Pushing 90, the reigning legendary dame of Mexican cooking calls for an eater’s revolt, and simply doesn’t take any bullshit.
Above, at Kennedy's home. All photos by Alejandro Mendoza
"Why is it that we have allowed people who are totally incompetent in food to design our food?" Diana Kennedy was saying, her gray and white hair lifting lightly in the breeze. "Our food doesn't have the flavor it used to have. I remember the chile poblanos, full of flavor, thin-fleshed, very dark green, and that big. Now ¡olvidalo!"
"Forget it," she said. Today, there is actually a four in ten chance a chile poblano served to you anywhere in Mexico has been imported, most likely from China. Kennedy knows this, and the truth seems to burn through her entire being.
A living legend in food, Kennedy started exploring the markets of Mexico's towns and villages more than fifty years ago, meeting cooks and gathering plants and recipes with the precision of a ethnobotanist. It has been her lifelong project of achieving total intimacy with Mexico's native ingredients.
Sitting at Kennedy's outdoor dining table with a tiny glass of mezcal before me, I struggled to imagine the flavor of the chile poblanos back then because fifty years ago, Mexico and the planet were simply different places than they are now. There were less people, for one, and probably a lot less contaminants in the air, in the soil, in the water. In our lives.
There was no transgenic corn in Mexico fifty years ago, and definitely none imported from the United States—as there is today—not in the land where science has agreed that corn was born.
At 91 years old, Diana is old enough to remember what that Mexico tasted like. Her palate fuels her ideas—and anger.
"People are losing taste, especially in the US, and then it passes to Mexico," Kennedy told me. "It's ridiculous, but then nobody has paid attention to the agriculture in Mexico."
Kennedy had agreed to meet with me at her home in Michoacán to discuss the recent translation of her cookbook, My Mexico, into Spanish, and to also hear what her plans are for the future of her ecological country home.
The decline of Mexican cuisine, though, dominated our conversation. Over the course of a morning, Kennedy led us on a tour of her house and garden, and sat us down for Veracruz-style tamales and candied peaches called duraznos en tacha. The whole time, the reigning dama of Mexican cooking explained to me why Mexican eating is in crisis.
When it comes to Mexican food, she's all about maintaining a standard and preaching about it, whenever she can, using whichever kind of language she must, and no matter how old she manages to get. The standard, I'd say, is simple and specific: Never forget.
"I was in Oaxaca in 1964, when it was just … lost," Kennedy went on. "It was gorgeous, oh, not all that awful noise of traffic, it was just beautiful."
I tried to brighten the mood. "Aren't some people trying to revive old cooking traditions, bit by bit?" I asked. I mentioned that in the United States there is growing interest in tacos and Mexico City-style street food, especially among young people. That's cool, right?
"Oh, a lot of bullshit," Kennedy responded. "You know, if I read another book from a chef like … Roberto Santibañez … Tacos, Tortas, and Tamales … They're saying nothing new. All they are are beautiful photographs and dreaming up different names for things. I get so bored."
It was a chilly January morning in the teensy part of Coatepec de Morelos, just outside the small city of Zitácuaro, Michoacán. We drove up west from the valley floor of Mexico City at dawn, over the mountains leading to the city of Toluca. Then further up, crossing state lines into woodsy eastern Michoacán, the same state currently in the midst of a destabilizing conflict between criminals and armed community militias.
Kennedy brushed off the autodefensa war in her state when I asked her about it. She was born and raised in England and still speaks with a confident British accent. She doesn't exactly blend in. But it occurred to me that Kennedy is probably immune to violence or attacks anywhere in Mexico. That's determined by the cosmic plane that many Mexicans acknowledge but rarely talk about, and which governs those sort of things in this country.
Someone like Kennedy, with decades of experience traveling around Mexico completely on her own, a foreigner far from any resort, doesn't need to fret at night about the drug war. She has other battles afield. "No," she was saying, referring by now to no one in particular, "because all these people don't know what a good tortilla is. You start with a good tortilla. Everyone is writing about nixtamal and getting it wrong. I think Wikipedia probably has it wrong."
Kennedy paused and penned herself a mental note. "I think I need to do something about that, too …"
Nixtamal is what makes a tortilla an actual tortilla, but few of us eat decent tortillas on a regular basis in 2014. With nixtamalization, corn is soaked with cal, an alkanizing process that releases corn's nutrients for better human absorption. Pre-hispanic peoples discovered the effect when they began grinding their maize against limestone.
The process worked for thousands of years among humans in what is now Mexico. But nixtamalization, being labor-intensive and time-consuming, began disappearing after the invention of industrialized corn flour and the resulting market dominance of Maseca.
"Where can you get a good nixtamal torilla? Yes, in the country, in the market, but there are so many tortillerías mixing the corn with Maseca," Kennedy said. "And so you've got a whole generation who only know that taste of Maseca."
Everywhere she turns, accuracy about the topic pokes at her. She practically spits habanero chilies when she talks about it, it matters so much.
"I was with Sandor Katz in Copenhagen, and uuuf, I said to Sandor, 'You have the most awful gaffe in your first book. Your nixtamalization is absolutely off the wall'," Kennedy recalled. "'Before you write about niztamal, you call me.' The same, you know, the New York Times, they had something about nixtamal and I sent them a letter protesting. I wrote about ten points, and that awful Saveur magazine thing. I sent them, I would say, fourteen corrections. It was shocking, shocking."
Once we pulled up to the gate of her house, we watched as Kennedy came down the slope of her stone driveway very carefully, a measured step after a measured step. She lent us a smile and a friendly wave. No wheelchair, no cane, no elbow to lean on. She was moving quite gamely.
Kennedy seemed like she couldn't be a day over 70. She later told me that she doesn't eat "at night" and doesn't take a lot of meat, just a tostada or a sopa for dinner, something simple, she explained. Eco-living indeed reaps its rewards, I thought.
Coatepec de Morelos is also known as San Francisco, or San Pancho for short. It is little more than a 16th century Franciscan stone chapel with a handful of buildings around it. Rolling hillsides dotted with pines and oaks lead off toward the horizon. Mexico's federally protected Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary is near here.
Kennedy's house is set inside a bank of dense forest, up the road from the chapel. The house has been sustainable since long before sustainability was trendy. Kennedy uses metal solar stoves in her backyard, which capture sunlight's intense heat. One stove was cooking beans the morning we stopped in.
The guest toilet, in a hut under a canopy of trees, drains through natural filters beneath the house, irrigating Kennedy's totally organic garden out front where she bases the majority of her daily diet. She grows herbs, greens, legumes, citrus, chilies, grains, and of course, maize.
"Quinta Diana," she calls the property. She's lovingly built it up entirely on her own since the mid-1970s, when she decided to more or less settle in Mexico after the death of her husband Paul Kennedy, a New York Times correspondent who had been posted in Mexico when he and Diana met.
Kennedy later described their time together back in New York while Paul treated his cancer as "miserable." She used money from a job at Columbia University to fund short trips to Mexico, where she began picking up recipes, and then started offering classes in Mexican cooking in her place in New York.
"I remember, on the same floor, some neighbors would put an Airwick outside their door because they couldn't bear the smell of all these gorgeous things going on in my apartment," she said, chuckling.
"Imagine the gall in Mexican-crazed Manhattan today," I said. Kennedy began berating the idea of Manhattanized Mexican food, naming names, and so on.
Kennedy's latest cookbook is simply titled, México, which contains 250 recipes from across the regions of the country, and some of Kennedy's most evocative and lovely writing.
The loss of "My" or "Mi" is due to the presumed sensitivity of Mexican consumers regarding outsiders defining their country in any terms that imply some kind of ownership. In fact, when I asked a bunch of young people in Mexico City who cook or write about food whether they knew Diana Kennedy or liked her work, most of those who said yes were transplants from the United States, while Mexican-born food folks often pulled blanks.
"I do think that Mexicans will have reservations about a gringo writing about Mexican food," said Jimena Lascurain, a Mexico City food blogger that I follow. "Now that you mention it, though, I do remember seeing her books."
Lascurain's parents were friends with a woman from the United States who had Kennedy's cookbooks in her kitchen, she explained. There needed to be a gringo involved for her to make a connection, I thought.
"Do they still publish them? I have no idea," Jimena said. "She must know so much."
Reactions like this get to the root of the conundrum that is Diana Kennedy today.
Having published nine books, Kennedy has arguably contributed more to the survival of original Mexican cooking than anyone else since Josefina Vasquez de León (whom Kennedy acknowledges as her most direct influence), leading to the declarations that she is the "Julia Child" of Mexican food (a comparison that makes Kennedy groan).
If she is so wise, and if her message is so urgent to the future of Mexican food everywhere, why isn't Diana Kennedy significantly more known and admired in the country she has adopted as her home?
The translation of My Mexico was undertaken by editor Guillermo Osorno, who is known for seeking out and publishing books about Mexico that were originally written in English (Osorno also edited the translation of my book, Down and Delirious in Mexico City). But the contact was initially spurred by Gabriela Cámara, a friend to both Kennedy and Osorno, and the successful proprietor behind the excellent restaurant, Contramar, in Mexico City's Colonia Roma.
"I saw her give a talk at UNAM," Osorno told me over a quick after-work beer one evening, referring to Mexico's national public university.
"I realized that moment that Diana had done a very deep investigation of the biodiversity of Mexico, equal to that of a biologist," Osorno said. "The book is a window into our memory of taste, and a testament to the importance of Diana Kennedy for Mexico."
Talks continually swirl around Kennedy regarding television programs and documentaries in Mexico—although she's had plenty of disappointing experiences with book publishers, filmmakers, and journalists in the past. I had heard many horror stories about well-documented meetings with people who rubbed Kennedy … poorly. A sour encounter with Rick Bayless became exaggerated legend even, and her spat with a Washington Post correspondent was aided by Kennedy's smooth and keen use of modern technology; she published a letter critiquing a story written about her, questioning the professional standards of its writer.
Diana Kennedy has never relented to the social niceties of foodie-isms. She says exactly what needs to be said. Because of this, I sort of fell under her spell. Nothing like someone who really, truly tells it how it is. Priceless, I thought.
Or is there a price? If so, I now realize, Kennedy might be suffering it.
In 2004, Diana gave an interview with writer David Lida in the now-defunct DF magazine, edited by Guillermo Osorno at the time. In the article, Kennedy and Lida have breakfast, lunch, and dinner together in Mexico City, all on the record. The result was a destructively blunt take on nearly every hot name in the neo-Mexican cuisine scene of the moment—Águila y Sol, Pujol, Izote, and a favorite "D.F." standby called Bistro Mosaico.
"She started bad-mouthing everyone," Osorno said, laughing.
The story revealed a deep chasm. The Mexico City food scene is partly successful because it is so polite. No one says a salty word about anyone. On the other hand, the most respected figure in Mexican food alive is an outspoken senior from England who literally doesn't give a shit who gets offended. A natural tension arises.
There were useful lessons in the story, though, and useful tips. Waiters, she emphasized, must be told when a dish is poor. "One way or another the message gets back to the chef," she said.
Pujol, the Enrique Olvera success story that is still considered the top restaurant in the city, garnered only a nodding reference. Contramar, though, was among a few restaurants that Kennedy deemed worthy. "A very high standard, very well-prepared seafood," Kennedy told Lida. "I like the tostadas with fresh tuna."
Kennedy went enough times that she eventually asked to meet Cámara. Even in her 70s, Kennedy was apparently still in search of trustworthy allies. At 39, Cárama is a vivacious, magnetic presence; her restaurant has enjoyed the kind of organic, word-of-mouth reputation that most restaurateurs salivate for. When I met Cámara, I could sense how the two, Diana and Gabriela, could see kindred spirits in one another.
"I was panicking," Cámara told me at her office one recent morning, recalling the day she and Kennedy were introduced. "She brought me one of her books, and she dedicated it to me. She kept coming, and then she came with reporters, and then I think she decided she wanted to be my friend."
Cámara said Kennedy "adopted" her from about 2001. She's traveled frequently to Kennedy's house outside Zitácuaro. She says Kennedy is playful with her, and asks her what music young people are listening to, and what sort of drugs they are using. Kennedy's unforgiving reputation, Cámara said, is well earned but incomplete.
"She has seen Mexican culinary traditions go down the drain with modernity, and the American model that fucked everything. She is very careful. Well, she can be such a bitch," Cámara said. "Thank god I have always been in her range of respect. I think we get along because we respect each other, and I have always been able to tell her what I think, and I think she likes straightforward people. … I know Diana's sweetest side."
Kennedy's legendary bluntness has had its effects in Mexico, Cámara admitted.
"People see her as a treasure, but don't want to deal with her," she said. "She is straightforward in a way that is weird in Mexico."
But Cámara's eyes filled with admiration for Kennedy as she spoke, which reminded me that her biggest if not numerous fans in Mexico remain committed to her cause.
"Diana has more resources than you might think," Cámara told me. "She is concerned about future generations. I love Diana, and when I say she bitches about things, I say it lovingly. She is really sensitive to people saying that she is difficult."
Cámara, along with Austin-based chef, entreprenuer, and fellow Kennedy protégé, Shaw Lash, are involved in plans to convert Quinta Diana into a research and learning center. Kennedy would help fund the project by offering "boot camp" cooking courses. Her immense collection of notes and books would be archived in a library. Local women and schoolchildren from around Zitácuaro would be there for seminars and hands-on learning.
The time for this project is now, Lash told me in a phone call from Austin. They are in search of funders, the three women said.
"She's tough, but she's tough because you gotta be tough," Lash said. "I know people on the other side are tough, the people changing everything with transgenics are ruthless, too. She feels the weight of that sadness and tragedy, having all this knowledge, and needing to have as many people hear about it as possible. She feels that weight."
"Sadness" and "tragedy" are words rarely associated with Mexican food these days, but are they actually more apt characterizations than, say, "fiesta" or "fonda"?
Timothy Wise, a researcher at the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University, told me that Mexico essentially sold out its corn supply when it signed the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and the United States in 1994.
Mexico, under then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, did not seek out protections for its maize growers when it joined NAFTA, unlike what South Korea did with rice when it signed its trade agreement with the United States. Imported, US-subsidized corn began pouring into Mexico.
"Rice was not liberalized [in South Korea] because it was key to small-holder agriculture and to rural development, and to the culture and diet of South Korea—all the same arguments that Mexico could have made at the time of NAFTA but didn't," Wise said. "The United States did not expect Mexico to liberalize maize, apparently, because of the sensitivities. So this is not one case where you could easily say the big, bad neighbor to the north forced this horrible liberalization to a key crop on Mexico. I think Mexico gave it away."
Kennedy didn't whip up a big lunch for us when we visited. She offered us a simple setting of the tamales and peaches, and the mezcal, which she poured generously.
"I'm so tired," she said, with some frustration. "I've had so many things on my time, my computer, what comes in on emails, I have to answer. And then some place wants me to cook, then I've got something to do in the US, and so, I am slowing down. I hate to say it. I used to get up at 6:30 AM and do a hell of a lot before breakfast."
Kennedy chatted with her gardener, Carlos, about how certain trees were doing, the sour oranges, the figs, and about the shade created by the Fresno trees and the Carrizo cane.
"I love this nature," Kennedy said, looking up. She couldn't help herself, it seemed, from repeating aloud an idea that powers everything she does, and she said so in Spanish: "I want to make my life totally self-sufficient. Everything pure, everything rustic."
When it was time for her portrait session, the 91-year-old dama fussed with her hair, and applied a mauve-toned lipstick. There was something distinctly youthful about her, like the way she addressed Alejandro, the photographer, when she showed him the photos she took and published in her book Oaxaca al Gusto.
"I don't know if you'd approve," she said coyly.
"We need a Michael Moore of food," Kennedy declared last year during a talk at MAD in Copenhagen, an idea she repeated when we visited her. "We need somebody to go into those boardrooms, thump the table, and make them all take a taste test. What are they doing handling our food and not tasting what they're producing?"
"But I say there is room for leaders," she continued when we met. "I spent years honing my palate, and I'm not going to put up with these things. It's like when everyone was doing chile poblano soup, and they started with a bechamel."
She mimics a face-palm. And groans.
"And it can still happen," Diana Kennedy said, "because nobody's saying 'No.' They just sit down to eat. You've got to educate people. I say, you've got to have classes for eaters. People who never want to cook, but when they go out to restaurants, how can they choose what's right? So you have classes for them, and you prepare a thing in a bad way, mediocre, and good. And you point out the difference, and build a palate."
Where can I sign up?
I'm serious. Kennedy's palate, I feel, is precious. It's a bridge to another era. She's more than earned the right to be straight-up about what crosses her tongue, and how we should all regard and understand it. By the time we said goodbye at the gate of Quinta Diana, I waved to her thinking only one thing: Diana Kennedy says 'No,' and all these other food bitches better recognize.