Courtesy / Alejandro Mendoza
Diana Kennedy is known worldwide as an authority on Mexican cooking and culinary traditions, but she also is known for having what one of her cohorts calls a “fiery spirit.” It’s a mandatory trait for a lone woman in a pickup truck visiting markets, farms, and home kitchens in remote parts of Mexico, asking questions, taking photos, and collecting botanical specimens for some 50 years.
Her strength serves a fierce love of Mexico and sharing what she has learned along the way about its distinctive ethno-gastronomy, a term she coined to refer to the cultural nature of her work. She has documented Mexico’s culinary traditions in nine cookbooks published between 1972 and 2010, beginning with the groundbreaking The Cuisines of Mexico. Along with Mexico’s foodways, she has worked to preserve what she calls “Mexico’s rich and valuable cultures and languages.”
After roughly a year and a half of discussions with the library staff at the University of Texas at San Antonio, the 96-year-old Kennedy has donated her books and archives to the UTSA Libraries Special Collections. The collection will be open to the public after cataloging and preservation of older volumes is completed.
“I am sad about losing my antiquarian books,” Kennedy said. “But I have to be practical. They need looking after and at a steady temperature, which I am unable to provide in my ecological house.”
The collection includes 11 cookbooks dating from the 19th century, including Arte Nuevo De Cocina y Reposteria Acomodado al Uso Mexicano from 1828 that is possibly the only existing copy.
Her personal papers document Kennedy’s travels throughout Mexico. They include her observations, research notes, and the cooking techniques she picked up along the way. Also included in the items donated to UTSA are photographs, scrapbooks, menus, and correspondence with such prominent chefs as Julia Child, Paula Wolfert, and Daniel Maye.
Fortunately, her kitchen’s book shelves are not bare: She said her main cooking library will go to UTSA at the time of her death.
Given Kennedy’s international appeal, her selecting UTSA was something of a coup. A friend who formerly worked for the New York Public Library, Clayton Kirking, helped her locate an appropriate home for her archives, sorting through many invitations, which included appeals from libraries at Ivy League universities.
“Eventually they found out about us, because we have one of the largest collections of Mexican cookbooks, with 1,900 volumes, and we are actively collecting in that area,” said Amy Rushing, head of Special Collections at UTSA.
Kennedy felt UTSA would be a good fit, Rushing said, because it adds to an impressive Mexican cooking collection and will be used by students of history, sociology, and Mexican-American studies; by students of the Culinary Institute of America; and by local chefs. For San Antonio, the gift adds credence to its UNESCO designation as a Creative City of Gastronomy.
Nationally acclaimed chef Rico Torres, co-owner and chef of Mixtli Progressive Mexican Culinaria in San Antonio, said he uses the UTSA library and believes Kennedy’s archives will give him a way of “seeing the larger picture.”
“When you start digging into research, something you read two years ago clicks with something you read this morning in a Diana Kennedy book, and you see it in a whole new way,” he said.
Kennedy’s 50-plus years of studying culinary traditions has turned her into an avid environmentalist. Most of her recent interviews, books, and talks address environmental degradation.
“I strongly believe in sustainability in all aspects of living on this wonderful, but now fragile, planet,” she said.
She notes Mexico’s two central mountain ranges create climatic conditions and landscapes that foster biodiversity, such as hundreds of species of mushrooms during the rainy season.
“And people think there are two kinds of chiles, red and green, but there are hundreds,” she said. “Since I’ve been traveling in all the wild places, I’ve been able to document them, how they’re grown and harvested and used in cooking.”
Kennedy’s house near Zitácuaro, Mexico, exemplifies the use of environmental practices as much as her adherence to pure ingredients is central to her cooking.
Widowed in 1967, Kennedy built her current home on a stone base with salvaged beams, handmade adobe, and other recycled materials. It is heated by a solar heater; rainwater tanks provide water. As bathrooms sit lower than the house, their plumbing relies on gravity. In surrounding gardens, she grows everything she needs, including coffee – though she resolutely is not a vegetarian.
“I try and live up to my beliefs and have, modestly speaking, influenced friends and acquaintances alike through my classes at Quinta Diana,” she said.
The classes, which Kennedy held in her home since the 1970s until last year, taught authentic Mexican cooking techniques, emphasizing the use of authentic ingredients. Legions of admirers made the trip, despite the difficulty of traveling to the nearby pueblo of Zitácuaro and up a rugged mountain to her cobblestone drive. Kennedy said actress Glenn Close attended twice, commenting that someone should make a documentary about Kennedy’s cooking methods.
Prince Charles dropped by in 2002 and appointed her a Member of the of Order of the British Empire. She has also received the Order of the Aztec Eagle, the highest honor awarded by the Mexican government to foreign nationals. She said she is especially proud that Mexico’s commission on biodiversity has included a Diana Kennedy page.
“Some of my work on traditional, regional foods add to their knowledge about how that diversity is used in feeding people in a healthy way and making natural remedies,” she said.
Kennedy will be the featured guest at UTSA Libraries’ annual Ven a Comer dinner Sunday night, where Mexican chef Juan Cabrera and UTSA alumna Silvia Hernandez McCowell will join local chefs in paying homage to Kennedy with a menu inspired by her books. The event is sold out.