Diana Kennedy on Falling in Love with Mexico

InterviewRocío CerónComment

A British citizen, Diana Southwood went to Mexico in 1957 to marry Paul P. Kennedy of the New York Times. Today she is widely considered the foremost researcher, teacher, and writer on the regional foods of Mexico and has written eight books on the subject. She has been bestowed the highest honor given to foreigners by the Mexican government, the Order of the Aztec Eagle, for her work of disseminating Mexican culture through its foods. She has also received numerous awards from other gastronomic institutions and was decorated with an MBE by Queen Elizabeth for her work in strengthening cultural relations between Mexico and the United Kingdom, as well as for her work for the environment, which is always reflected in her texts. For the past thirty years, her studies have been centered around her ecological house in the state of Michoacán.

Diana Kennedy may well be the woman who best knows Mexico’s regional cuisines. Since she arrived in Mexico when she was 34 years old she has dedicated herself wholeheartedly to the task of  researching the variety of foods that people eat throughout the country. She has made of her life a never-ending quest that began with the palate leading her down unknown paths that turned out to be her gastronomic routes.

Her curiosity and sense of adventure  was  spurred on by reading the regional works of  Josefina Velazquez de Leon. She wanted to know where those ingredients she had read about came from;  what the countryside that produced them looked like and who the people were who grew them. She would load her pick-up truck with a sleeping bag and cot; pack notebooks and tape-recorder and head off to some remote rancherias and villages. Although she is now in her ninetieth year, her odyssey is not yet over.

Diana notes that many things have changed in Mexico since those first days in the late 1950’s: in particular the quality of the foodstuffs and their deterioration, especially through the uncontrolled use of chemicals used in intensive, non-sustainable farming methods. She makes no secret of this and voices it on every possible occasion --even when heating the tamales that she was going to serve us with the coffee from beans grown and prepared right there.

Before getting down to serious conversation, she insisted that we needed to eat. It is no good trying to concentrate on a empty stomach after the early morning trip from Mexico City to Zitacuaro in Michoacan. Besides, how can one say no? Diana is a renowned cook and for many her “sazón” is unforgettable.

She doesn’t waste much time in her day. On this occasion she served tamales from recipes she learned in Veracruz and San Luis Potosi accompanied by the best beans we have ever tasted. She asks us about them because she is worried that there is not a strong enough flavor of epazote. She had first cooked them in a pressure cooker finishing them off in a clay pot so as to conserve gas. She tells us that she does not like to soak them overnight as many people do since they lose flavor and nutritional value.  She had bought the black beans she served us on a previous trip to Oaxaca but they were a little old and took longer to cook than usual; thereupon she put a note to that effect in the glass jar in which the rest were stored. That’s pure Diana Kennedy, with a constant eye for detail in the kitchen.

For years you have been exploring every corner of the country in your car.

Not every corner but much of the country because it was, and still is, a fascinating and never-ending quest to discover often little-known gastronomic treasures. But, of course in the end I wanted to write about it. Of course it is not easy to find a publisher for this type of in-depth gastronomy but I have been lucky to have had books published, like Oaxaca al Gusto, by the prestigious Texas University Press.

I can imagine the work involved in writing your books because practically every recipe has a family history background—and then to have to cook them all!

Yes, but it is fascinating to try to re-create the recipes as faithfully as possible and give them their proper context. The other day I was re-reading My Mexico for its re-publication by Texas University Press and it brought back so many memories of my journeys and the people who had shared their recipes with me. This is so important. For example not long ago a neighbor in the village came to the gate with relatives who live in Los Angeles. They had brought with them the Spanish edition of two of my books for my signature. “We love how you write about out country,” they said. I was so touched and gratified.

One often sees more clearly what is going on in Mexico through the eyes of a foreigner. Do you think that is so in your case?

Yes, because you take the details of your daily life and even the cooking of your grandmother or aunts for granted. But out of curiosity and pure “gula” I started asking people, mostly women, like your grandmothers and aunts for their recipes.

What motivated you to dedicate yourself to researching Mexican gastronomy?

I suppose it came naturally. As young women in England before and during World War II my sister and I were expected to take part and learn whatever my mother prepared. Then when I emigrated to Canada for a few years I was fascinated to find all the new foods to cook with, so you can imagine what happened when I was first introduced to the Mexican markets. I just had to cook and at that time, I was strongly influenced by the wonderful food writing of Elizabeth David.

After living, cooking and eating here for so many years how do you see Mexican food?

First of all you cannot define Mexican food without explaining that it differs, in some cases radically, from one region to another especially in terms of ingredients like chiles and corn and how they are used.

After all the research you’ve done you must have noticed that very little is known in Mexico about its own gastronomy.

Mexico City has always been a center of national gastronomy because of all the regional restaurants there. Of course there are some exceptional dishes that have become popular, very ubiquitous, like mole poblano and cochinita pibil from Yucatan. Now I think there is a new wave of interest promoted by current star chefs in Oaxaca, black mole for instance, and aguachile from the northern west coast for example.

What are the most surprising findings you have had in your trips?

All the wild plants: wild greens called quelites, the flowers, young shoots or roots of an endless number of plants, bushes and trees, not forgetting insects, that are either eaten raw or cooked in different ways to provide a free, natural and totally organic diet.

The Mexican cuisine you encountered many years ago was more virgin; how do you see it now?

Many of the wonderful, indigenous ingredients have been blown up with the so-called “semillas mejoradas”, improved seeds, and the over-use of chemicals as if bigger is better. The end result is that those wonderful intense flavors, say, of chiles and tomatoes, in particular, have been noticeably diluted.

One of the most important ingredients in the Mexican cuisine are chiles. How many kinds do you know?

I have never counted but more than anyone else I know. I have a large number of slides, photographs of different regional chiles taken on my repeated and seasonal trips to many of the lesser known parts of the country.

What was the first thing you learned to cook well in Mexico?

Tamales; but first learning how to prepare dried corn (maize) in different ways for the varied types of masa. That in itself is a complex subject enough to fill a book.

How many kinds of tamales have you made?

Again, I have never counted but there is a large variety of them in my books. The ones I have just served were so-called San Luis. I say so-called because it  is a recipe that I re-constructed from a century-old, family cookbook in a manuscript from the State of Mexico. The nixtamal was washed and strained before grinding it twice in a hand-grinder. It was then sieved to remove the pedicels. To make the masa the home-made lard was beaten with ‘agua sentada de tequesquite’ (almost too elaborated to explan here in detail) but a strained solution of natural salt that acts as a raising agent—pre-hispanic without doubt. The corn, resembling a meal, was then beaten in until it was well aerated and the tamales formed in dried corn husks.

There are old cookbooks with recipes that are impossible to make today because of the way they kept time while they cooked. For example, “the rice has to be cooked within six rosaries.”  Or, “put five cents worth of sugar in the atole." What are your recipe books like?

They are all very entertaining to read but the present-day cook would not want to buy your book. As I prepare the recipes I keep very careful time because if I am innocent enough to ask a cook who is giving me a recipe “how long will it take to cook?” she will say: “it will tell you” or “until it is done” or, on frying rice: “it will sound like dried beans moving around in the cazuela."

Corn is very important in Mexico, not only because it is a great food, but also because of everything that surrounds it.

It could be named as the “mother plant” of Mexico. When you think of it providing the base for so many foods in the Mexican regional cuisines. Besides every part of the plant is used: tender corn, elote, or dried corn kernels, maiz; the husks, both fresh and dried and the long corn leaf used for tamales; the tassels used for a cure for kidney problems as well as toasted for a certain type of tamales; the anthers used for tamales de espiga; the fungus known as cuitlacoche, is used both fresh and dried, and the corn stalk, chewed, used as substitute for sugarcane or more often used as fodder for cattle, and so on.

There is also a very close relationship between women and food?

Without a doubt, and particularly in the countryside, the women are the cooks. Of course that usually, but not entirely, changes in restaurants in the cities when the majority of the cooks are men. Curiously, if you visit kitchens in an American restaurant, as I do, the cooks are usually Mexican men, the majority of whom would never have cooked in their native villages. Alas, I have nothing more profound to add to this question.

What do you think is the future of Mexican cuisines?

I have no idea. I do not have crystal ball.

Besides Mexican food, what other food do you like?

I have always loved and cooked French, Middle-Eastern and Italian foods. I love, but rarely cook Chinese, Thai and Indian foods.

Which ingredient would you chose as the most representative of the country?

Corn, followed by chiles and squash.

And what would be the Mexican dish?

Tamales and atole.

And if you had to send one dish to the moon that represented us?

A green pipian.

What made you fall in love with this country?

The breathtaking landscapes, the native markets.

Which place have you liked getting to know the most?

Tlacotalpan, Veracruz , Campeche, Chilapa y Guerrero.

Finally, what does Mexico mean to you?

A country of incredible beauty and tantalizing variations which are not appreciated by either its politicians, business magnates nor its people. I am so frustrated that I haven’t had time to discover and research more because I have had to earn a living as well.