'awara or caldillo de congrio - in East L.A. or Kalamazoo are just as important as in Oaxaca or Valparaíso. The ability of a recipe to mutate is a feature, not a flaw.
I love Mexico, have visited more states than many Mexicans, yet somehow I wasn’t as familiar with Diana’s work until recently when she passed. Thanks for sharing Tejal’s road trip piece. It was lovely.
So thoughtful and insightful an overview of the importance of those who are cultural culinary preservationist s Nicholas ,even more so because your own work in that field gives you that permission and authority to do write about it. And a voice that is not swayed by the politics of the moment .