Chef Chat

Diana Kennedy Must Speak Loudly Before She Expires

The famous cookbook author and Mexican food maven on why preservation is more important now than ever.

By Katharine Shilcutt October 28, 2013

Diana Kennedy is running late for our interview, and I start to worry that perhaps the famously finicky cookbook author and authority on Mexican cuisine has decided I'm not worth her trouble.

At 91 years old, she has certainly earned the right to spend her time as she pleases—and these days, that includes traveling to a slew of U.S. cities for a book tour before heading back to her home base in Michoacán, where Kennedy has maintained what she calls her "little experiment," an ecologically-friendly home and gardens, since the 1970s. There, she's been busy assisting Mexico's National Commission for Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity (CONABIO, in Spanish acronym) as they record and digitize her vast collection of recipes, drawings, and notes on both Mexican cuisine and its native edible plants. It's slow, painstaking work that's been going on for the last three years, during which time Kennedy has received almost no income.

And then, 20 minutes into panicking, I see Kennedy. She emerges from inside Hugo's Restaurant onto the sun-dappled patio where I've been told she would probably prefer to conduct our interview, led by Ruben Ortega—brother of chef/owner Hugo and pastry chef at both Hugo's and Backstreet Cafe; the two brothers are just two of Kennedy's many protégés. She's bent slightly at the waist, but looks less frail than recent pictures would indicate. She has a shock of silvery white sprouting from her head, and is dressed elegantly but simply in black linen trousers and a dove grey linen shirt with giant mother-of-pearl buttons that match her hair.

"I'm so sorry I'm running late," she crows. "I was taking a walk on this lovely day and lost track of time!" Her polished Home Counties accent has not faded during the years she's spent living in Mexico. Between her noted love of botany and that proper British greeting, Kennedy bears a passing resemblance to Professor Sprout, the fictional Herbology professor in the Harry Potter series. I don't tell her this; I don't think she'd approve of the comparison nor my deep adult knowledge of a children's book series.

Kennedy has a shockingly tart sense of humor and a no-nonsense approach to everyday life that's both startling and refreshing. Although she's never had children—"Can you imagine?" she asks rhetorically. "Raising a little me? Horrible."—she fusses over me like a grandmother I've never met. She tells me I shouldn't be drinking the Diet Coke that's in front of me (true) and can't believe I haven't jailbroken my iPhone yet. "I take out the U.S. chip on my way back to Mexico and put the Mexican chip in," she explains patiently. "It's so much better than carrying two phones!"

Kennedy's current book tour brought her to Houston last week, where she signed copies of the recently reissued My Mexico, which was originally published 15 years ago. "I'm very happy that the book came out," Kennedy says, as way of introduction to a tale in which it almost did not. Random House, her publisher, originally wanted to republish the cookbook in ebook form. For all her tech-savviness with an iPhone, Kennedy was horrified.

"Most cooks want to write on the book, on its pages; they don't want to plug it in," she says. "I write notes, the dates that I've tried the various recipes." While ebooks have a great variety of uses, Kennedy admits, she believes cookbooks aren't one of them. "A cookbook is something very personal. It's something you keep."

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Diana Kennedy signs books at Hugo's.

Image: Paula Murphy

Kennedy is, above all, devoted to the idea of preservation. "Do you think that's tied to growing up during the war?" I ask her. She's quiet for a second. "Yes, absolutely." Kennedy was only 16 when the German Luftwaffe began bombing London, where she was living with her family at the time. They survived on war rations—"we only had 12 ounces of cheese or meat, depending," Kennedy remembers—and hid for dear life when the air sirens blared across the city. "If we wanted to send a letter, we'd have to use and reuse envelopes until they fell apart," she says. "Things are finite."

In the middle of World War II, Kennedy signed up for the Women's Timber Corps, where "Lumber Jills" handled the forestry jobs of men until they could return home from the war. "I could cut a tree," she recalls, "but I didn't like the axe." Raised by a nature-loving mother who dreamed of a quiet life in the countryside, Kennedy was similarly inclined to preserve rather than destroy. The Timber Corps gave her a job measuring tree trunks instead.

Preservation is the common thread that ties together all of the work she's done since first moving to Mexico with her husband, Paul P. Kennedy, a New York Times foreign correspondent, in 1957. It's what has driven her to "travel doggedly," searching out old Mestizo women who've shown her the right way to transform maize into nixtamal, to grind nixtamal into masa, to dry chiles, and to make tamales. "I've worked all my life," she says. "I can't conceive of not working."

When she's not hunting down tomatoes, learning how to make enchiladas, or photographing her journeys throughout Mexico, Kennedy is teaching others what's she's learned over the years with the hope that the Mexican cuisine she's attempting to preserve will continue to be passed down to others who cherish it the way she does. When she's not teaching, Kennedy is "behind a typewriter or in the kitchen," perfecting her own recipes for cookbooks and classes. "I'm very tough on my own food," she says.

The petite Englishwoman is notoriously tough on other cooks as well. At her book signing later that night, Kennedy would go on to take a bite of bread a local chef had baked for her and roughly chastise him for adding too much sugar—one of her so-called bête noires. She once kicked chef Rick Bayless, a fellow Anglo obsessed with Mexican cooking, out of her car for being "brash." In our interview, she doesn't mince words when it comes to chefs such as New Jersey–based Maricel Presilla, of whom Kennedy rails: "She thinks she's the next great Mexican chef and she's not!" Presilla's latest sin in Kennedy's eyes is being quoted in a recent New York Times article which did not adequately describe the process of making nixtamal. "It's full of misinformation!"

Kennedy even has choice words for cooks whom she's never met. When I suggest she dine at Cuchara the next time she visits Houston, she waves me off. "They're probably doing their own take on recipes. Whatever they're cooking, I can tell you it's not the real thing," she fumes. "They don't know the original recipes, they haven't traveled, and they haven't done their homework."

This adamant and dogmatic insistence on adhering to the "old way"—and Kennedy's often unspoken insinuation that authenticity, which itself is an ideal that's nebulous at best, is the chief goal when cooking— is a constant source of frustration for herself and others. It's what has put her at odds with fellow cookbook author Robb Walsh, our dining editor and self-proclaimed "Tex-Mex apologist." Walsh wrote back in 2010: "I have often faulted Diana Kennedy for assuming that the only way to champion authentic Mexican cooking was to trash Tex-Mex." This is a point of contention for Kennedy, who is clearly bothered by the idea that she is known as the woman who trashed Tex-Mex.

"I have a terrible reputation here," she says, in one of many candid moments. She is unguarded when she speaks. "I don't hate Tex-Mex. It's just not my preference." Some people prefer French wines to Italian, as she puts it.

Her personal preference is not for Tex-Mex, but for the comparatively more complex and difficult flavors of interior Mexican food. It's a cuisine that's a match for Kennedy's forceful personality, one that both demands and stands up to her brand of intense scrutiny. It's a cuisine that's as nuanced and steeped in history as French or Italian, yet one that also affords the opportunity for adventure thanks to a New World/Old World divide that's left it comparatively unexplored and undocumented. Kennedy's devotion to cataloging and understanding a foreign cuisine has earned her comparisons to Julia Child, though without the financial benefit of a popular television show.

"Nobody has done the work I have," Kennedy says. "And I've funded it all myself. That's why I'm not rich." She's blunt, without a trace of self-pity. She's worried these days about being able to maintain her home base in Michoacán without the steady stream of income from selling cookbooks or teaching classes—both interrupted by the work with CONABIO and a team of documentarians whom she says lied to her about both the topic and the eventual paycheck. (The documentary ended up being about something else entirely, though Kennedy won't say what, and she says she was never paid for her time.)

"I'm trying to make a foundation," she says. "I'm trying to get a tax-free status, first from the Mexican government," with plans to create a similar foundation in the U.S. if all goes well. This would go a long way to helping Kennedy continue to run her home, a sort of modern-day Down House where she writes, houses her immense collection of Mexican cookbooks and pottery, grows and studies plants, and hosts visiting chefs or writers looking to draw from her well of knowledge.

"I think I have to sell some old cookbooks," she sighs, "because I need the money." She'd prefer them to stay in Mexico, but is realistic about selling them to the highest bidder no matter their geographic location. She hopes she doesn't have to sell any of her pottery collection, however. "That should be preserved," she says.

Kennedy is currently on a book tour, promoting the re-release of My Mexico.

Image: Paula Murphy

For the time being, Kennedy is glad to be on the road again, selling and signing cookbooks—and hopefully imparting a little knowledge along the way, although she warns those who invite her to speak or teach up front: "I'm going to put a few toques askew." She criticizes chefs both young and old on topics ranging from broad and important (sustainability, environmentalism, preservation of historic foodways) to narrow and personal (sous vide, Kosher salt, boneless and/or skinless chicken breasts, onions that are too large and/or too sweet).

Kennedy criticizes the chefs who accept poor produce and other ingredients into their kitchens, citing mealy, out-of-season green tomatoes as her most recent bête noire. "Very soon they're going to lose the taste," she worries, and no one will remember what a proper tomate verde should taste like. "I want young chefs to be alert; the present ones aren't doing their job."

She criticizes chefs who waste food and who encourage the unnecessary use of plastic, foil, and other items that only get thrown in the trash. "How is it that home cooks can turn out a nice piece of fish," she asks, "but [chefs] want to cook in plastic and put all those little, greasy bags in a landfill?" She recalls watching a chef once prepare her recipe for caldo de mariscos in which he cooked the shrimp sous vide. It horrified her; the idea of the shrimp not absorbing the flavors of the broth as they cooked, and the waste itself that resulted from the sous vide machine. "I laughed and cried," she remembers. "It was the height of ridiculousness."

She wants chefs to be mindful of the fact that we're in a a time where their celebrity ilk have a strong influence on so many Americans' domestic decisions. "Every chef has a responsibility to not destroy our environment," she says, rapping the table in a practiced, schoolteacher-like motion she employs when she wants to be particularly emphatic. "Don't we want to preserve something? The wonderful animal life we've been given? The plant life? This overcrowded, beautiful world?"

And then she's calm again for a moment. Her voice quiets. "Nobody wants to talk seriously about these things, because in the jargon of today, they're not sexy." But Kennedy will not be quiet for long, and she doesn't care whether or not it's sexy to talk about kitchen waste.

"It's a mission," she says. "I have to speak loudly before I expire." She's not sure when that will be, but Kennedy is sure she has at least another decade left in her. And in that time, she's got another cookbook to re-release—Nothing Fancy, which she promises will include an updated intro to the memoirs as well as a full list of her bête noires—classes to resume, and a homestead to save.

"My mother lived to 92 years old," Kennedy smiles. "And I'm in my 91st year." But, she says, she just got her driver's license renewed, laughing: "So I've got to make it at least the next 10 years."

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