Diana Kennedy obituary | Food and drink books

The food writer Diana Kennedy, who has died aged 99, concentrated almost exclusively on the Mexican kitchen. In an astonishingly active career spanning more than 60 years, she published nearly a dozen books unmatched by any of her contemporaries, which investigated and portrayed the long, complex culinary traditions of her adopted homeland.

She was one of a group of women whose immersive technique, fine writing and red-hot enthusiasm delivered to us a vast range of new things to eat as well as introducing to our worldview new civilisations. Elizabeth David, Claudia Roden, Paula Wolfert and Naomi Duguid are among them and they, and Kennedy, have often been described as anthropologists, something Kennedy usually denied, though ultimately accepted by dint of constant repetition.

Although British by birth, she married, taught and published on the other side of the Atlantic. In Britain, her name was revered, but her impact relatively subdued. Her work relied on direct research, paying visits to cooks, surveying markets, gaining knowledge of the local produce and constant note-taking. The results were recipes that may, to the home cook, be alarming in their willingness to take things back to basics – not just using cornmeal, but soaking the kernel with lime overnight, removing the skins and grinding with lard to make corn dough (masa). Then again, the amateur may be daunted by the ingredients: anyone for iguana tamales, or brains with jalapeños? (And it may be useful to know how to gut the black iguana while about it.)

Diana Kennedy shopping in Zitácuaro in 1990. She formulated her recipes by meeting cooks and going to markets around Mexico
Diana Kennedy shopping in Zitácuaro in 1990. She formulated her recipes by meeting cooks and going to markets around Mexico. Photograph: Paul Harris/Getty Images

Born in Loughton, Essex, she was one of the two daughters of a kindergarten teacher, Lily (nee Miller) and a salesman, Ernest Southwood, described by her as “a congenial failed businessman”. Education at South Hampstead high school, London, might have fitted her for further study but the second world war intervened. In 1941 she joined the Women’s Timber Corps, a division of the Land Army.

Training at a secretarial college and later as a housing manager enabled her to find employment in Scottish mining estates after the war but in 1953 she emigrated to Canada where she held a variety of jobs, including running a film library and selling Wedgwood china. From Canada, she was able to travel to the west coast of America and the Caribbean.

A diversion to Haiti in 1956, as she was on her way home for a holiday, coincided with civil unrest that was being covered by a New York Times journalist, Paul P Kennedy. They met and fell in love. They moved on immediately to Mexico, where he was based as Central American bureau chief, and married in 1957.

Learning Spanish and working as a typist at the British Council in Mexico City, Diana was soon captivated by the foods and cookery of her new home. She would ask her maids, or maids of friends, about a dish and was always told that this was how they did it in their village. So she would then hightail it to the source, always the source, and receive instruction directly. Thus was established her unfailing method – inquiry, location, travel, interrogation. All her recipes acknowledged their progenitors, all her methods were, so far as it might be feasible, authentic.

In 1966 the Kennedys were forced to move to New York due to Paul’s need for cancer treatment. This was not successful and he died a year later, leaving Diana somewhat adrift in an alien city. She was fortunate to have met the New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne when he had earlier visited them in Mexico. He not only featured her work on Mexican cookery but also suggested she start teaching small classes gathered in her apartment galley kitchen. As word got out, it was heeded by an editor at the publishers Harper & Row, Frances McCullough, who persuaded Kennedy to write her first book, The Cuisines of Mexico, published in 1972, which became a bestseller.

The recipes were established by repeated voyages round the Mexican countryside, by bus, train, later by her own campervan (sometimes with a pistol in the glove compartment), and after an initial struggle with the art of writing. But Kennedy’s professional life was centred on the burgeoning cookery schools of America, where she was in constant demand. She moved permanently to Mexico only in 1976. Come 1980, she purchased a few acres near the city of Zitácuaro, 100 miles due west of Mexico City, where she planted myriad trees, set up a smallholding of pigs, goats, chickens and very fierce dogs, built what might be termed an eco-house, largely off-grid, and set about establishing a centre of research, teaching and sustainable living.

Her books appeared with impressive regularity: The Tortilla Book in 1975; Recipes from the Regional Cooks of Mexico in 1978; Nothing Fancy, which was a diversion to slight memoir and scrapbook of favourite recipes from all over, in 1984; The Art of Mexican Cooking in 1989; My Mexico in 1998; From My Mexican Kitchen – Techniques and Ingredients in 2003; and finally – and perhaps the most impressive of all – Oaxaca al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy in 2010.

Kennedy will be remembered for her forthrightness, and her criticism of faulty ingredients, shortcuts and plagiarism of her work. But her enthusiasm and fervent insistence on the right way to do things had an immense and beneficial influence, not least on chefs in Mexico and North America who were trying to produce good Mexican food. Her contribution was recognised in the US by the James Beard Foundation, in Mexico by her admission to the Order of the Aztec Eagle in 1981, and in Britain by her appointment as MBE, with the award made to her in person by Prince Charles at a lunch in her home in 2002.

Diana Kennedy, food writer, born 3 March 1923; died 24 July 2022

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