Diana Kennedy, fiery chronicler of Mexican food traditions

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 11, 2011; 12:27 PM

ZITACUARO - If the grand dame of Mexican cooking were a foodstuff, Diana Kennedy might be a pickled pepper. Absolutely indispensable at the table. But be careful. A little chili habanero goes a long way.

Three hours west of Mexico City, we pass happily up the cobblestone drive of her home tucked into a forested hill outside a sleepy little pueblo in the wilds of Michoacan. But when Kennedy spots an unexpected guest, a fellow reporter just along for the ride, she recoils in fury, points, and demands, "What is she?"

"I am very, very annoyed," Kennedy says, and turns on her heel.

There is a difference between hospitality and gastronomy, and Kennedy is much more about the latter and is famous for her tart tongue, quick temper and withering appraisals of competitors.

But so what? The "Julia Child of Mexican Cuisine" is not a celebrity television chef, or a restaurateur with customers to pamper, or, actually, our friend. It is not necessary to be nice. She is instead a dogged, obsessive pop anthropologist who has spent the past 50 years traveling to some of the most remote corners of "my Mexico," as she calls it, wrangling home cooks to reveal their secrets to this British expat with the imperial attitude.

Omnipresent Chicago chef, author and Obama pal Rick Bayless might have made us forget, but Kennedy was the game changer who in 1972 introduced "The Cuisines of Mexico" cookbook, and our understanding of Mexican food was never the same. Forgotten (but not gone!) was the beloved Number Three Combo at Tex-Mex joints inevitably called El Rancho - the sad enchilada, the weary beans, the useless rice, all hidden beneath a yellow glop of nuclear cheese - after Kennedy turned so many gringos on to the life-affirming pozole stew of Jalisco and the killer mole sauces made in Oaxaca.

In her lovely, airy, tiled kitchen, a member of her household staff, who is never introduced, is standing in front of a burner, roasting and grinding coffee beans. The serf keeps to his task, eyes down.

Kennedy grows the beans herself in her experimental garden. She serves a few cups. It has a rich, earthy aroma. "These aren't super beans," Kennedy says. "It's not the right climate." Actually, the coffee is muddy, but we all sip and yum, faking ambrosia.

All the while, Kennedy complains. She complains of flu. She complains about poblano peppers from China and apples from America. "Outrageous!" She isn't happy about the state of her chicken house. She regrets deeply the rise of the Mexican industrial tortilla. She calls her gardener lazy. Warns us twice about the toilets. Gets really mad when someone tries to serve the women first. She apologizes for being prickly but doesn't stop.

You can tune her out for a second and enjoy the kitchen porn. On a sunny shelf, glass jars of vinegars with pineapples, wines, rich green sprigs of something. A wooden bowl filled with fat limes. A pair of binoculars and "A Field Guide to Mexican Birds." Outside, hummingbirds. Above a curtain rod, straw baskets with herbs. Atop the tile counters, traditional warm red charred clay pots.

"I've had some of these since I moved to Mexico," Kennedy says, more than 50 years ago, when she arrived with her husband, Paul P. Kennedy, a correspondent for the New York Times, whose colleague Craig Claiborne persuaded her to publish her first cookbook.

She complains that reviewers have complained about the organization of her latest and likely last book ("I'm 87 years old; be serious, I'm not going to live forever"), called "Oaxaca al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy." Instead of the traditional progression - appetizers to salads to soups to entrees, etc. - Kennedy divided the project into the 11 regions of the state.

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