Stirring the Pot

In her Michoacan kitchen, Diana Kennedy—the Julia Child of mexican cooking—serves up squash-blossom tacos and strong opinions.

October 2003By Comments

IT’S NOON AT DIANA KENNEDY’S rambling adobe house outside San Pancho, a hillside village of a few hundred souls located three hours west of Mexico City. The celebrated cookbook author and acknowledged godmother of Mexican cooking is unpacking a basket of magnificent golden squash blossoms we have just bought at the market in Zitácuaro, a charm-challenged city a few miles away. After giving her housekeeper, Consuelo, detailed instructions in Spanish about chopping up the flowers, Kennedy sets out onions, a poblano chile, and a bulbous white Oaxaca cheese next to a stack of blue-corn tortillas prepared fresh this morning. “We’ll just make you a taco so you won’t starve before lunch, dear,” she tells me, her London accent still crisp after 46 years in Mexico.

Ensconced at Kennedy’s big, round kitchen table, mesmerized by the dance of light and shadow on the patio as clouds play cat and mouse with the sun, I’ve forgotten I was hungry. Inside are more distractions: a wall of burnished copper pots, a blue-and-white-tiled counter bearing bowls of mangoes and stubby bananas, a wooden cupboard lined with bottles of homemade pineapple and banana vinegars, their contents as dark and pungent as balsamic. Suddenly my reverie is broken. “Oh, damn! The coffee’s ground too coarsely,” Kennedy explodes. More than four decades in Mexico have not diminished her legendary impatience and perfectionism either.

The thing that has brought me to Diana Kennedy’s kitchen this late-summer day is the release of her newest cookbook, From My Mexican Kitchen: Techniques and Ingredients, by publisher Clarkson Potter. It is the seventh in a series whose importance is almost impossible to overstate. What Julia Child did for French cooking, Diana Kennedy did for Mexican, except that in America she had to counter the near-universal belief that Mexico’s cuisine began and ended with the No. 1 dinner. By combining fascinating indigenous recipes with tales of her adventures in collecting them, she opened people’s eyes to a rich and underappreciated cuisine. And her influence extended to professional kitchens as well. In the mid-eighties a cadre of young chefs in Texas and New Mexico credited her as a seminal influence on the new cooking style they had created: Southwestern cuisine.

But if the reason for my visit is professional, my curiosity about this icon of the food world is also personal. I first met Diana Kennedy 23 years ago at a cooking seminar at Fonda San Miguel restaurant, in Austin, where she lived up to her reputation for being an exacting taskmaster: “You do it this way, not that!” When two women in the back row started whispering, she shushed them like schoolgirls. At the end of the classes, Kennedy wrote in my salsa-stained copy of her first book, the 1972 opus The Cuisines of Mexico: “For Pat—¡Buen provecho! Diana Kennedy.” Over the years, I bought more books and followed her career, particularly tales of the quirky “ecological house” that she seemed to be forever building in Mexico. How could I pass up an opportunity to see the culinary lioness in her den?

My day with Kennedy began when she wheeled her white four-door Nissan pickup into the driveway of my hotel. How she managed to drive the truck, which appeared to have no power steering whatever, was a miracle, but she was unfazed. “Good exercise!” she declared, her speech bristling with italics and exclamation points. I jumped in and we headed to Zitácuaro’s market, a large concrete building with vendors inside and out. Having fractured a kneecap in a recent fall, Kennedy carried a cane, but she was fearless as we pushed through the throngs of shoppers. Her age is—who knows? “Just tell your editor that at sixty-five I went into a holding pattern,” she instructed me. “People label you if they know how old you are, and I can’t abide that.” The rainy season had turned the morning air cool and damp, and she was wearing a light-brown cardigan, tan slacks, sensible shoes, and a wide-brimmed sombrero atop an unruly crop of short brown hair flecked with gray. For a woman who is 65 and holding, she has a decidedly trim figure. We rambled around, peering at the usual market exotica—piles of gnarly yellow chicken feet, indigo-blue mushrooms, a whole cooked cow’s head. Each time a vendor tried to drop our purchase into a plastic bag, the diminutive Kennedy extended an arm like a cop stopping traffic: “¡Sin bolsa, por favor!” (“No bag, please!”)

Back at Quinta Diana, we get down to the business of lunch. After our sautéed-squash-blossom-and-poblano tacos, we have delicate field greens tossed with a dressing made from her eleven-year-old pineapple vinegar. Our main course is chicken in mole poblano prepared by a recently departed cooking class. When I compliment the students’ work, she says, “Yes, they had a good recipe!” For dessert she brings out a selection of two flavors of ate (“ah-tay”), a Mexican dessert of puréed fruit cooked with sugar until solid—sort of a sliceable jam. Made from guava and quince, they remind me of my grandmother’s homemade preserves. “Coffee?” Kennedy asks while I nibble. “I’ll treat you to a D.K. cappuccino.” In a minute, coffee (homegrown, home-fermented, home-roasted, and home-ground) is brewing on the stove and milk is foaming furiously in a blender. She hands me a cup with the admonition “Don’t let it get cold!” Later, apropos of nothing and everything, she exclaims, “I love to cook!” Yes, and I think she loves to feed people too.

These days Kennedy travels frequently, gathering recipes, teaching classes, and visiting friends, but her house in San Pancho is her spiritual base. Set atop a low hill in the eastern part of the state of Michoacán, the breezy structure is most notable for the huge boulder—almost the size of a Volkswagen beetle—that has pride of place on the open main level. From around it sprout assorted stairways that lead up and down, right and left to the house’s half dozen or so rooms and attached greenhouse. (Anyone else who was 65 and holding, with or without a bum knee, would curse the multilevel arrangement, but Kennedy relishes it. “The exercise is good for me!” she declares, trotting upstairs to check e-mail on her laptop computer.)

Because of her passionate views on the environment—”Man’s heavy foot on this earth is destroying it!” she fumes at one point—Kennedy was at pains to make her house as energy-efficient as possible. Thus, she said no to air conditioning and heating even though temperatures here reach the nineties in the hot months and occasionally dip into the thirties in the winter. She also said no to outside sources of water. A spring above the village provides drinking water, while gutters around her roof collect rainwater in a massive cistern for bathing and other household uses. Not a drop is wasted: Water from the house is filtered and recycled to flush the toilets.

Not every conservation plan has worked quite as well as the one for water, however. In particular, a scheme to cook using “bio-gas” extracted from manure was a spectacular flop. “The cows didn’t shit enough,” she says tersely. And the house’s natural setting has created some problems of its own. When I ask if the canopy and curtains around her bed are mosquito netting, Kennedy says, “Not exactly. We have snakes on the roof that eat the rats, and I don’t want one falling on me in the middle of the night.” But aside from manure-deficient cows and the risk of falling snakes, she’s rather enjoyed the challenges of her casa ecológica. “I guess I’ve always been a bit of a hippie,” she says.

If the kitchen is the nerve center of Quinta Diana, the open, high-ceilinged living room—with its view of red roof tiles and green branches—is a quiet retreat. On a table between two tall bookcases sits a group of framed photographs, including several of Diana with her late husband, journalist Paul P. Kennedy. “Paul was the first person I saw in the lobby of the hotel I was checking into in Port-au-Prince, in 1957,” she says. “I was there on vacation; he was covering a story for the New York Times. I intended to stay two days; I ended up staying a week.” Instead of returning permanently to her native England, as she had intended, she moved to Mexico City, where Paul was the Times bureau chief. A year later they were married. In the pictures, Paul and Diana look like two people on the verge of a great adventure. “He was sexy, like Spencer Tracy,” she says, “same build, same looks.” She fell in love with him and soon found herself in love with Mexico too. In short order, she was exploring the country in search of local crafts, learning the language, and eating native food in humble restaurants and taquerías. “Immediately the Mexican cooking bug bit me,” she says. She and Paul entertained frequently, and among those who were impressed with her skills was New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne. Presciently, he urged her to write a cookbook. After Paul died in New York City of cancer, in 1967, she stayed there for a time teaching cooking classes out of her apartment. A publishing contract followed, and in 1972 The Cuisines of Mexico opened the eyes of English speakers to the mysterious and exotic cuisine of her adopted country.

The next morning, I have to leave to return to Austin. Kennedy is accompanying me as far as Mexico City, where she is visiting friends. She calls to say she will be early. Why am I not surprised? Precisely at 10:15 she and her regular taxi driver, Señor Monteagudo, appear. Kennedy is smartly attired in custom-made Italian suede slacks, a soft leather jacket, and as always, not a dab of makeup. Stowed in the trunk is a basket of avocados, passion fruit, and fresh eggs from her house.

On the way, she’s her normal chatty, opinionated self. I ask how work is going on her next project, a Oaxaca cookbook (“Quite well. I’ve been to the most incredible places”). It will be published first in Spanish; since having been translated in the mid-nineties, her books have become quite popular in Mexico. I also get her take on several leading chefs and authors working with Mexican food. Predictably, she has no patience with Young Turks who invent without bothering to master the basic techniques and tastes of Mexico’s complex regional cooking styles. “Within the cuisine, there are such fabulous variations that you don’t need to innovate,” she grumbles, a traditionalist to the core. When the talk turns to her house, she surprises me by admitting that she sometimes longs for a smaller, more manageable place. And she wouldn’t mind just a bit more “luxury” (and, perhaps, no snakes on the roof?). She also thinks about ultimately making her house and land a biopreserve, which would be a fitting future for them.

As we near her destination, in an area unfamiliar to our driver, she shifts into high gear, directing every turn: “A la izquierda aquí, ¡sí, aquí!” (“Left here, yes, here!”). For some reason, I flash back to the cooking classes I took from her so long ago. At her destination, we unload her belongings and wait until her knock on the door is answered. The taxi backs out and the last I see of her is a petite figure briskly gathering up her basket of eggs and produce. The cab merges into traffic, and Señor Monteagudo remarks, to no one in particular, “Ah, la señora Diana, la única” (“Señora Diana, the one and only”).

That pretty much says it all.

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