Her books taught Americans about the regional nature of the cuisine. Also: “There is always someone who wants to know how to clean an iguana, so why not?”
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Diana Kennedy, an Englishwoman whose 1972 cookbook “The Cuisines of Mexico” revealed the glories of regional Mexican fare to American readers, died on Sunday at her home in Michoacán, Mexico. She was 99.
Her friend Clayton Kirking and her editor Ana Luisa Anza confirmed the death but did not specify the cause.
At a time when most Americans’ concept of Mexican food was limited to tacos and enchiladas, Ms. Kennedy unfurled an ornate culinary tapestry, exploring the distinctly regional nature of Mexican cooking, defined, like the cuisines of Italy and China, by local geography, climate and ingredients.
“The regional dishes of Sonora, or Jalisco, have practically nothing in common with those of Yucatán and Campeche; neither have those of Nuevo León with those of Chiapas and Michoacán,” she wrote in the book’s first chapter. In Oaxaca, she explained, “certain chilies are grown and used that are found nowhere else in Mexico.”
The Mexican food known to most Americans, she wrote, was a travesty: “a crisp taco filled with ground meat heavily flavored with an all-purpose chili powder; a soggy tamal covered with a sauce that turns up on everything — too sweet and too overpoweringly onioned — a few fried beans and something else that looks and tastes like all the rest.” This state of affairs she hoped to correct.
The book sold 100,000 copies and was immediately acclaimed as the most authoritative work in English on the subject. Its intensive field research into ingredients and techniques went beyond “The Complete Book of Mexican Cooking,” which Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz, another Englishwoman, had published in 1967. In nearly 200 recipes, Ms. Kennedy took readers on a tour through one of the world’s most diverse cuisines, looking into the mysteries of masa, mole, nopal cactus and the pungent herb epazote.
“She was the first to take Mexican cooking seriously and show the real cooking of the country rather than interpreted American versions,” the chef Rick Bayless, the owner of Frontera Grill and Topolobampo in Chicago, told The New York Times in 1996. “Without that model, I never would have been as attracted to studying Mexican cuisine as I was in my early years.”
In “The Tortilla Book” (1975) and “My Mexico” (1998), Ms. Kennedy continued the journey begun in “The Cuisines of Mexico,” elaborating on her findings as she roamed the country in her pickup truck, quizzing local cooks, taking notes and developing as a side project an atlas of indigenous herbs and plants.
Along the way, she clued readers in on the secrets of making wasp’s nest salsa, roasting a whole ox or cleaning black iguana for a special Oaxacán tamale.
“There is always someone who wants to know how to clean an iguana, so why not?” she told an interviewer for the journal Writing on the Edge in 2011. All three books were gathered in one volume in 2000 under the title “The Essential Cuisines of Mexico.”
Diana Southwood was born on March 3, 1923, in Loughton, in the English county of Essex. Her father was a salesman, her mother a schoolteacher. The outbreak of World War II interfered with plans to attend college. Instead, she served in Wiltshire and Wales with the Women’s Timber Corps, set to the task of measuring tree trunks to assess the amount of timber.
After the war she was a housing manager in Scotland, working with mining families and taking budget trips to France, Spain and Austria, where sampling the local cuisine was at the top of her agenda.
In 1953 she emigrated to Canada, where she held a variety of jobs, including running a film library and selling Wedgwood china. She began visiting the Caribbean, and on a trip to Haiti in 1956 she met and fell in love with Paul P. Kennedy, a correspondent for The New York Times in Central America and Mexico. He had gone to Haiti to cover the latest revolution there.
They married in Mexico City, Mr. Kennedy’s base of operations, and Ms. Kennedy, fascinated by the new dishes she was encountering, began exploring the city’s markets, which, she told Saveur in 2012, “really blew my mind.”
She added: “It was just the color of everything, and the smells, and all the wild things that I hadn’t seen. I simply had to go home and cook them.”
Ms. Kennedy pressed friends for recipes, with limited success. “They’d laugh and send me to talk to their maids,” she told The Guardian in 2003. “The maids would say, ‘You have to visit my village,’ and that’s how I started driving all over the country tracking down recipes.”
She was aided by the cookbooks of Josefina Velázquez de Léon, one of the first Mexican writers to head into the countryside to collect local recipes from church groups.
Ms. Kennedy moved to Manhattan in 1965 after her husband fell ill with cancer. He died in 1967 at 62.
With the encouragement of Craig Claiborne, The Times’s restaurant critic, who had dined with the Kennedys in Mexico City, she began offering cooking classes on Sunday afternoons in her apartment on the Upper West Side. One of her students, Fran McCullough, persuaded her to develop a cookbook for Harper & Row, where Ms. McCullough was the poetry editor. The two worked together on Ms. Kennedy’s first five books.
Ms. Kennedy spared no effort to track down information. She served an apprenticeship in a bakery before writing her tortilla book. She traveled dusty back roads by bus or in her truck, sleeping in the back, en route to remote villages in search of obscure recipes, questioning saleswomen at local markets or wangling invitations to home kitchens.
“I’m out to report what is disappearing,” she told The Times in 2019. “I drive over mountains, I sit with families, and I record.”
She took a dim view of chefs and writers who did not do the same, and her criticism could be withering. “They’ve not done the travel and the research that I’ve done,” she told Saveur. “None of them, not one. I have traveled this country, wandering — it’s why I’m not rich! — and taking time, and nobody else has done that. Nobody else has seen a certain chile at a certain stage in a market in Chilapa, and then gone back in six months and seen other chiles.”
Ms. Kennedy relocated permanently to Mexico in 1976, living first in Mexico City and later in an adobe house she built near Zitácuaro, about 100 miles west, where she gave intensive cooking classes.
Information on her survivors was not immediately available.
She continued to write such essential cookbooks as “Recipes From the Regional Cooks of Mexico” (1978), “The Art of Mexican Cooking” (1989), “From My Mexican Kitchen — Techniques and Ingredients” (2003) and “Oaxaca al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy” (2010).
In a food memoir, “Nothing Fancy: Recipes and Recollections of Soul-Satisfying Food” (1984), she interspersed such decidedly non-Mexican dishes as cold jellied tongue, Iranian broiled lamb and crumpets.
In 2020, she was the subject of a documentary, “Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy,” directed by Elizabeth Carroll, who followed Ms. Kennedy as she cooked and taught in her solar-powered home. The Times called it “a lively and uncritical portrait of a woman as passionate about composting as chilaquiles, one who will pitch a fit if you put garlic in your guacamole.”
In her later years, Ms. Kennedy worked with the National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity, known by its Spanish acronym Conabio, to record and digitize her collection of recipes, drawings and notes on both Mexican cuisine and the country’s native edible plants.
In 2010, she gave The Chicago Tribune a terse assessment of her work. “I am tenacious,” she said. “And I love to eat.”
Christine Chung contributed reporting.