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BORDER CROSSINGS

Diana Kennedy
by Soll Sussman

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ZITACUARO, Michoacán - 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 Mexican food."

COOKING AUTHORITY

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."

 

Book


"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.


NO SHORTCUTS

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.


GARDENING

Her adobe home in Mexico is on seven acres, mostly wild. Gardening is organic -- "There's no need not to be" - and nothing is wasted.


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 landfill.

"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 the years.

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 activism.

"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.


AUTHOR

Border 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, Texas.

Soll



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