Diana Kennedy has written nine cookbooks. First, Mexican Cuisine, published in 1972, is several hundred pages long, and has been widely recognized for introducing traditional Mexican cuisine to the English-speaking world.
Kennedy is 97 years old, white, and English – not the ingredients you expect to be the main authority on Mexican food, but sometimes the ingredients surprise you. He lives in the Michoacán hills, four hours west of Mexico City, on a plot of land he bought decades ago. In the culinary circles he was worshiped. Mexican Chef Gabriela Cámara described it as a “legend”. Here’s the restaurant owner Nick Zukin: “He is a prophet for Mexican food.” And chef Rick Bayless: “He is a repository of extraordinary knowledge.” And Pati Jinich, Emmy-nominated TV series host Mexican Starch Tables: “I think Mexico, as a country, will forever be indebted for its efforts.”
This quote appears in a new documentary, Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy, by filmmaker Elizabeth Carroll, who mapped Kennedy’s extraordinary life. Over the years, Kennedy has traveled across Mexico – from Chihuahua, in the north, to Yucatán, near the borders of Guatemala and Belize – to document his food culture, always with a feeling of where he plans to go, but never entirely sure where he is might end. (“Important discoveries in my life always happen by accident,” he said.) When he arrives in a new city, he will visit his food market, and he will ask the people he meets there where they come from and what they like for cooking and how and what ingredients they use. Are they local? Are they imported from other countries? Are they farming or looking for food? Later he explored the country in a pickup. (“I hope my truck can share some of the experiences they have had with me.”) But when he first arrived in Mexico he traveled by bus, “with all the chickens and pigs”, moving from village to village, region to region, very interested in the way food is cooked, the specificity of the recipe that he was introduced to. He asked question after question. What is local chili? What is the local fruit? What is the local concoction? He touched. He feels. He breathes – fragrances and knowledge. “Anything to escape,” he said in the documentary, “and study.”
Whenever possible, Kennedy would visit a place he had never visited before, spending the night in a truck or, when the weather permitted, a hammock. He usually travels alone. Sometimes he carries a tape recorder, sometimes a gun. There is no stopping it; his determination is resolute. He would drive hundreds of miles to check a single fact – material, exact measurements. In the preface for Mexican Cuisine, late food writer Craig Claiborne, a close friend of Kennedy, wrote, “If the enthusiasm is not beautiful, it will be bordered by mania.” He travels compulsively, and he is always candid and urgent, maybe a little annoying. “I want to know where people live. I want to learn what the landscape is like. I want to know more. “But people always respond generously. They are fascinated by their interest. So they invite this strange English woman into their kitchen, and she will stay for hours, or days, or even a week.” I felt at home immediately “he said,” wherever I go. “He will faithfully record recipes – special ingredients and precise measurements – and return to Michoacán, laden with local specialties, to make it back home. Every time he publishes a recipe, he always mention where it came from, and the woman who shared it.
Kennedy first arrived in Mexico in 1957. He was born in Loughton, Essex, in 1923. After the Second World War he traveled to Jamaica, was invited by a friend and “driven by lots and lots of hormones”, and then, impulsively, for Haiti. He landed during the revolution, along with several newspaper correspondents, including Paul Kennedy, a reporter with New York time. Paul is based in Mexico City. When she returned, Diana followed, “and then began a truly amazing time in love” – with Paul, and then with the country that is now home. They were married, and each time Paul went on a reporting trip, Diana went to explore his new world.
Paul died in 1967, in New York, where they went so he could receive treatment for prostate cancer. In Manhattan, Diana felt out of its depth. He does not know anyone. He was suddenly forced to hurry. He was “very depressed”. Claiborne, a food writer, suggested he teaches Mexican cuisine, an idea he initially thought was crazy, but soon he held a lesson in his apartment, “six people in my small kitchen kitchen, cooking a truly traditional meal. There is a clothing designer, there is an actress. And here I am, teaching them how to make papadzules. I mean, there is hardly anyone here Mexico know how to make papadzules. That is fun. That is the beginning. “
Later, an editor at Harper & Row suggested that he write a cookbook, which later became Mexican Cuisine, and that’s when the work really begins. Other cookbooks follow – cultural studies, really – and then appearance at cooking shows (Martha Stewart admired he) and then cooks the show himself. In front of the camera he is very tough: wants to share what he finds in Mexico but is also a bit protective of him, and always speaks honestly, almost to the point of being rude. He would growl at things like, “People say they don’t like coriander. Please don’t invite them!” Or, “Put the texture in your food. We don’t want baby food all the time. “Or,” You might not have molcajete “- Mexican mortar and pestle, made of volcanic rock -” so buy one! “
But the real work, the work that he admires, is travel, using food as a path to people’s lives – “doctoral theses done in real time, in real life”. He made Michoacan’s house his headquarters. He did not remarry. He never wanted children. (“I don’t want to raise me a little. Can you imagine?”). Instead, he turned himself in to work. Carroll described it as “a food anthropologist” who “happened to be a killer chef”. He has received many awards, including the Order of the Aztec Eagle (raised in Mexico), and a James Beard Foundation award (great in food land). In 2002, Prince Charles visited Kennedy at his home to appoint him MBE, to “continue cultural relations between Britain and Mexico”.
Are these things important to him? That is not clear. But inheritance is important. In a scene from the documentary, Carroll Kennedy runs a cooking camp at his home. Some students are accomplished chefs. One has three restaurants in Manhattan; the other has five in Portland. But Kennedy was not afraid. At one point he complained: “It’s really terrible that Mexico imports chili,” and reminded the chefs not to take a stand. Then he half shouted: “Study, study, study. Read my book and learn. What will you do when I leave? Who will start screaming? “
This is an urgent question. Carroll filmed Kennedy for six years, starting in 2013. “When we first met him, he was 91 years old, running around us,” Carroll said. “He was like, ‘Get up, let’s go to the market.’ And we were like, ‘This woman triples our age!’ “But at the end of filmmaking, Kennedy slowed down,” and you can see it is frustrating for him – that it’s not the strength and energy he has used all his life. “When he spoke at a conference in 2013, Kennedy said, “I am 90 years old, so everyone is very nervous, you know, that I won’t be there much longer. So you want to hear all my complaints when I’m alive.” Recently the complaint involved sustainability. “We live in a world that is so diverse,” he said, “and our education is very bad. How many children in school realize how many insects there are? Millions and millions of different species, each playing their part in this extraordinary universe. “
I was scheduled to talk to Kennedy by telephone, but the call was delayed, and finally canceled. He is now 97 years old. Maybe he had done all the talk he needed to do. Guaranteed inheritance. The cookbook is still printed. He is loved by chefs, including Jobecause of Andrés, who called him “Indiana Jones of food”. But “it’s not just hurrying, getting a recipe and getting out,” Kennedy said. “This makes it back in your own kitchen. How do you express this recipe so people can do it, so it won’t disappear? God knows I tried. “He added,” You can’t win it all. You continue to do what you know you want to do, and at some point the waves will change and you make your mark, or you might not … I’m so honored by the way so many people look at my books and appreciate what I’ve been done. That’s all you can expect. ”
Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy is available to watch on digital platforms now
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