Diana Kennedy sank into a dimpled leather chair at the Emma Hotel in San Antonio, leaned over her glass of Scotch, and told me that the true enemy of every writer was mediocrity.
This was in 2019, when she was 96 years old, and decades of in-depth culinary research had made her a leading authority on Mexican food for British and American home cooks, both despite the fact that she was a British-born white woman. that’s why. . I thought back to that time when her friends confirmed that she had died on sundayat his home in Michoacán, Mexico.
i met mrs. kennedy at a bumpy two-day road trip from that house in the countryside of western Mexico, to the University of San Antonio, some 800 miles to the north. By then, she had followed many of her recipes and knew her voice on the page: confident, thorough, precise.
In person, she was more brilliant, brutal, and devastatingly funny than I had imagined, telling lewd jokes and interrupting conversations with eloquent and vicious curses. She gleefully shared the details of long-standing vendettas. She laughed and grunted. She complained about everything that didn’t meet her standards: cookbooks, compliments, foreign policy, muffins.
Millisecond. Kennedy was not trained as a journalist, and never really identified as such, but he did form his own model for reporting recipes on the go, traveling around Mexico in his truck, working alongside home cooks and farmers, and documenting their work.
Then he stormed out with book after book, demanding that the British and American public acknowledge the depth and breadth of Mexican foods. He extolled the country’s diversity of regional ingredients, styles and techniques, lamenting the shift towards industrialization, monoculture and ready meals.
In articles about her, the image that always caught my eye was a variation of Mrs. Kennedy in khaki pants and boots, standing in rural Mexico next to her dented white pickup truck, her lock of hair usually wrapped underneath. of a scarf and a wide-brimmed hat. He described the food writer as something of an adventurer, and she used to carry a gun and sleep on the road, tying a hammock between two trees wherever she chose to rest. Anything for a recipe, she told her.
For decades, the journey was constant, frenetic and obsessive: an escape, she would call it, although she never said what. Millisecond. Kennedy lost the love of her life, Paul Kennedy, foreign correspondent for The New York Times, in 1967, and until he was diagnosed with cancer, they had lived in Mexico City, where he was stationed. Time and time again, throughout her career, she recounted how after her husband’s death, craig claibornethe gastronomic editor of the newspaper, convinced her to teach Mexican cooking classes.
Many of the home cooks Kennedy became apprenticed to: the people she learned from and lived with along the way, the people on whose work she built her name and career, were rural Mexican women, indigenous women, and working-class women. . Some of them worked as cooks and servants in their friends’ houses.
His meal had not been celebrated in English-language books before, and had rarely appeared in books published in Mexico. Millisecond. Kennedy saw beauty in his everyday cooking and his enthusiasm was magnetic.
He changed the way millions of people perceived Mexican food and he relished the power in that role. But when she appeared on television teaching Martha Stewart how to make bean tamales from the Sierra Norte of Oaxaca, wasn’t that something lost? Her answer would be no. But the fact that Zapotec cooks are not yet in the international spotlight as experts on their own foods says otherwise.
Millisecond. Kennedy never considered the recipes he published to be his adaptations or interpretations. Instead, she saw herself as the guardian and driver of Mexican culinary history. She thought she cared a lot for credit, and most of her recipes name her sources, beginning with her first cookbook, “The kitchens of Mexico”, in 1972, his work never managed to illuminate the women he learned from, only his food. And she never relied on her authority over Mexican cooking as a white British woman. When she was asked about this tension—and she often was, much to her chagrin—she evaded the question or dismissed it, as if the rigor of her job might make it unassailable.
He emphasized specificity and technique, rarely suggesting substitutions or shortcuts. Once he learned a recipe inside and out, he practiced it and published it, fiercely guarding it. In his mind, the recipe was hers now, and his job was to ensure her survival, no matter the cost.
He never backed down from his ridiculous position of dismissing Tex-Mex Mexican food, California, and all the rich regional cuisines that came out of the Mexican diaspora. He also disparaged the creativity and adaptation among Mexican cooks in Mexico who dared to alter classic dishes as he had recorded them, the most paradoxical of his positions.
I often think about how Mrs. Kennedy, a cooking instructor with an insatiable appetite for the road, was compared to Indiana Jones. She envisioned the plates as artifacts that she could salvage from disappearance, display, and show off; and she did the extraordinary and essential job of documenting so many.
The problem though, and I think it must have felt like a problem to Mrs. Kennedy, is that the dishes cannot be contained as artifacts behind glass. That Mexican cuisine, like all the others, exists as a shared idea and a practice, belonging to a collective, not only alive, but twisting, it is impossible to stay still.
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