The Julia Child of Mexico – Diana Kennedy

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Author Interview: Diana Kennedy, from

by thecookbookblog:

Let me start this off by telling you that I can’t talk about Diana Kennedy without being extremely biased. Put simply, Diana Kennedy’s cookbooks are what got me excited about cookbooks. She is why I spend so many hours reading them, and even more hours cooking from them. She is, ultimately, why I have a cookbook blog.

I grew up cooking a lot of Italian food. I’ve probably made a couple hundred gallons of marinara sauce in my life. Other cuisines were regularly consumed and often adored, but rarely ever cooked. Sure, I could throw together some gringo fajitas — but that was about as far as it went. But then, I was told about Diana Kennedy (by a person whose opinions I value greatly). So I bought a book, did some reading, and eventually prepared a recipe for pollo en salsa de fresadilla y chipotle (chicken in tomatillo-chipotle sauce). I was hooked, and immediately bought the rest of her cookbooks.

The more I cooked and the more I read, the more fascinated I became. All of a sudden, I was cooking Mexican food I had never heard of before, and preparing dishes with the freshest and best ingredients I could find (or afford). It was an exciting time for me, and it changed my perceptions of Mexican cuisine, as well as my own cooking. I realized that I could pull off more in a kitchen than I had ever expected.

But I also stumbled into some truly great cookbooks, written by a marvel of a human being. Diana Kennedy became, for me, a hero. But then, I find great heroics in 88 year-old British women who live in Mexico, and have devoted the majority of their life to uncovering and cataloging the recipes and cultures of the many diverse states of Mexico. Since publishing her tenth cookbook cookbook last year (Oaxaca al Gusto), Mrs. Kennedy is now focusing most of her time on teaching, and working to preserve the vanishing ingredients and recipes of Mexico.

A couple of months ago, I had the pleasure of chatting with Mrs. Kennedy by phone. She took the call from her eco-friendly home in Michoacán, where a looming thunderstorm threatened our already shaky phone connection. Here is what transpired:

The Cookbook Blog: This may seem like a silly, and perhaps rude question, but when and where were you born?

Diana Kennedy: I was born in Loughton, Essex. And I hate to tell you, but it was 88 years ago. And I’m still going strong!

CB: When is your actual birthday? I’ve noticed that it isn’t listed anywhere, and I feel that it’s important, for biographical reasons, for us to know.

DK: It’s the 3rd of March, 1923. But you’d never know it. I still cook. I can still go down to Oaxaca, and I walk every day, and I give everybody hell. So what else? [Laughs]

CB: That’s what I hear.

[She laughs again.]

CB: So, when you were growing up, how did you think your life was going to turn out?

DK: I never thought about it. I had no idea. You know, when you’re young, you just live one day to the next. You don’t think about the future. I mean, maybe present generations do, but they’re much more acutely aware of being. We didn’t. We just lived one day after another. Happily, or unhappily, or whatever. I had no idea.

CB: Can you talk a little about the Women’s Timber Corps, and how you came to be a part of it?

DK: When the war broke out, in ‘39, I wasn’t old enough. But as soon as I turned 18, in 1941, I, like everybody else, at the age of 18, I had to join one of the forces. Either the Army, the Navy, or in this case — in the women’s case — the Timber Corps. And because I would not salute anybody, I had to join the Timber Corps.

CB: I also read that you met your late husband Paul — who was a foreign correspondent for the New York Times — in Haiti. What brought you to Haiti?

DK: Well, I emigrated in 1953. I emigrated to Canada. And then, after four years in Canada, it was time to move on. And I went back to England, via the Caribbean, invited by a friend to see him in Jamaica. And on the way, I stopped off at all the islands. In those days your air ticket showed every place the plane came down. And, um, oh yeah. No, wait a minute. Wait a minute. Backtrack. I was invited to go to the first Casals Festival in Puerto Rico, after leaving Canada. So I did. And then I was going to visit the friend in Jamaica, so I stopped off in between. And in Port au Prince, there was a revolution going on. And there were all sorts of guards in the airport, with their guns. [So I went to the hotel], and the first person I saw was Paul. And he was to be my future husband.

CB: So, shifting gears slightly, you’ve done a lot of work to preserve Mexican culture, as well as some of the country’s endangered ingredients. What would you say the major problems are facing Mexico’s cuisines today?

DK: Well, first of all, there’s biotech. And the carelessness of the Mexican government in permitting chiles to be imported from China, India, Korea, and Peru. Which I think is scandalous, because they are losing all those workers! All the agricultural workers go over the border to find work, and the government isn’t doing anything to help them sell their product, or produce their product, by importing chiles at a cheaper price from other countries. That’s one of the biggest dangers.

CB: So I’d imagine that the flavors of Mexico have been subtly changing over the course of your time there…

DK: Absolutely. Yes. I remember tastes that many of the younger chefs today don’t remember. I remember the size of the chiles, and the taste of the chiles, and now they’re so gigantic. I would like to see all the really good chefs and people interested in food as it was, sit down and talk to the biotech people. Feed them, and try to tell them what they’re doing to our food.

CB: Is there anything else we can do to help?

DK: Oh, just spread it around, what I’m saying, you know. Make a movement! You’ve got to sit down at the table and talk to them. Why do they have to have such huge [chiles]? And what they call the “celula semilla mejorada,” the improved seed, it’s simply insane to do that. Too many chemicals.

Ooh, and good farming. And [changing] climatic conditions. Now we all know, [only] an idiot does not believe in climate change. For God’s sake, let them come down and see it happening here. Go to Texas. Go to Texas now. Rick Perry, the governor of Texas didn’t believe in climate change, and [wanted to put] a meeting of climate change on the agenda. And look, he’s running for President!

CB: It’s a terrifying thought.

DK: And Texas is sizzling under a drought and heat that they’ve never known before. It just doesn’t make sense.

CB: Over the years, you’ve written different styles of cookbooks. My Mexico is more narrative and linear, while My Mexican Kitchen is more, I guess, educational. Is there a cookbook of yours that makes you the happiest to look back on?

DK: No, because they’re all at different stages of my life. Don’t forget, number one, the tone of a cookbook depends very much on the editor. But the salespeople, for God’s sake! They say, “Oh my God, we’ve got to get rid of that title. Oh, mamamamamama.” Every book has reflected a different time of my life. And My Mexican Kitchen is too small, it should have been much larger. But that’s what they wanted. And the book in itself is very good, but it could have been so much larger, but that’s what they wanted. And that’s what the salesmen think they can sell. So, if a book…are you hearing this all?

CB: Oh, yes, yes.

DK: Do you want to call me back?

CB: No, I’ve got you okay.

DK: All right, okay. So, you know, you can’t always write the same book.

CB: You came across those problems with Oaxaca al Gusto also, and eventually had to publish it through a university press, to be able to make the book you wanted. Even with that did it come out…

DK: No, no, wait a minute. The book came out in Spanish first.

CB: Oh!

DK: I did both. I did both, there’s nobody translating my stuff. And it came out in Spanish first.

One agent said, “I don’t think I can sell this to an American publisher, because the photos are slightly out of focus.” And nobody wanted to do what I wanted to. The book had to be divided, you can’t lump it all together, it doesn’t make sense. And then, Texas University Press, by pure serendipity, wanted it, and followed exactly what I wanted to do. The design was slightly changed. They improved photos, I put more of my photos in this edition. And they followed it exactly as I wanted it.

CB: Is that the first book you’ve written that you feel came out exactly as you wanted it?

DK: Oh, goodness. No, I think not. No, none of them came out exactly as I wanted them. No. Cuisines of Mexico was a surprise to everybody, and I loved that. I was overwhelmed when that came out, as far as the public [reception]. And it’s still going strong. I don’t know. The Art of Mexican Cooking was supposed to be a sort of hundred recipes how-to book, but then I expanded it. And I think it’s the more compact book. You know, you can’t win them all. I’m lucky to have them all in print. I mean [it’s still in print, the one from] back in 1972, so I can’t complain.

CB: You also mentioned in Oaxaca al Gusto, in the introduction, you talked about how anthropological and botanical studies don’t usually include a study of gastronomy. Why do you think that happens? It seems like an obvious connection.

DK: Botanists and anthropologists spend a hell of a lot of concentrated time in the villages. What a pity they didn’t learn to cook before they went, so that they could infer the different nuances of [different species of] corn. And observe the differences of the chiles. And now, it’s very interesting that all my work is going into the database of Mexico — the biological database. All the stuff, plants, even animals, everything I mention. So it’s very exciting to me. All my slides — because, you know, I used 35mm slides until I got my digital camera — are being digitalized, they’re doing it, all my notes are being scanned, and they’ve really taken my [groundwork] seriously, and it’s very, very exciting, and an honor.

CB: Other than your own, are there any cookbooks that you’re particularly fond of?

DK: Yes, absolutely. The ones I cook from are The Cooking of Southwest France, by Paula Wolfert, and her Eastern Mediterranean. Obviously we all go to Julia Child for the details. And [some of what] Jacque [did] in the early days, Jacque Pépin. Oh, and, Maida Heatter’s cookie book. I think that’s a phenomenal book! So I’ve done a lot of those, but I always have to reduce the sugar and put more fat in it. Oh, another book that I love and I use, I cook all from it, is Carol Field’s The Italian Baker. It’s a phenomenal book. All the breads, the different pastries. You know, I cook. I’m a cook. People don’t realize that, but everything in my kitchen, I make. Pickles, everything. I’ve got pickled lemons, I’ve got English chutney — everything, I make. And that, to me, is the test of a cook — to know how to do everything. So all my bread, I make everything. I’m a cook.

CB: That’s great. I find that your cookbooks are meticulously put together, and have fewer flaws, than most of the other cookbooks I’ve come across so far. Can you talk a little about the testing and refining process you go through to finish a book?

DK: I do cook every recipe myself.

CB: There are definitely some cookbooks out there where that does not happen.

DK: Fran McCullough, the great editor, said, “Oh darling dearie, you cook all your own recipes.” She told me that not all the cooks do.

CB: They certainly do not.

DK: And then, I don’t trust anybody else’s palate. I know what I’m looking for. I mean, after so many years of cooking, it sounds arrogant, but you know what you’re looking for. Now, I just re-cooked for some chefs, from one of my old books, and God damn it, I didn’t say when to add the sauce. And it’s been through ten editors, for goodness’ sake! So, there are little things that slip, and you have to rely on somebody’s common sense.

I maintain, every cook needs to have a good scale in the kitchen. It’s ridiculous. How are you going to put lard or butter into a horrible measuring cup? You put a piece of parchment, or whatever you have, on the bottom of the scale, and you weight it. That just drives me out of my mind.

CB: Especially with baking flour, and whatnot. It’s impossible to know how dense it is.

DK: Yeah, I mean, I know Julia told us how to load a cup with flour, but just shove it on the scale and you’ve got it. And also, the editors don’t want you to put… there’s a big storm coming up, if the lightning hits I’ll have to come off.

Oh, and then another thing is we should put everything in metric. Some editors don’t like it. I said, “You are immediately ruling out Canada, Australia, New Zealand, England.” And they don’t think of that. It’s ridiculous, of course, that the U.S. doesn’t go metric. It’s so much more accurate than pounds and ounces. So that’s some of my beef.

CB: While I assume that the majority of the success of your cookbooks is in the United States, I was curious to know how they do in Mexico.

DK: Oh, people love them. [Laughs.] People love them. I have people loving what I write about their country, they say. I had enormous success in Mexico. It’s not a large buying public, and books are more expensive in Mexico, but I really am amazed and delighted, and moved by the reactions to my books in Mexico.

CB: So I guess you could easily say that you’ve devoted the majority of your life to the cuisines of Mexico, and yet, of course, there are still seemingly endless dishes and preparations you haven’t discovered…

DK: Oh, you know if I had more money, and didn’t have to make a living by teaching and promoting, I could have done a lot more. But, there’s one thing. I started in ‘72, the first book came out. And it was a battle to get a traditional book out at that time. I had to feed Harper people, and convince them all that this was worth doing.

I can hear the lightning, it’s getting close. If it gets much closer, I’ll have to hang up.

So, at that time, nobody, until recently, or no editor would pick up a book on one state. Now, two people did Oaxaca, very inadequately. I don’t know how they got away with it, but they did. But what I would love to have done, had I time and money, I would love to have done more of the state cookbooks because there is so much to a state. You’ll never get all of it, but you’ll give people a taste of the sort of thing in the different areas. And I’d love to do more, but I just can’t now, you know. I can’t do any more.

CB: Then, as the storm is rapidly approaching, I’ll ask my last question. Because there is so much left to discover, and so much work left to be done in Mexico, I can’t help but wonder if there is anyone out there who will, or can, carry on your legacy. Is there?

DK: The trouble is, things have changed so much. Also, I’m not money oriented. I have spent years just wandering. Wandering around at different times and stages of the year. I hope that there is somebody else who will be able to do it, because…

[The connection cuts out. A few minutes later, we are re-connected.]

CB: We were just talking about whether there’s someone out there who can or will carry on your legacy.

DK: There are a few people doing things, but I don’t like the way they’re writing recipes. There’s one person in Jalisco I know who’s doing it — doing what she knows of her area. And I think this is the important thing, if it’s somebody in an area who is protecting it. But, you know, people don’t want to take the time.

CB: Well, hopefully someone does. It’s been a tremendous experience for me cooking from your books, and learning about Mexico through all these different regions and ingredients. Though there are a lot of ingredients, even in Los Angeles, that you just can’t find. Even though it’s a lot easier than it was, say, 20 years ago, but…

DK: Now Steve Sando is bringing in the chiles from Oaxaca.

CB: Who’s that?

DK: Rancho Gordo. Steve Sando. I took him to three of the main chile areas in Oaxaca. So he does his fair trade with beans, from small producers in parts of Mexico. So I took him to some of these chile growers [to find] chilhuacles, costeño chiles, from the coast.

And he is now getting his first crop in, and they’ll have them by the end of the year and he said [they’ll be] certified, and he’s doing a fair trade. [I’m very glad this is going ahead] because this is the only way they’re going to conserve things, and the chiles — make them available to people in the U.S. Now, Noah, did you hear me giving a presentation somewhere?

CB: I haven’t.

DK: Well, my theory is this. In your supermarket, and your upscale market, you have ingredients from all over the world, exotic ingredients. But you do not have exotic ingredients from a country with whom you share a 2,000 mile border. And I want to see that change. I want people to get online and make it work. And now, Steve is going to bring in the chiles — the costeños and chilhuacles– it’s going to be much more available.

CB: It is amazing to me that even in Los Angeles it’s very difficult to recreate some of your recipes, finding some of the chiles and things like that.

DK: No, you have to go to the chile guy. You have to get online. But I persist, you know. I want people to get online. I want people to do it, because we have to support the growers there. And this is my thing. We’ve got to do it. We’ve got all these exotic ingredients from all over the world, we’ve got to get them from Mexico. And there are people now bringing in those chiles, and Steve will have it on his website, and I’m very excited about it.

CB: That sounds great. But it does also seem that the home cook has changed in the United States over the last 30 or 40 years, and you could argue that things have gotten both better and worse in terms of food. But as home cooks go, they must have improved over this time, right?

DK: I think so, yes. Because people do it for a hobby. There are an enormous number of people who are dedicated to my type of cooking. And [I count, within my audience], all ages, all colors, and all sexes.

You know, I’m not Rachael Ray. I’m not going to have millions of people dying to meet [me]. It’s a special market, and somebody’s got to do it. We need elitism. In this modernist world, we need elitism.

CB: In my experience, the finest things are often not the most popular.

DK: Exactly. Exactly. Yeah.

CB: Well I’m incredibly grateful for the work you’ve done, and for taking the time to speak to me today. I really appreciate it.

Entrevistas en espanol/ interviews in Spanish:


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