Diana’s Mexico

A look at how Diana Kennedy brought Mexican cuisine to the world.

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This culinary rockstar realized the need to preserve the native ingredients and traditional recipes of Mexico. 

A HUMBLE START

Diana Kennedy is to Mexican cuisine what Julia Child was to French cuisine. Neither one native to the country whose cuisine they brought to the masses, their love of food and mastery of their respective cuisines is inimitable.

Kennedy grew up in the countryside of England and was expected by her mother to cook from a very young age. Due to the family’s meagre earnings, Diana cooked humble dishes designed to stretch out ingredients and use all parts of an animal. This culinary foundation would prove very important later in her life. 

In 1957, in her early thirties, she met and fell in love with a man who took her to Mexico, where he was working as a correspondent at the time. That marked the beginning of two love affairs. The first with Paul Kennedy, who would soon become her husband, and the second with Mexican culture. Specifically, the country’s rich bounty and the meticulous attention to detail that she observed in Mexican home cooks. 

Diana Kennedy is to Mexican cuisine what Julia Child was to French cuisine.

IT WAS ALWAYS MEXICO

Diana and Paul made Mexico their home and she quickly realized her desire to become an expert in the country’s authentic cuisine. By donkey, bus, car and airplane, Diana traveled to every corner of Mexico, visiting local markets, and studying the different techniques and ingredients of every region. Over time, she narrowed her focus to the ‘forgotten’ foods found in villages that were not documented and felt a responsibility to preserve these sacred, traditional recipes, in the way that an archaeologist protects and preserves ancient artifacts. 

She briefly moved back to New York City and, what started as small cooking ‘boot camps’ out of her home led to her first cookbook, ‘The Cuisines of Mexico’, first published in 1972. It quickly became a bestseller and marked a very influential contribution to food literature, shifting Americans’ perception of Mexican food away from Tex-Mex and towards the rich craft of authentic regional cooking. 

Diana Kennedy is to Mexican cuisine what Julia Child was to French cuisine.

OAXACA AL GUSTO

Though she was content living in NYC and sharing her love of Mexican cuisine, she missed the land that had stolen her heart and, after her husband’s passing, she returned to live in Mexico City. Not long after, she rediscovered the part of Mexico that would define the next chapter of her career, if not her life. 

It was in Oaxaca, the birthplace of corn, that she connected most profoundly with the varied flavors and emphasis on chocolate, corn and chiles, the three pillars of the state. She engrossed herself in this diverse food haven and the unique circumstances under which some food traditions were born. So much did Oaxaca captivate her that she published the cookbook, ‘Oaxaca al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy,’ which includes over 300 recipes of the region, and is divided, not by types of dishes, but by the 11 sections of the state. This book is her magnum opus and, rightfully, earned her the James Beard award for ‘Cookbook of the Year.’ 

‘Oaxaca al Gusto’ isn’t flashy or trendy, but it’s the real deal – almost more history textbook than cookbook. Detailed recipes for ‘cabeze de res’ (barbecued beef head) and ‘farangoyos de huevos de tortuga’ (turtle eggs in broth) are not for the squeamish and certainly can’t be whipped up in an evening, and, while she has included more accessible recipes, this book is more of a love letter to Oaxaca. 

"To me, the interesting part of cooking is cooking," she says, "bringing flavors out of ingredients, not having to put flavors in."

HONORING AUTHENTICITY

Her promotion of Mexican cuisine includes nine cookbooks, all of which showcase her preference for traditional Mexican home cooking over fine dining. She is fascinated by what she calls “comida casera,” (honest food). “To me, the interesting part of cooking is cooking,” she says, “bringing flavors out of ingredients, not having to put flavors in.” None of her works capture this sentiment more than ‘The Tortilla Book’, which is entirely dedicated to the eponymous flatbread.

What is most commendable throughout Kennedy’s work is her dedication to the authentic methods and proper local ingredients used in Mexican cooking. For example, while most Mexican cooks now use pre-ground corn or cornflour, she insists on documenting how to make corn dough (masa) from scratch. Another display of her respect for authenticity was her apprenticeship at a bakery in Mexico City. While she is an exceptional teacher, she is an even better student and her years of ‘field research,’ as she calls it, are apparent in everything she produces. 

While so many of the world’s accomplished cooks and food authors modify recipes for the masses, Diana shows the world that cooking authentically in the tradition of Mexico is a worthy and rewarding pursuit. 

Kennedy also has strong views on what makes and breaks a great cookbook. A proponent of note-making in cookbooks, she has been very vocal about her dislike of electronic forms of cookbooks (e-books), and believes that a recipe should consist of more than just an ingredient list and method. It should explain the context of the dish and tell a story. 

QUINTA DIANA

Today, Kennedy lives in Western Mexico in a house that was formerly a dried-up cornfield. She calls it ‘Quinta Diana,’ and it is an absolute food mecca. Located on three hectares of land, is her home, made with local and sustainable materials, containing beehive ovens, solar stoves, a greenhouse, and sprawling organic gardens that grow everything from rare chiles and coffee beans to figs and corn, with which she makes masa. 

Since 2014, her glorious rancho has served as a non-profit research centre showcasing her vast culinary archives and offers week-long cooking retreats, with funds raised devoted to sustainable gardens in local schools.

At 97 years of age, Diana Kennedy is widely considered the authority on the regional foods of Mexico, with over fifty years of her life spent learning and teaching the world the importance of Mexican food culture. Though she is British-born, Kennedy has more than earned the respect of her audience and the people of Mexico. Many of her books, including ‘The Art of Mexican Cooking’ have been translated into Spanish and she has been granted the highest honor appointed to foreigners by the Mexican government, the Order of the Aztec Eagle, for her work of promoting Mexican food with the world. It’s safe to say that Diana Kennedy is in a league of her own, whose work will benefit many generations to come.