All Hail Diana, Defender of the Proper Tamale

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 29, 2008; Page F01

Of all the culinary superheroes flying into town in the next few weeks -- Ina Garten, Bobby Flay and Jacques Pepin among them -- the one whose cape has the most mileage on it must be Diana Kennedy.

That's not because she has a few years on the lot of them; just how many is a topic the hardy octogenarian does not wish anyone to dwell on. It's because for the past half-century, the expat Englishwoman has crisscrossed Mexico in search of its regional cuisine (or cuisines, as she emphasizes). She has parsed chili peppers, raged against the decline of proper tortillas and dictated techniques to thousands of students in her Mexican and American kitchens.

Eight of her cookbooks have been published in English; the newest is an updated version of 1989's "The Art of Mexican Cooking."

"It is a useful guide," Kennedy says, with heel-raising emphasis on the adjective. "As long as they are still paying attention to me, why not shove what's important right at them?"

Much has been written about her uncompromising approach and untempered assessments. "I'm a terror," she plainly admits. A five-minute audience with her can confirm that, but it also can solidify the impression that she has earned the right to hold forth. Men may defer to her as a learned elder; women often delight in seeing the full potential of a passionate and rigorous life.

To an Anglophile, Kennedy's manner is simply winning, especially when she describes the particulars of her regular afternoon tea.

There must be just-boiled water, whole milk ("none of that blue stuff") and a sweet biscuit. The fresh coffee, fruit and salads that round out her daily diet come from the greenhouse and seven acres that she and a small staff tend in the western state of Michoacan.

Today finds her halfway through her stay in Washington as a guest of José Andrés's ThinkFood Group. In addition to book signings, receptions and a planned appearance at the Mexican Cultural Institute, she will apply some of her remarkable energy and focus to the menu at Oyamel Cocina Mexicana in Penn Quarter, one of Andrés's restaurants.

"I welcome her input," says Oyamel head chef Joe Raffa, a busy and important guy who seemed happy to hold a large reflector panel in place while Kennedy endured a photo session.

When Andrés hired Raffa in late 2006 to head the Oyamel kitchen, Raffa had no experience with Mexican cooking. He left the interview and headed straight to Olsson's bookstore to buy every Diana Kennedy book he could get his hands on, including her first, "The Cuisines of Mexico" (Harper and Row, 1972).

He took his first trip to Mexico in April to take a Kennedy class on tamales. An Oyamel sous-chef soon followed. They both came back and "recooked everything," Raffa says. "We learned this new set of skills. Every time we go, we learn how to do things better."

Kennedy will spend the next two or three days with Raffa's staff, going over . . . what, exactly? Oyamel has earned awards and acclaim for its cuisine.

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