The New York Times reports that Diana Kennedy, chef and author of numerous cookbooks, including the influential tome The Cuisines of Mexico, has died at the age of 99. Like Julia Child for French food and Julie Sahni for Indian food, the English chef’s work was a gateway for many Americans into the cuisine of Mexico when it was published in 1972.
“How Kennedy, a white British woman with no professional culinary training, rose to prominence as an authority in regional Mexican cuisine for the English-speaking world, is a compelling and complicated one,” Amanda Kludt wrote in 2020, when Nothing Fancy, a documentary about Kennedy, debuted. Kennedy, a white English woman, moved to Mexico in 1957 with her husband, a foreign correspondent for the New York Times. She would continue to make the country her home.
In an interview with Saveur in 2012, Kennedy describes her first experiences with Mexican food, specifically at the markets in Mexico City. “It was just the color of everything, and the smells, and all the wild things that I hadn’t seen. I simply had to go home and cook them,” she said. She began learning more about Mexican cuisine, and cooking feasts for visiting guests. She moved back to New York in the 1960s for her husband’s cancer treatment, where New York Times restaurant critic Craig Claiborne encouraged her to teach cooking out of her apartment. That led to her publishing her first cookbook, which begat eight more, three James Beard Awards, and numerous other accolades.
For many who picked up her books, they were an early introduction to the variety and history of cuisine in Mexico, at a time when America was mostly hard-shell tacos and shakers of chile powder. She described in detail the differences in cuisine for each region and state, and ensured readers knew the differences between each spice and chile they were asked to use. Her work required research and tenacity she says “no one” else had. “They’ve not done the travel and the research that I’ve done,” she told Saveur of other Mexican cookbook authors. “None of them, not one. I have traveled this country, wandering — it’s why I’m not rich! — and taking time, and nobody else has done that.”
There was always a silent “white” that came after assertions that no one else possessed her knowledge. “You cannot have influence without authority,” wrote Naveet Alang for Eater. “It’s why well-known (usually white) chefs and cookbook authors have historically been so effective in popularizing global ingredients among the North American mainstream.” Kennedy was an expert, but her expertise was noticed at least in part because of her race. Would white Americans have bought a cookbook in such numbers if it hadn’t been written by someone who looked like them?
That said, Kennedy is an example of someone who did the work of cultural exchange. She spent the rest of her life in Mexico, cooking and eating and learning. “She has dedicated her life to understanding the food by seeking out and interviewing its creators, crediting her sources, and bringing a better understanding of it to a wider audience,” wrote Kludt. She never tried to take credit; she just wanted to point people in the right direction.