La Reina Diana

The queen of real Mexican cuisine, Diana Kennedy reigns from an exotic villa in Michoacán, serving heavenly uchepos and spicy barbs aimed at pretenders to her throne.

It is teatime at Diana Kennedy’s house in San Pancho, a tiny town that clings to a hillside in the mountains of Michoacán, about a two-hour drive west of Mexico City. Diana Kennedy, the high priestess of Mexican cooking, is fiddling with her English teapot and apologizing for the butter knives, which, she points out, “are not the proper English knives.” Her small, curved knives look perfectly charming to me, and besides, I am preoccupied with one of her scones—a high, buttercup-yellow affair with a crisply browned bottom and a hidden trove of sultana raisins. There is sweet butter tasting faintly of meadow, courtesy of the Holstein cow that is ruminating alongside a Brown Swiss at the manger just down the hill on Kennedy’s five-acre ecological rancho, the Quinta Diana.

Through the windows banked along two sides of the kitchen, I watch the hunched, powerful form of El Cacique—”the Chieftain”—a mountain that broods over the volcanic San Pancho landscape. Vivid red pañolandas, the local poinsettias that soar to ten feet in the absence of hard freezes, toss their heads around Diana’s terrace. Layers of sound drift up from below: a bell, fussing chickens, a hammer against rock, the bark of a dog. Efigenia and Lucinda, two neighborhood girls who come in to help out (las muchachitas, Kennedy calls them), murmur over a vast kettle of raw honey, stirring it and clinking a brigade of glass bottles. It is all quite lulling, drowsily magical.

I’m sitting at Kennedy’s big round kitchen table, taking inventory of a wooden trough piled with space-alien fruits. I slit open the orange skin of an oval granadilla to reveal gray, fleshy pulp speckled with seeds that crackle when I bite them. Diana putters about as her 26-year-old pressure cooker aspirates wheezily on the six-burner stove-top island, and an errant ant strolls along the far counter. Bony haunches swabbed with deep-red adobo paste marinate in a bowl: an armadillo, shot last night by one of Kennedy’s handy-men. Strange, unidentifiable dried things lurk in emerald Michoacán pottery bowls. Baskets dangle from deadly-looking hooks, and drinking water hides coolly near the windowsill inside two serene clay cántaros, or unglazed pitchers. Apart from a shiny espresso maker and a professional scale (“so I can tell who’s cheating me,” chortles Diana), there is a distinct absence of designer kitchenware. The tools suit the room and the owner: homey, lived-in, rustic by choice.

Not until Kennedy presents me with a bone china teacup (“I hate those thick Mexican cups,” she mutters) and offers raw milk does the paradox of the situation hit me. Having traveled to sit at the feet of the famed Mexican-food guru, I am confronted with tea! bone china! scones! paper doilies squirreled away in a cabinet! Complex forces are astir. Here in deepest Mexico, a woman who has gone thoroughly native is performing one of the most powerful and soothing rituals of the British Empire, as she does every day.

And she is performing it in a multilevel adobe villa that tilts and rambles over the hillside in a decidedly non-British manner. Nothing is quite flush, from the perforated facade to the east and west balconies to the giant boulders—sitting right where Mother Nature deposited them—that form one wall of Diana’s kitchen and march right into her living room. Stairs run every which way: down to the big living room, up to a guest room, up farther to Diana’s study and bedroom, way down to the main bath. “This place grew like Topsy,” groans Kennedy, who has trouble sitting still and seems to relish all the running hither and yon that the arrangement entails. Her rooms are precisely ordered, save for her pack-ratty workplaces, the kitchen and the study. Everywhere are natural materials, fabrics and furnishings from the Mexican provinces. Kennedy, in fact, wouldn’t be caught dead with a speck of English chintz or fancy flowered walls; she loathes wallpaper and carpeting almost as much as she detests stale, squared-off rooms with windows that won’t open. “I like natural elements that show themselves off without having to put on the mascara,” she says, an aesthetic that informs her food as much as it does her decorating.

Her garden, too, sports the natural look. A higgledy-piggledy affair that would give an English horticulturist fits, it roves over five acres in a jumble of vegetable patches, herb plots, grassy milpas, knobby nopal cactus plantations, and ghostly orchards where each tree trunk is painted pale blue with a natural insecticide. Intertwining all that are flowering shrubs, trees, vines, in every conceivable color and shape. It’s a botanical ark crowded with two dozen varieties of fruit trees, 16 kinds of vegetables, 22 herbs, and who knows how many flowers. Inhabiting this kingdom are Guardian, a monstrous half-Great Dane who stands at least six foot three on his hind feet; La Condesa, the newly acquired German shepherd; Zita the cat; Effy and Lucy, who are there by day; and a variable number of young handymen who live in the small house outside Diana’s main gate.

What has lured me to Kennedy’s table and teapot is not only her status as a key figure in the food world but also her particular significance to Texas. Her first cookbook, The Cuisines of Mexico, was published in 1972 and quickly came to be regarded—even by native savants—as the authoritative text in the field. By her dedication, her rigor, her almost overwhelming enthusiasm, Kennedy forced a generation of cooks to take Mexican food seriously. In Texas, her missionary zeal has had an incalculable effect. She made us aware of what a rich culinary resource awaited us below our southern border, gave us a missing perspective on our own Tex-Mex genre, jolted us into realizing that there was life beyond the combination dinner. Her writings inspired more than a few Texas restaurateurs, and her unrelenting emphasis on authentic local ingredients set the stage for the New Southwestern phenomenon that is the latest wrinkle in Texas food.

Texas aside,

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