Diana Kennedy

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Diana Kennedy
Kennedy at the 2016 Texas Book Festival
Kennedy at the 2016 Texas Book Festival
BornDiana Southwood
(1923-03-03) 3 March 1923 (age 98)
Loughton, Essex, United Kingdom
OccupationAuthor, researcher and cook
GenreCookbooks, works on Mexican cooking
Notable awardsOrder of the Aztec Eagle, Order of the British Empire
Years active1967–present
SpousePaul P. Kennedy
(d. 1967)

Diana Kennedy (born 3 March 1923)[1] is a British food writer. A primary English-language authority on Mexican cooking, Kennedy is known for her nine books on the subject, including The Cuisines of Mexico, which started changing how Americans view Mexican cooking. Her work is the basis of much of the work of Mexican chefs in the United States. Her cookbooks are distinctive because they are based on her fifty years of traveling Mexico, interviewing and learning from cooks of all kinds in the country, and from just about every region.

Her documentation of native edible plants has been digitized by National Commission for Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity. Due to her style of work, Kennedy has been called a "culinary anthropologist" and has self-identified as an "ethno-gastronomer".[2] Kennedy has received numerous awards for her work, including the Order of the Aztec Eagle from the Mexican government, and was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire.


Kennedy was born Diana Southwood in Loughton, Essex, in the southeast of England.[1][3] Her father was a salesman, and her mother was a schoolteacher who loved nature and wanted to live quietly in the countryside.[4][5]

Kennedy did not attend college because of World War II, instead joining the Women's Timber Corps at age 19.[6] The Corps were a British civilian organization which took over forestry duties from men who had gone off to fight.[1] Kennedy did not like cutting down trees, so she was delegated to measuring tree trunks instead.[5]

In 1953, Kennedy migrated to Canada, living there for three years doing a number of jobs, including running a film library and selling Wedgewood china.[1][7]

On a last-minute decision, Kennedy decided to visit Haiti in 1957. There she met Paul P. Kennedy, a correspondent for The New York Times in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.[1][8] The two moved to Mexico in 1957, and there they married some time later.[7][9] Kennedy has had no children,[5] but she does have two step-daughters, Dr. Moira Kennedy-Simms and Brigid Kennedy, daughters of Paul P. Kennedy and his first wife, Martha Combs Kennedy.

In Mexico, Kennedy became enamored of the food, and has since dedicated her career to its preservation and promotion.[8][10] However, she still maintains her British accent and takes tea each day.[7] When she is not teaching, she is either writing or working in the kitchen on recipes.[5] She is noted for her brusque, no-nonsense demeanor, having pulled out tape recorders when police have tried to get bribes from her on her Mexican travels.[4][11]

She has visited every state in Mexico, and used diverse forms of transportation, from buses, to donkeys to her Nissan pickup truck with no power steering (and a shovel to dig it out of the mud).[1][11][12] She has traveled to many isolated areas of Mexico to visit markets and cooks to ask about cooking ingredients and methods.[1] In the 1970s, she decided to build her house in Michoacán in an area with orchards. The land has allowed her to grow many of her own ingredients.[12] While she is not technophobic, she is against electronic forms of cookbooks, believing in the need to make notes over printed recipes.[5]

First exposure to Mexican cuisine[edit]

During her first years in Mexico City with her husband in the late 1950s,[3] she learned quickly that the best food in Mexico was not in fancy restaurants but rather in markets, traditional family restaurants called "fondas" and in homes.[4] In addition, she was impressed with what she saw in local, traditional markets.[12] She also came to appreciate that recipes varied from region to region, traveling with her husband when he was on assignment, and he would collect recipes when she could not accompany him.[3][6][8] In Mexico City, she asked her friends about cooking these dishes, and was referred to their maids. These maids then encouraged her to visit their villages, which she has done since.[8] Kennedy also began researching documentation on Mexican cuisine, and credits the work of Josefina Velázquez de León as a pioneer, who had done similar work collecting recipes by visiting church groups.[6] Kennedy's focus became the food that was not documented, such as that found in villages, markets and homes, eventually to preserve native ingredients and traditional recipes being lost as Mexicans move from rural areas to urban centers.[10]

Kennedy began to share what she learned informally among expats and her husband's colleagues when they came to Mexico. This included taking women on tours of traditional markets, including the stands with animal heads, which shocked Americans.[7] When New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne was in town, she tried to give him a book of Mexican recipes, but he refused it, saying "I'll only read a Mexican cookbook once you have written one".'[8] At the time, Kennedy thought this was a crazy idea.[9]

Cooking classes and cookbook writing[edit]

At the end of 1965, Kennedy and her husband moved to New York City, where he died the following year from cancer.[3][6] In 1969, Kennedy began to teach classes in Mexican cooking in her apartment in the Upper West Side, with the encouragement of Craig Claiborne.[3][6] This was the beginning of a decades-long teaching career, which began as her own venture, then in collaboration with other institutions such as the Peter Kump Cooking School in New York, as well as offering Mexican cooking "boot camps" at her home in Mexico. Her classes focus on the most traditional cooking techniques and ingredients. For example, while most Mexican cooks now use pre-ground corn or corn flour, she insists on teaching students how to soak kernel with lime overnight, remove the skins and grind with lard to make corn dough (masa).[9] She has had the most success with this since the 1970s, when cooking schools grew in popularity.[12]

The work with the cooking classes led to her first cookbook.[6] From her time in Mexico City to her time in New York, she has been supported in her work with Mexican cooking by Claiborne.[1][11] She did not have experience writing, but after then-poetry editor at Harper and Row, Fran McCullough took one of her classes, she offered to help Kennedy put the book together, eventually collaborating on Kennedy's first five books.[3][4][6] To do the first one, Kennedy decided to return to Mexico to do further research.[6] This research, she believes, is what separates her from other cookbook writers in that she has taken the time and effort to explore Mexico and do field research on how the cuisine varies.[12] Her inexperience led to rewriting the book several times but the result was The Cuisines of Mexico, published in 1972. This book became a best-seller and is still one of the most authoritative single volumes on Mexican cooking.[6][8] It began to change Americans' understanding of Mexican food, expanding it beyond Tex-Mex into the various regional cuisines and dishes,[8][11] and is the basis of establishing authentic food in the U.S.[4] The 1986 revision of the book is still in print.[7]

Since then, she has published eight other volumes on Mexican cooking, a number of which have been translated into Spanish. Her initial influence is the work of Josefina Velázquez de León, but credits much of her writing style to the work of English cookbook author Elizabeth David.[3][6] Kennedy does not consider herself a writer, but rather as someone who documents was she has seen in about fifty years of traveling Mexico, including remote areas, to talk to cooks of all kinds.[11] She finances her own book research and travels,[5][13] often sleeping in her old Nissan truck.[11] She prefers the food of central and southern Mexico, which is more complex and varied.[5] She has registered a wide variety of edible plants,[1][3] and includes more exotic recipes such as those using brains, iguanas, insects and even whole animals such as oxen.[14] She regularly interviews and cooks with a variety of cooks, but especially those from rural areas, cooking for family and friends. She even apprenticed in a bakery in Mexico City to learn the all-male trade.[8] Her preference for traditional home cooking means that her books revolve around foods made with corn dough and even has an entire book dedicated to tortillas.[9] Her insistence on field research distinguishes her books for the stories they tell related to food and her travels.[8] It also has led to unconventional formats. The Oaxaca book is not divided by types of dishes but rather the eleven regions of the state.[11]

Her work has made her one of the foremost authorities on Mexican cuisine,[1] not only in authentic ingredients and techniques, but the loss and disuse of various ingredients as Mexico shifts from a primarily rural to primarily urban society. One loss is the use of local and regional produce.[1] "As far as I can see," says Kennedy, "I write oral history that is disappearing with climate change, agribusiness, and loss of cultivated lands. In the past people had a sense of taste and a sense of where they came from. They were conscious of what they were eating and what they consumed and about not wasting."[13] In the introduction of Oaxaca al Gusto, Kennedy writes, "Trying to record the ethnic foods as well as the more sophisticated recipes of the urban centers presented an enormous challenge and responsibility … I am sure that if I had known what it would entail to travel almost constantly through the year, and often uncomfortably, to research, record, photograph and then cook and eat over three hundred recipes, I might never have had the courage to start the project in the first place."[11]

In addition to traveling Mexico, this work has required frequent travel abroad, especially to the United States, where she gives classes and speaks about Mexican cuisine.[5][6] She starred in a 26-part television series on Mexican cooking for The Learning Channel.[7] She has been an influence in the development of Mexican cooking in the United States and on chefs such as Rick Bayless. She taught Paula Wolfert, who recommended her to her editor.[7] Chefs of Texas and New Mexico that came to prominence in the mid 1980s credit her work as a base for their Southwestern cuisine.[15] However, Kennedy dismisses most chefs doing Mexican food because they have not done the traveling and research that she has and innovate rather than preserve original methods.[5] She criticizes chefs who waste food and who encourage the unnecessary use of plastic, foil, and other items that only get thrown in the trash.[5] She also does not like culinary writers who do not live in Mexico, but question her authority because of her ethnicity.[13] Some of her conflicts have received significant press, citing her throwing chef Rick Bayless out of her car for being "brash" and her criticisms of Maricel Presilla.[5][11]

Her influence is not limited to the United States as her work has been very well received in Mexico. She has received numerous awards in this country including the Order of the Aztec Eagle[citation needed], which is the highest Mexican order awarded to foreigners in the country. The National Commission for Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity (CONABIO) has digitalized her research including a vast collection of recipes, drawings and notes both on cooking and native edible plants, resulting in a section of their website dedicated to her .[5][12]

Quinta Diana / Diana Kennedy Center[edit]

Kennedy permanently returned to Mexico in 1976, initially living in Mexico City.[3] In 1980, she moved to eastern Michoacán, about three hours west of the capital after a friend introduced her to the area.[3][7] There she bought property which she initially called "Quinta Diana"[3][7] near the small village of San Francisco Coatepec de Morelos (colloquially known as San Pancho), in the municipality of Zitácuaro.[8][13]

Her homestead is on a forested hill at the end of a long dirt road, only accessed by pickup or four-wheel drive.[11][14] However, this has not stopped a steady stream of visitors from arriving to her cobblestone driveway.[3][11]

Quinta Diana is an ecologically minded establishment. She stated in the book My Mexico in 1998 that she wanted a house built of local materials and live a lifestyle similar to that of her neighbors.[3] This nearly three hectares is almost off the grid, and centers on her adobe home.[14] This home was built by local architect Armando Cuevas, and centers around a large boulder, almost the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, which Kennedy decided not to remove from the site.[13] Around the boulder is an atrium of the open living room, and from it, stairways lead to various parts of the house.[7][15] In her home she tests recipes according to the seasons, and what is growing on her property.[7] Her cooking spaces consist of an outdoor space with wood-fired grills and adobe beehive-shaped ovens, and an indoor kitchen, which she calls her "laboratory."[3][7] Her indoor kitchen centers on a long, cement counter, which is covered in blue and white tile, with inlaid gas burners.[3][14][15] This kitchen is filled with various ingredients and implements including burnished copper and clay pots on the walls,[14][15] herbs and vegetables in wicker baskets,[14] various varieties of dried chili peppers,[8] and her own condiments, including a pineapple vinegar similar to balsamic.[7][11] For her table, she has authentic Talavera pottery from Puebla, and near the kitchen window, there are binoculars and a bird book.[8][13]

Her bedroom is upstairs, which opens to her study, filled with books and papers about, and with windows on three sides to look out over the gardens to towards the mountains.[3][7]

Kennedy grows much of her own food organically. She has a greenhouse to grow various edible plants, such as herbs and even coffee.[3][8] The gardens include grapefruit, apricot and fig trees, chayote vines from Veracruz, and a section dedicated to the corn she uses for masa. Manure is the fertilizer.[13][14] All the water used on the property is from tanks that collect wastewater, with a patch of land serving as a filter for wastewater.[3] Much of the energy is solar.[8]

Since 1980, money from her books and speaking engagements have funded the property and its operations.[14] However, Kennedy has established the Diana Kennedy Foundation to have tax-free status with the Mexican government, and to work on projects focusing on the environment as well as food.[5][14] Her interest in environment is related to food in the sense that when environment is destroyed, foods disappear.[4] It also has roots in her mother's love for nature and experience with scarcity in wartime England.[5][7] She has argued against the use of genetically modified seeds, excessive use of packaging and use of bleach for white linens in hotels and restaurants. The Foundation is also geared toward preservation, not only of Mexico's food heritage, but of Quinta Diana, with its immense collection of Mexican cookbooks, other publications and pottery, along with the gardens.[14]


Articles in the following magazines

Gastronome, Cooking, Clipper, Conde Nast Traveller, Sabor, Mexican Food Magazine, Amistad (American Chamber of Commerce in Mexico), Intercambio (British Chamber of Commerce in Mexico), México Desconocido (a series of illustrated articles on little-known recipes), CIDAP, Artes de Mexico, Food & Wine.

Books published
  • The Cuisines of Mexico, Harper & Row, 1972, revised HarperCollins, New York, 1986 (ISBN 9780061814815)
  • The Tortilla Book, Harper & Row 1975, revised Harper Collins, New York, 1991 (ISBN 9780060123475)
  • Recipes from the Regional Cooks of Mexico, Harper & Row 1978, revised as Mexican Regional Cooking, Harper Collins, New York, 1990 (ISBN 9780060123482)
  • Nothing Fancy (a book of personal recipes) Dial Press 1984, paperback North Point Press 1989, Ten-Speed Press, Berkeley, 1999 (ISBN 9780385278591), revised University of Texas Press, Austin, 2016 (ISBN 9781477308288)
  • The Art of Mexican Cooking, Bantam Books 1989/ re-issued by Clarkson Potter 2008 (ISBN 9780307383259)
  • My Mexico, Clarkson Potter, New York 1998 (ISBN 9780609602478), reissued University of Texas Press, Austin, 2013 (ISBN 9780292748408)
  • The Essential Cuisines of Mexico (a compilation of the first 3 books), Clarkson Potter, New York 2000 (ISBN 9780307587725)
  • From My Mexican Kitchen—Techniques and Ingredients, Clarkson Potter, New York 2003 (ISBN 978-0609607008)
  • Oaxaca al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy, University of Texas Press, Austin 2010 (ISBN 9780292722668)
  • Las cocinas de México, Harla, Mexico, 1991, (edition cancelled)
  • El arte de la cocina mexicana, Editorial Diana, México, 1993
  • México – Una Odisea Culinaria, Plaza y Janés, México, 2001
  • Lo esencial de las cocinas mexicanas, Plaza y Janés, México, 2003
  • Recetas del alma (Nothing Fancy), Plaza y Janés, México, 2006


Kennedy has been called the "grand dame of Mexican cooking" compared to Julia Child in the United States and Elizabeth David in England. She has been called a "dogged, obsessive pop anthropologist."[6][8][11][14] Her comparison to Julia Child comes from her promotion of Mexican cuisine, much the way that Child did for French cuisine; however, while flattered, she dismisses it.[3][15] She has been a common name among foodies in the United States for decades, but did not receive notice in her native England until Prince Charles came to Quinta Diana in 2002, to eat and to appoint a Member of the Order of the British Empire.[8]

  • 1971 – Silver Medal from the Tourism Secretariat for the promotion of Mexican culture through its foods.[1]
  • 1980 – Amando Farga Font special award from the Mexican Food Writers Association[1]
  • 1981 – Decorated with The Order of the Aztec Eagle by Mexican Government.[1][10]
  • 1984 – Award of The Jade Molcajete from Tourism Secretariat and Holiday Inn hotel chain[1]
  • 1991 – Amando Farga Font special award from the Mexican Restaurant Association[1]
  • 1992 – Named Academic Researcher by the Mexican Society of Gastronomy[1]
  • 1995 – Recognition by the Domecq Cultural Institute[1]
  • 1999 – Recognition by the Mexican Restaurant Association[1]
  • 2000 – A special Gold Medal Award from the Mexican Restaurant Association[1]
  • 2001 – Special recognition in La Feria de Puebla by the Mexican Cultural Secretariat and the Tourism Secretariat[1]
  • 2001 – A silver medal from CANIRAC – The Mexican Food and Beverage Industry[1]
  • 2002 – Appointed an MBE – Member of the Order of the British Empire – by the British Government for furthering cultural relations between the UK and Mexico[10]
  • 2003 – Life Achievement Award from the International Association of Cooking Professionals[1]
  • 2003 - Recognition for work in sustainable foods by the Monterey Bay Aquarium[1]
  • 2011 – James Beard Foundation Award – Cookbook of the Year Oaxaca al Gusto[1][10]
  • 2012 - Gold Medal from the Vatel Club of Mexico[1]
  • 2013 - Silver Molcajete Award from the Mexican Gastronomic Association, Brotherhood of Zona Rosa Gourmets and the Industries Club[1]
  • 2014 - James Beard Cookbook Hall of Fame[10]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa "¿Quién es Diana Kennedy?" (in Spanish). Mexico: CONABIO. Retrieved 2 November 2015.
  2. ^ "At 93, Diana Kennedy Still Reigns As Mexico's Feistiest Food Expert". NPR.org. National Public Radio. Retrieved 4 May 2017.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s Bracklauer, Beth (12 August 2012). "The Expat:Diana Kennedy". Saveur magazine. Retrieved 2 November 2015.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Guillermoprieto, Alma (August 2002). "Disappearing dishes". The New Yorker. New York. 78 (24): 98.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Shilcutt, Katharine (28 October 2013). "Diana Kennedy Must Speak Loudly Before She Expires". Houstonia magazine. Houston, Texas. Retrieved 2 November 2015.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Schroeder, Eric James. ""Every Recipe Has a Story": An Interview with Diana Kennedy" (PDF). University of California, Davis: Writing on the Edge. Archived from the original (PDF) on 21 November 2015. Retrieved 2 November 2015.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Nathan, Joan (24 July 1996). "The Keeper of the Chilies: Part Hermit, Part Crowd Pleaser: [Biography]". New York Times. New York. p. 4.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Greenberg, Sarah (12 October 2003). "The Brit who saved Mexican food". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 2 November 2015.
  9. ^ a b c d Duggan, Tara (9 August 2006). "Grande dame of Mexican cuisine". SFGate (Chronicle). San Francisco. Retrieved 2 November 2015.
  10. ^ a b c d e f "Diana Kennedy". Michoacán, Mexico: Diana Kennedy Center. Retrieved 2 November 2015.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Booth, William (11 January 2011). "Diana Kennedy, fiery chronicler of Mexican food traditions". Washington Post. Washington, DC. Retrieved 2 November 2015.
  12. ^ a b c d e f Bracklauer, Beth (3 September 2012). "The Interview:Diana Kennedy". Saveur magazine. Retrieved 2 November 2015.
  13. ^ a b c d e f g O’Neil, L. Peat (Winter 2006). "Organic in Mexico: A Conversation with Diana Kennedy". Gastronomica. 6 (1): 25–34.
  14. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Beaubien, Jason (4 October 2010). "Cooking With The Grand Dame Of Mexican Cuisine". NPR. Washington, DC. Retrieved 2 November 2015.
  15. ^ a b c d e Sharpe, Patricia (October 2003). "Stirring the Pot In her Michoacan kitchen, Diana Kennedy--the Julia Child of Mexican cooking--serves up squash-blossom tacos and strong opinions". Texas Monthly. 31 (10). p. 1.

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