By Deborah Van Hoewyk
In 1979, seven years after British-born Diana Kennedy published The Cuisines of Mexico, I went to Veracruz, both the city and the state. I thought the food was extraordinary.
The culinary website Serious Eats describes “Jarocho” (the colloquial term for being native to Veracruz) cuisine as “one of Mexico’s simplest,” but “one of its richest.” It was on the shore of Veracruz where Hernán Cortés first set foot, and Spanish cooking – already Mediterranean and Moroccan in its heritage – was quickly adopted and adapted to Jarocho ingredients and techniques, followed by West African influences. (Cortés brought the first six African slaves to Mexico; eventually, over 200,000 Africans came through the port of Veracruz, to be sold in the town of Antigua, about 28 km [±17 miles] west of the port).
The food of coastal Veracruz thus offers all kinds of fish and seafood, cooked in all kinds of ways, served with all kinds of sauces – and Huachinango Veracruzana – Red Snapper a la Veracruz – was the queen of all the dishes I tasted there.
On returning to the States, I went out and bought the Sunset Mexican Cookbook. My copy was from 1977, and was subtitled Simplifed Techniques, 155 Classic Recipes. The American palate of the 1970s was not yet familiar with Mexican cooking, but the Sunset Mexican cookbook sold over a million copies, through 20 printings, with at least five updates between 1969 and 1983.
And one of its recipes, from Diana Kennedy but adapted to American ingredients, was “Snapper Veracruz (Huachinango a la Veracruzana).”
Loved that recipe. Loved especially the green olives, orange juice, golden raisins, cinnamon, and capers. After six moves to three states, I lost my Sunset Mexican cookbook – not that I don’t have others, but none has that exact recipe. That, according to Diana Kennedy, is because the recipe is anything but exact!
The Woman Who Wrote My Remembered Recipe
Culinary anthropologist, cookbook author, chef by default, Diana Southwood was born a hundred years ago (March 3, 1923), in the town of Loughton, England, about 20 miles north of London. The daughter of a kindergarten teacher and a salesman, she lived to be 99, dying at her home in Heroica Zitácuaro, Michoacán, on July 24, 2022. In her twenties, she was a “Lumber Jill” with the Women’s Timber Corps, replacing the men who had gone to fight in WW II, and a housing manager in Scotland, working with mining families. When she was 30, she emigrated to Canada and worked in a film library and sold Wedgewood fine china. She loved to travel, and loved to explore new cuisines; from Canada she started visiting the Caribbean.
On a 1956 trip to the Caribbean, she stopped over in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on her way home. Staying in the same hotel was American journalist Paul P. Kennedy, the New York Times chief correspondent for Latin America. Kennedy was covering civil unrest in Haiti, where the people were using strikes and demonstrations to force their dictatorial president, Paul Magloire, out of office. She was 33, he was 51 – apparently the attraction was instantaneous; Diana described it as un flechazo, an arrow “shot straight to the heart.” She followed Paul and his “half-promise of matrimony” to his home base, Mexico City; they were married within the year.
The ever-versatile Diana Kennedy took up Spanish and worked as a typist at the British consulate in Mexico City. The Kennedys were popular in the English-speaking community in Mexico City, entertaining and being entertained on a frequent basis; when they ate dinner at the homes of friends, Kennedy as usual was taken with foods they were served. When she asked her hostess (this was the 1950s, people) about a dish, they usually replied that the maid or the cook knew about it.
When she asked the maid or the cook, they replied they made it the way they did it back home in their village. Off Kennedy would go to find out just how they did it back home in the village. This was the process that became Diana Kennedy’s hallmark in researching Mexican cuisine in all its regional variations: ask about the recipe, go to where it came from, ask questions, and learn how to make it with authenticity. All her recipes identified who made them and where they made them.
Her trekking about the rural villages also led her to the cookbooks of Josefina Velásquez de Léon (1899-1968), who had visited church groups in the countryside to document regional cooking. (One might call Velásquez de Léon the first celebrity chef – she cooked on radio in the 1940s and television in the 1950s, published cookbooks, opened a cooking school, and set up her own cookbook publishing house; her papers are in several archive collections, but one of them is the Special Collections of the University of Texas at San Antonio, alongside those of Diana Kennedy.)
One of the Kennedys’ guests in Mexico City was Craig Claiborne, who had joined the New York Times in 1957 as its food editor and off-and-on restaurant critic. When Diana offered to buy him a Mexican cookbook, he is supposed to have said “Not until you have written one!”
Diana Kennedy in New York
But the cookbooks came later, and Craig Claiborne would have a hand in that. Paul Kennedy fell victim to cancer, aggressive prostate cancer. In 1966, the couple drove North to New York City for his treatment. In Nothing Fancy, one of Kennedy’s most personal cookbooks (1984) and a 2019 documentary of the same title by filmmaker Elizabeth Carroll, Kennedy tells a story of that last trip. Eating takeout in some motel somewhere in Texas, “Paul laid his knife and fork down soon after he had started his meal. ‘I don’t know whether to thank you or not,’ he bellowed. ‘Most of my life I could eat anything anywhere, but now look what you have done to me. This damned rubbish!’ and pushed his plate back in disgust.”
Paul Kennedy died on February 2, 1967. Diana was left alone in their apartment on the upper west side of Manhattan. Although all the apartment offered was a galley kitchen, Claiborne had featured Diana’s work on regional Mexican cuisine in the New York Times, and suggested that she could teach authentic Mexican cooking classes. Word got out that Diana’s classes were great, and when Frances McCullough, a poetry editor at Harper & Row, took a class, she told Kennedy that a cookbook was in order. Not that Diana Kennedy knew how to write, but McCullough shepherded her through the process and Kennedy’s first cookbook, The Cuisines of Mexico, came to life in 1972.
It was a struggle to get it published as a quality cookbook, however – Harper & Row thought it would never sell, said they had no money to print it with pictures, and sent a cover design that featured a sombrero sitting on a cactus. Kennedy was furious but McCullough said, “OK, Diana, let’s invite them to lunch. We’ll give them a great meal and lots of margaritas.” It worked. After the publishing executive finished, they started looking at Diana’s slides of the dishes they’d been served, and started saying, “Well, we have to have THAT one … and THAT one,” and so on. “I ended up with a great designer,” Diana recalled.
McCullough would edit the next five cookbooks Kennedy wrote, and remained a friend for life.
Diana Kennedy Moves to Michoacán
Diana went back to Mexico repeatedly to gather the recipes in Cuisines of Mexico, but continued working professionally in the various cooking schools popping up in the U.S., returning to Mexico to hunt up more authentic recipes and culinary techniques in the summer. It took until 1976 to leave New York permanently. According to Kennedy, she told herself, “My God, I’ve got to get out. What am I doing with all these smells, the doggie odors, the exhaust from the restaurants in my face? It’s all so artificial.”
The contrast of authentic and artificial would epitomize the rest of Diana Kennedy’s life. When she went back to Mexico in 1976, she stayed; in 1980, she bought three hectares (just under 7½ acres) about 130 km (about 80 miles) west of Mexico City in Michoacán. There she designed and built Quinta (country house) Diana, her Mexican home and culinary research center. Quinta Diana was supposed to be just a little food museum for Diana’s collection of cooking tools, but the idea that museums were of “dead things” was anathema to Kennedy. She hired an architect and ecological engineer and started a house that incorporated large boulders on the site, rambling up and down a steep hillside, amply graced with perforated walls to encourage fresh breezes through the house. Down the slope is her eco-garden full of local Mexican herbs and vegetables and home to a motley collection of livestock and bees. Quinta Diana is mostly off the grid; Kennedy eventually used it to establish the Diana Kennedy Center, a place for research, teaching, and sustainable living – with sustainable native foods at its heart.
For fifty years or so, Kennedy led a busy professional life from Quinta Diana. She wrote more cookbooks; before leaving New York, she produced her second, The Tortilla Book, in 1975. The rest included Recipes from the Regional Cooks of Mexico (1978), Nothing Fancy: Recipes and Recollections of Soul-Satisfying Food (1984), The Art of Mexican Cooking (1989), My Mexico (1998), From My Mexican Kitchen: Techniques and Ingredients (2003), and Oaxaca al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy (2010).
She taught cooking classes and participated in events devoted to international cuisine. She won awards – from the James Beard Foundation, from Mexico (Order of the Aztec Eagle), from Britain (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire).
The Perils of Authenticity
Always a stickler for doing things in just the right way, all the time, Diana Kennedy has had her detractors. There are those who think that cuisine changes and adapts over time, that it was not a “fly preserved in amber.” Kennedy has even castigated the Mexican cooks who took her recipes and evolved them.
There were those who feel her insistence on using lard and lots of crema is unhealthy, and her notion that you should read all the explanations and notes before attempting a recipe – a recipe that might take five days to make all the salsas and bases – is antiquated. Kennedy, on the other hand, says “It’s difficult to educate a whole public … Americans were raised to expect that horrible combination plate – the quick cheap fix.”
Tejal Rao, a New York Times restaurant critic and food writer, believes that Diana Kennedy “changed the way millions of people perceived Mexican Food.” On the other hand, when Kennedy taught Martha Stewart to make Oaxacan tamales de frijol on television, “Wasn’t something lost?” Kennedy would say no, but Tejal Rao pointed out that perhaps a Zapotec cook should have been serving as the expert on her own tamales. Rao also faulted Kennedy for never backing down “from her ludicrous position of dismissing Tex-Mex, California Mexican food and all of the rich, regional cuisines that grew from the Mexican diaspora.”
Nonetheless, after spending more than half her lifetime in grass-roots scholarship across the kitchens of rural Mexico, bouncing around in a beat-up pickup truck with a revolver in the glove compartment, Diana Kennedy made an immeasurable contribution to our understanding of and appreciation for Mexican gastronomy. With her attention to regional differences in Mexican dishes, she laid much of the foundation for the United Nations’ designation of Mexican cuisine as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Will I still look for the “right” recipe for Huachinango Veracruzana? Even though Diana Kennedy told me that it’s more likely made with orange juice and raisins in the mountains of Veracruz, maybe in Jalapa? Of course I will.