Diana Kennedy, a British-born cookbook author and expatriate who became one of the world’s leading experts on authentic Mexican cuisine, influencing generations of chefs and deploring Americans’ fast-food experience of wan tacos and overseasoned enchiladas, died July 24 at her home in Zitácuaro, Mexico. She was 99.
Mrs. Kennedy first settled in Mexico in the late 1950s after marrying a foreign correspondent based there for the New York Times. She painstakingly hunted down traditional recipes from Mexican home cooks and documented indigenous edible plants in the manner of a questing scholar.
Over the decades, she became known as the “Julia Child of Mexican Cuisine” or the country’s “high priestess of cooking” — sobriquets she typically dismissed with a wave of a hand, as so many June bugs in her outdoor Mexican kitchen.
She described herself as a “licensed scourge” of gastronomy, promoting cuisine from the humble to the refined, from meatballs in chipotle sauce to cream of squash flower soup. She also unapologetically pursued more adventurous recipes for iguana tamales and beef brains with jalapeños.
Intrepid, salty and forthright, Mrs. Kennedy had no patience for inefficiency, inaccuracy or waste, and she often punctuated her pronouncements with a choice curse word. An oversimplified explanation of how corn tortillas are made could cause her to confront a cookbook author face to face or write scolding letters to The Washington Post, the Times and Saveur magazine.
Yet her towering reputation led future superstar chefs, including José Andrés and Rick Bayless, to make pilgrimages to Mrs. Kennedy to soak up her knowledge.
“I cannot tell you how valuable my dear friend Diana Kennedy has been to me and my cooking,” Andrés said. “She is the ultimate storyteller of Mexican cuisine and has been so influential in teaching the rest of the world about Mexico’s cooking. Every time I have cooked with her, I learned how to listen to the whispers of Mexican ingredients.”
Andrés treated Washingtonians to visits with Mrs. Kennedy every few years beginning in 2008, during which time she would consult at one of his restaurants. Mrs. Kennedy said she could tell how well a professional kitchen was run by seeing what was in its garbage pail.
Mrs. Kennedy spent the last four decades of her life working from her adobe home and ranch in the Mexican state of Michoacán. “I wanted a house of locally made materials that would address itself to the resources of the area and be in tune with the restrictions with which my neighbors had to live, and had survived, for many years,” she wrote in her cookbook “My Mexico” (1998).
In 2014, she began to convert her homestead into the Diana Kennedy Center, a nonprofit educational center that houses her extensive collection of antique Mexican cookbooks and will continue her cooking classes.
From her first work, “The Cuisines of Mexico” (1972), to later volumes such as “Nothing Fancy: Recipes and Recollections of Soul-Satisfying Food” (1984), Mrs. Kennedy stood for meticulous study and patience. A single recipe might fill multiple pages.
“Never before in history have more people had more kitchens, more equipment, more ingredients to cook with and more time to cook than the average American today,” she wrote in “Nothing Fancy,” “so why not relax and try a few recipes that span over four days?”
Early fascination with food
Diana Southwood was born in Loughton, a town northeast of London, on March 3, 1923. Her mother taught kindergarten, and her father was a salesman. Diana and her sister loved visiting a nearby grocer and perusing cases filled with foods from faraway places.
Her godmother paid for young Diana to attend a girls’ school in Hampstead, where she began learning culinary arts. She went to Wales during World War II to work in the forestry corps and came to savor the fresh, local produce and cheeses cooked over wood fires on the job.
She worked postwar as a housing manager in mining villages in Scotland and asked cooks to share with her their recipes and techniques. That was a practice she continued as she traveled and worked odd jobs whenever she could: in Spain, France and Austria and, eventually, when she emigrated to Canada.
From there, she began her tropical culinary love affair, with trips to Puerto Rico and Jamaica. She was in Haiti when anti-government protests broke out in 1956. Paul P. Kennedy, a Times correspondent, was there to cover it and was staying at the same hotel in Port-au-Prince.
The attraction was swift and fierce. She soon joined Kennedy in Mexico City, where he was stationed, “with $500 and a half-promise of matrimony.”
The couple wed in 1957 and spent nine years in Mexico. She cooked, learning techniques from her housemaids, and studied Spanish. Paul Kennedy would collect recipes for his wife when she couldn’t accompany him on travels through Central America and the Caribbean.
In “Nothing Fancy,” she recalls a story that speaks to how honed their palates had become by 1966, when the couple were on their way to New York because of Paul Kennedy’s advanced cancer:
“We were in a motel dining room somewhere in Texas. Paul laid his knife and fork down soon after he had started his meal. ‘I don’t know whether to thank you or not,’ he bellowed. ‘Most of my life I could eat anything anywhere, but now look what you have done to me. This damned rubbish …’ With that, he pushed his plate back in disgust.”
Mexico was also where Mrs. Kennedy met Times food editor and restaurant critic Craig Claiborne. The Kennedys’ home “was an international gathering place,” he wrote in the revised 1986 foreword of “The Cuisines of Mexico,” in which he remembers her very good cooking, her enthusiasm for the country’s native ingredients and her offer to buy Claiborne a Mexican cookbook at their first meeting.
Paul Kennedy died in New York in 1967; two years later, at Claiborne’s urging, Mrs. Kennedy began teaching Mexican cooking classes, which were rare at the time. She used her earnings to fund several trips back to Mexico over the next nine years or so, gathering research and recipes.
Frances McCullough, an editor at Harper & Row, took one of those classes. She and Claiborne pushed the idea of Mrs. Kennedy’s doing a Mexican cookbook. McCullough coaxed the richness of detail and Mrs. Kennedy’s passion into the manuscript for “The Cuisines of Mexico,” asking why the author preferred feet, tongue, noses and ears over chicken breasts and beef filet.
Mrs. Kennedy returned to live in Mexico in the late 1970s. In 1980 she bought the Michoacán property, which she eventually christened Quinta Diana. She entertained Charles, Prince of Wales, there in 2002, serving him tequila aperitifs, fresh tortillas, cream of squash blossom soup, pork loin baked in banana leaves and mango sorbet. She kept a home in Austin, as well.
Over the years, she consistently refused to write her autobiography or work with a biographer, but she did allow a documentary crew to film her in 2014. In 2019, the documentary “Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy” featured interviews with chefs Alice Waters, Bayless, Andrés and more.
A list of survivors was not immediately available.
Mrs. Kennedy received a lifetime achievement award in 2003 from the International Association of Culinary Professionals and a cookbook of the year award from the James Beard Foundation for her 2010 volume “Oaxaca al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy.” In 2014 she was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Cookbook Hall of Fame, which noted the groundbreaking legacy of “The Cuisines of Mexico.”
Her other honors included the Order of the British Empire in 2002 and the Order of the Aztec Eagle in 1981 from the government of Mexico, its highest honor for a nonnative Mexican.
The Mexican state of Oaxaca had fascinated Mrs. Kennedy since she took her first trip there in 1965. “Oaxaca al Gusto,” her last book, took 14 years to research, requiring many backpacking trips to forage for herbs and to research varieties of chiles that grow wild nowhere else.
“Perhaps I am surprised and very happy that the Mexicans themselves use my books,” Mrs. Kennedy once wrote, “and are so generous in acknowledging, as they say … ‘what I have done for their regional cuisines.’ ”