Diana Kennedy, often called the "Julia Child of Mexico," is a woman of strong preferences.
She loves good butter and cream, Seville orange marmalade, black truffle shavings and escamoles (a caviar that comes from ant eggs). She hates the use of cassia (false cinnamon) in place of the real thing, canola oil, low- or non-fat dairy products, and nonstick pans.
And don't get her started on kosher salt, which despite being the "beloved salt of virtually all American chefs," as she writes in Nothing Fancy, tastes antiseptic and has a "pedestrian" flavor. Originally published in 1984, Kennedy's book was re-released earlier this year with an updated introduction and new recipes.
Nothing Fancy is the closest Kennedy has ever come to a memoir, having spent her life cataloging Mexican cooking and plant life. Kennedy, 93, was born in England and has lived in Mexico since the 1950s. During her career she has written nine cookbooks, received the Order of the Aztec Eagle from the Mexican government—the highest award given to foreigners for service to Mexico—as well as the Order of the British Empire, an award for strengthening cultural ties between Mexico and the United Kingdom.
While it wasn't Kennedy's idea to re-release the cookbook, she says: "I'm in the last decade of my life and I think people are curious." That curiosity is an understatement.
I first met her at a packed brunch in her honor at Mi Mero Mole, a Mexican restaurant in Portland, Oregon in late November. The chef and owner, Nick Zukin, is one of many who have studied with Kennedy at her home, Quinta Diana, in Michoacán, Mexico. Some guests had met her at past book signings, while others were thrilled to have the chance to talk with her—even just for a few minutes—while she dutifully moved around the room and signed books. Over the past year, she's traveled throughout America to events like this one.
Despite the fact that she's English, Kennedy is credited with bringing Mexican food—the real stuff, not Tex-Mex—to the United States. Her first book, Cuisines of Mexico, was the result of years of travel and study within the country. She credits information and recipes in her book to a wide array of people from Mexican home cooks to botanists and archaeologists.
Though it has been more than 50 years since Cuisines of Mexico's release, she is still shocked by how little Americans know about our neighboring cuisine. "How is it that you can go into an upper-crust supermarket and find things from maybe 20 countries and yet you can't find the best of Mexico?" she wonders. She says that despite the 1,989-mile border ("unfenced, okay?" she adds) that the U.S. shares with Mexico, so few foods and preparations make it across.
During our interview she gives a brief lecture on the definition of "salsa"—seemingly a simple enough Mexican food. "Let's not misuse the word!" she admonishes. "Everyone wants to put everything in the world in salsa. It drives me nuts." First of all, it's a condiment, not a topping, she explains. Second, it's made of chilis, onions, cilantro and tomato. That's it. "People put awful things in salsa," she says. None of this mango salsa nonsense for her.
Kennedy is a culinary purist. She hates fusion food and grimaces when she recalls a meal at a fancy Japanese and French restaurant she recently dined at in New York. "If I want French food, I want charcuterie and all those lovely dishes laden with butter and cream," she says. "I want to taste the real flavors and textures of that cuisine." This is the trait that has led to both her success and her occasionally divisive reputation.
During brunch at Mi Mero Mole, Zukin served a mole he learned to make from Diana Kennedy, but it was gluten-free, peanut-free and vegan to account for staff allergies and, one supposes, the dietary preferences of his customers. While Kennedy groans slightly during the announcement, she later says she has no problem with the changes.
This is a bit of a surprise. "He's got to please his public and never was there a more finicky public in the whole wide world than the Americans," she says. While Kennedy can drop into town with her cookbooks and preferences and rules for making Mexican food properly, she doesn't have to live here, she explains.
This type of understanding does not shine in many of the interviews she's given over the decades. In 2011, one Washington Post reporter described Kennedy as being full of complaints—about the quality of poblano peppers, industrial tortillas, her gardener and servers in a restaurant. "She apologizes for being prickly but doesn't stop," the reporter wrote.
Writer David Lida, who interviewed her for the now-defunct DF magazine, dined with her at Mexico City hotspots which she almost universally panned. She called appetizers at one "a horrible distortion of what it ought to be." It wasn't just the chefs Kennedy had strong words for—she blamed Mexico City's residents in general for desiring a going-out experience more than good food.
Kennedy is often referred to as a "culinary anthropologist," though she prefers the term, "ethno-gastronomer". When recalling the title, it takes her a moment to translate it into English. She regularly drops Spanish words into conversation and either has to pause to translate them or moves on as though she hasn't noticed she's said "postres" rather than "desserts."
Kennedy's bluntness is just a side effect of years of research into how to get this cuisine right. Her records of Mexican plants are so vast that CONABIO, Mexico's federal agency in charge of ecology and biodiversity, is digitizing them.
In many ways, she's more of an academic than an author, and she finds it challenging to write her books. She sees each one of them as a chapter in her life. "It's not just another cookbook," Kennedy says. "It's research and my years in Mexico, how it's changed. Each book represents another part of my research and my life there."