Diana Kennedy

October 1991

Food Arts presents its October 1991 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Diana Kennedy, the "godmother of Mexican cooking."

Her cookbooks, collectively regarded as the Bible of Mexican cuisine, were originally intended to educate an American public ignorant of anything beyond tacos and refried beans. "She has done for Mexican cooking what Julia Child did for French cooking," says her editor Fran McCullough of Bantam Books. Indeed her encyclopedic works tell readers everything from how to cut and wilt banana leaves to how to prepare such basics as beans, rice and tortillas.

But in her zeal to preserve and promote traditional Mexican recipes and cooking methods, Kennedy also performed a service for the Mexican people, who in their rush to modernize were in danger of losing track of their rich culinary heritage. "I'm very proud of the fact that in Mexico they respect my work," says Kennedy, to whom the Mexican government awarded the highest decoration given to foreigners, The Order of the Aztec Eagle.

Born and raised in London, Kennedy neither anticipated settling in Mexico nor becoming a professional cook and cookbook author. "It was all a complete surprise," Kennedy recalls. "Everything in my life has been unplanned. I just drifted along and followed my heart and my wild instincts."

Traveling in Haiti, she met her husband-to-be, Paul Kennedy, a New York Times correspondent. he invited her to visit him in Mexico, where he was posted. She fell deeply in love—not only with Paul but with the exotic country and its cuisine.

Some ten years later, Paul was stricken with cancer and died in 1967. In New York, Kennedy, with the encouragement of Craig Claiborne, began teaching cooking classes in the tiny kitchen of her Upper West Side apartment. McCullough, then an editor at Harper & Row, soon visited and contracted Kennedy to do The Cuisines of Mexico, which was first published in 1972.

Thus began a new career which would lead Kennedy back to her beloved adopted country. Working like an anthropologist, she traveled the length and breadth of the vastly varied regions of Mexico, quizzing cooks and collecting their recipes. About a dozen years ago, she moved to the mountainous area about two and a half hours west of Mexico City, where she built an "ecological" house that runs on solar energy and uses recycled rainwater. Here, the leading authority on Mexican cuisine teaches classes and continues her research, never failing to stop each afternoon for a proper English tea.

Kennedy is often branded as difficult, opinionated and uncompromising. "I am irascible," she admits, "but not unreasonably irascible."

Nowhere is this tendency more glaring than in her often obsessive quest for the most authentic ingredients. Long before epazote was a trendy herb, she managed to find some growing wild in Central Park. So she brooks no excuses from less enterprising cooks. "If you don't have a banana tree at your back door or can't find one in your neighbor's garden, plant one...If you do not live where avocados are grown, prevail upon friends in California or Florida to send some sprays of the leaves," she tells readers. McCullough recalls visiting Kennedy when she decided to make beef muzzle salad and they set forth on a shopping expedition: "None of the markets had a beef nose, so she had to get it from a slaughterhouse."