Diana Kennedy, the demanding and meticulous cookbook author who sold Americans in the 1970s on re-creating Mexican cuisine in their own homes, died on Sunday at the age of 99 at her home in the central Mexico village of Zitácuaro. Her death was announced in a tweet by Mexico’s Secretaría de Cultura. Memorial services, which are in the hands of various friends in Mexico and the United States, have not yet been finalized.
In a career that spanned more than five decades, Kennedy built a reputation not as a creative chef but as exactly the opposite, a keeper of the flame. In her long life, she published nine cookbooks in English—including The Cuisines of Mexico and From My Mexican Kitchen—documenting dishes from all over the country. She was often called the Julia Child of Mexican cooking, which she found both flattering and annoying. But in many ways her task was harder than Child’s, who worked to demystify for a U.S. audience complex but popular French cuisine. Kennedy had to explain a cuisine that was both exacting and (in the 1970s) obscure.
“Before Diana’s books, not even people in Mexico thought their food was a big deal,” says Iliana de la Vega, a chef from Oaxaca who knew Kennedy and co-owns the restaurant El Naranjo in Austin. (De la Vega was recently named Best Chef: Texas by the James Beard Foundation.) “Mexican food was eaten at home,” she adds, “and in the markets, but not in fancy restaurants—or really in any restaurants at all.” At that time in Mexico, fine food was European, especially French. “Diana was one of the first people to take Mexican cooking seriously,” she said. “The work she did, traveling around the country, was amazing.”
Other cooking professionals who knew Kennedy expanded on that sentiment. “Her recipes are flawless,” says chef Diego Galicia, co-owner of Mixtli in San Antonio. “Today, everybody has ghostwriters and test kitchens—she put in the work. That is the magic of her books.”
Kennedy’s travels, which laid the groundwork for all her cookbooks, began a decade before she started writing. English by birth, she moved to Mexico in 1957 after meeting New York Times correspondent Paul Kennedy, who was at the time assigned to cover the country and the surrounding Caribbean. The two soon married. Always interested in different cuisines, Kennedy found herself increasingly fascinated by regional Mexican dishes, which she often learned about from the cooks who worked for her and her friends.
Within a few years, however, tragedy interrupted her new pursuit. Paul became ill with cancer and, after a three-year struggle, died in 1967. Newly widowed, Kennedy cast about for an occupation that would let her stay in her adopted country. New York Times food editor and friend Craig Claiborne convinced her that a Mexican cookbook could be her new purpose in life. She embarked on a series of trips around the country, seeking out interesting, little-known Indigenous dishes. She spent days bouncing around in her pickup, traveling to obscure villages to seek out dishes like bistecs rancheros (country steaks) in the state of Sonora and garnachas yucatecas (filled masa tartlets) in the Yucatán.
She wrote with a real love of her adopted country, delineating its customs and people. In the introduction to the tartlet recipe, she admired the “Maya women, looking so splendid in their white huipils colorfully embroidered around the neck and hem.” She was in the right place at the right time. In many of the rural areas and villages of Mexico at the time, traditional methods were still in use. Devices like blenders were not yet in every household; some cooks even depended on wood fires. Kennedy became a de facto culinary anthropologist, documenting practices that would slowly disappear as the modern world replaced slower, older ways of life.
Her first book—The Cuisines of Mexico—came out in 1972 and attracted a great deal of interest around the U.S. She embarked on book tours and other trips, and that same year, a chance encounter in Houston led to a lifelong connection with Texas. “There was a knock at the door early one Saturday afternoon,” restaurateur Tom Gilliland recalled. He is the owner of the highly successful restaurant Fonda San Miguel in Austin, but at the time, he and his business partner, Miguel Ravago, were the proprietors of a new restaurant named San Angel, in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood, that specialized in the interior cuisine of Mexico. As it happened, they were also reading a new Mexican cookbook written, oddly, by an English author. “The restaurant was closed, but I opened the door and found two women standing there.” One of them was Kennedy, who had heard about the restaurant. “They came back that evening, and afterward,” Gilliland said. “She said politely to Miguel and me, ‘Fellows, your food needs some work. If you’re interested, I would be willing to help you.’ ”
She helped them a lot, and when the two partners closed San Angel and moved to Austin to open Fonda San Miguel, Kennedy became, in effect, their culinary adviser. Ultimately the arrangement ran its course, but by that time, the restaurant had grown into a bastion of regional Mexican cooking, and Kennedy had become one of Gilliland’s and Ravago’s closest friends (Ravago died of cancer in 2017).
While Austin remained the city that she visited most frequently, San Antonio has become the repository of the most tangible part of her legacy, her archives. They now reside at the University of Texas at San Antonio as part of its extensive Mexican cookbook collection. In 2019, Kennedy traveled from Mexico to deliver personal papers and eleven rare Mexican cookbooks to their new home. Galicia, the Mixtli chef, knows UTSA’s historic cookbooks well (he’s an avowed bookworm) and says the match was perfect. “She said to me one time, ‘I have no children—my books are my kids,’ ” Galicia recalls. The holdings are available for study.
As of Monday, various groups of Kennedy’s admirers in both the United States and Mexico are discussing memorial services and other activities. Her close friend and former personal publicist Matt Weissler, of Castroville, is waiting to see if he will be called on to scatter her ashes on the shady grounds of her home in Zitácuaro. “She asked me to do it,” he says, sounding hopeful. Tom Gilliland is thinking about hosting a service at Fonda San Miguel. “Diana was very private,” he says, intimating that she wouldn’t approve. But he also knows how many people would like to pay their respects, and the temptation to throw a party in her honor is growing on him: “We may just go ahead anyway.”