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The Gastronomic Legacy of Diana Kennedy

Mexican food legend Diana Kennedy
Credit: Rocio Carvajal

Very few people in recent history have become living national treasures in more than one country and in their lifetime, but the gastronomic legacy of Diana Kennedy qualifies.

Of all the travelers who have come to Mexico and fell under the spell of the country’s many wonders we can perhaps count two that have had a deep impact through their work and publications that documented the life, culture and traditions of Mexico.

One was the Prussian naturalist Friederich Willhelm Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt whose work reshaped the course of natural science, archaeology, social history and anthropology in Mexico at the turn of the 19th century. Some 153 years later, in 1957, came Diana Kennedy. Little did she know that it would be in Mexico, where she’d find in the traditional cuisines of the country, her life’s passion that would lead her to become the undisputed champion of Mexican cultural gastronomic studies.

Although she is a member of the Order of the Aztec Eagle and of the Order of the British Empire, with nine multi-award-winning books and numerous articles published, the young Essex girl didn’t quite imagine that after moving to Mexico and marrying American journalist Paul Kennedy that she would become the equivalent of Marcella Hazan, Florcence White and Elizabeth Davis for Mexican Cuisine.

To many, the idea of traveling half the world to follow the person they love may sound familiar, but what came next for Diana was a very unusual story. While Paul Kennedy worked as a political correspondent, Diana had the opportunity to discover and explore Mexico’s gastronomy. She quickly understood that food was like an edible postcard from the past and she felt the need to explore beyond the conventional cookery classes and oversimplified cookbooks. She packed her notebooks and went on to explore the markets, interviewing traditional cooks, studying, documenting and understanding the nature and transformation of native ingredients and cooking, all the catalogued traditional family recipes from all over Mexico.

Diana started teaching Mexican cooking at her house in New York soon after moving to America and was approached to contribute to the New York Times as a food writer. Even after the tragic death of her husband she continued furthering her career and became a household name as a traditional Mexican food expert in her own right. As a writer, public speaker, cook and researcher Diana gave the English-speaking world the opportunity to have for the first time an encounter with a little explored and even less understood cuisine -outside Mexico, of course.

But the effect of her work also transformed the Mexican peoples’ understanding of their national gastronomic traditions. Before her books came to exist, there was a rather atomised view of the regional traditions and it was this comprehensive view and analysis that enabled a deeper understanding of the evolution and characteristics of the country’s edible heritage. Just as Humboldt rediscovered Mexico to our own eyes, Kennedy takes her readers’ hands and shares her surprise, respect and passion for the complex social and cultural phenomena that is Mexican gastronomy.

So thank you Diana, may forever frothy chocolate cups be raised in your honour.

You can listen to this and other delicious stories on episode #4 of my Pass the Chipotle Podcast and see the must-read books by Diana Kennedy at Pass the Chipotle.