- Diana Kennedy, the author, Mexican cooking expert, and damned
fine cook, has the writer's room of my dreams.
It's small enough to feel protected, bookshelves within easy
reach, right off the top story of her multi-level home, with
windows on three sides looking out at the magnificent mountain
scenery of the central Mexican state of Michoacán.
When I first visited her Mexican home in Zitácuaro nearly
20 years ago, Diana told me that she sometimes had to write
at night to avoid being distracted by the views. Last summer
(2003), traveling there for the first time since leaving Mexico
in 1988, I found that, although a laptop computer has replaced
the typewriter, Diana's writing room is as comfortable as I
remembered, but the lush greenery of her garden has grown up
outside the windows and blocked the views.
My first trip to Zitácuaro had been for an interview
for The Associated Press. Diana
was charming, showing off her home and grounds and answering
all my questions while finding time to serve me and a photographer
a lunch that started with carrot and coriander soup, Veracruz-style
tamales with hoja santa, homemade chorizo, and passion fruit
and blackberry cream ices made from produce grown in her orchard.
STAYING IN TOUCH
We stayed in touch after I moved back to Austin,
by coincidence Diana's home in the United States. I like to
think that we have become friends because of shared enthusiasm
for Mexico, politics, the environment, and Chinese dim sum,
not because I have anything to offer in the way of cooking expertise.
She has been a wonderful cheerleader as I resumed writing after
a hiatus of 10 years and suggested that I might write about
her on my next visit to Zitácuaro.
Putting aside my jitters about interviewing a friend, we made
time to talk over lunch of tacos de cuitlacoche (corn fungus)
as a first course, followed by chicken enchiladas with mole
costeño, topped by chopped onions and a dry Oaxacan cheese.
"The minute they're done, we have to eat," she said
as she worked over the frying pan. "It's hard to beat basic
The story of Diana's evolution to Mexican cooking authority
and writer has been told many times, condensed on her book jackets.
An English woman, she met New York Times correspondent Paul
Kennedy while traveling, fell in love, married him in 1957 and
happily lived in Mexico. He died of cancer, and, in 1969, at
the suggestion of Craig Claiborne, the Times' food news editor,
she started teaching Mexican cooking classes in New York. An
editor heard about them and asked her to write a book.
"I said okay, but I can't write," Diana recalled.
She sent in her first pages, and then came down to Mexico to
do further research, deciding to rewrite the book. The editor
read the result, then called and told her, "Diana, what
did you do over the summer? You taught yourself how to write."
Published in 1972, "The Cuisines of Mexico" carries
the dedication, "To my beloved Paul, who was my reason
for being in Mexico in the first place." Although I cook
only rarely, I have most of Diana's books in my collection.
They carry a sense of precision, literacy and expertise, building
a body of work that is based on a life getting to know Mexico.
Her curiosity is remarkable.
MY MEXICAN KITCHEN
She exercised her detailed awareness of Mexican cooking in
her newest book, From
My Mexican Kitchen. Published last fall, it is an illustrated
guide that describes the techniques used in Mexican cooking
as well as the ingredients. "I realized that nobody had
done it... a how-to book," Diana said. " I should
have done it years ago."
"Hoja santa," for example, gets a full page with
a photo of the "holy leaf" and a description of its
flavor and uses in Veracruz and elsewhere. It's easy to see
how someone unfamiliar with Mexico could be helped by putting
it into context, and, even for those familiar with the country
and its flavors, the accumulation of detail can make you wonder
why you didn't notice quite so many things yourself.
Her first three books have now been collected into "The
Essential Cuisines of Mexico." They were followed by the
out-of-print, "Nothing Fancy," a collection of "personal
soul food" that blended her memories of favorite British
recipes with currently satisfying Mexican dishes. It's my favorite
because on Diana's recommendation I once made salpicón
de res, Zitácuaro style, a shredded beef dish, for my
mother and impressed her no end.
Two more extensive works came next, "The Art of Mexican
Cooking" and then, in 1998, "My Mexico," billed
as a "culinary odyssey" that also has more than 300
recipes. She is proud that, bearing the simple Spanish title
"México ... una odisea culinaria," "My
Mexico" has been published there.
In all of Diana's books, there is a respect for Mexico and
Mexican cooking, in full diversity and detail. "You can
see why a cookbook is so difficult and so laborious," she
said. First there's the research, then the cooking and only
after everything has been fully tested can the writing happen.
She most definitely is not just one of the gang, as Mexican
cookbooks have expanded in popularity over the years.
"This is deep research, that nobody else is prepared to
do," Diana said. "People (other writers) want to take
short cuts ... they're not prepared to do what I've done."
Next is a book about the cuisine of Oaxaca in southern Mexico.
"That's an extremely complex book to do justice to an extraordinarily
complex state," she said. She's talked some about following
that with a book about Michoacán, her home since 1980,
but now says that the Oaxaca book will be the last.
Her adobe home in Mexico is on seven acres, mostly wild. Gardening
is organic -- "There's no need not to be" - and nothing
Anything that can't be fed to the chickens goes to the compost
pile, and, if it can't be composted, it's carted off to a sanitary
"I get so angry about it. Here we are, messing up the
only planet we have -- without thinking," Diana said. She's
been pleased to see environmental awareness grow in Mexico over
In 2003, Diana traveled to England to receive the Member of
the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth, awarded for improving
British-Mexican cultural relations as well as her environmental
"You know me; I'm an old skeptic," she said. "It
was like somebody else was going ... it wasn't me." She
thought about wearing a typically British hat for the occasion
but decided it looked too ridiculous.
Crossings is a series of features prepared by Soll Sussman
who reported on Mexico and Central America as a correspondent
and regional news editor for The
Associated Press. He left for a stint as A.P. bureau chief
in Toronto. Because his heart never really left Mexico City,
he quickly came to his senses and moved closer to the Mexican
border. He now is a freelance writer happily living in Austin,
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