Angie: The Authentic Maven of Mexican Cuisine, Diana Kennedy
“To preserve and protect the culinary traditions of Mexico, and to maintain a healthy and sustainable environment in which to do so.”
“I was living in New York City and my husband, who was a journalist with the New York Times, had died. I was alone, had no money and was very depressed,” Ms Kennedy said in answer to a question about how she came to write and publish her many Mexican cuisine cookbooks over fifty years. “My friend, Craig Claiborne (NY Times’ first food editor from 1957 to 1986), loved my Mexican dishes and suggested that I write a cookbook from the recipes I’d gathered during my travels across Mexico when my husband and I lived there for several years. And, I remembered how happy I was there, learning to cook the local dishes in home kitchens across the country. Why not return to Mexico?”
And return to Mexico she did. With the generosity from a friend, she purchased a used truck and a dry parcel of land a few hours drive from Mexico City in the state of Michoacán. Kennedy left New York and never looked back. At 95, she continues to offer cooking classes at her sustainable ranch and farm she affectionately calls Boot Camp.
Kennedy was the featured guest on a panel discussion during the L.A. Times Annual Food Bowl event in May along with three other James Beard award winning Mexican chefs and restaurant owners to discuss her life and passion for authentic ingredients and dishes she spent her life researching.
Known as the "Julia Child of Mexican cuisine", it became clear that Kennedy was an inspiration to the young chefs on the panel, who found her focus on using the best local ingredients and her eco-friendly commitment to the land an inspiration when creating their own restaurants. “The first thing I look at when visiting someone’s kitchen is the trash.” Kennedy said. “You can tell everything by what restaurants throw away.” She includes not only food scraps but also plastic and other non-biodegradable materials.
Age has not diminished Kennedy’s passion for honoring recipes unique to the various regions in Mexico during a lively conversation with restaurateur and chef Gabriela Camara (Contramar in Mexico City and Cala in San Francisco). Kennedy defended the purity of ingredients grown in local regions saying that growing Oaxacan chilies in Los Angeles will change the taste of traditional dishes. Camara discussed how none of the dishes served in her award-winning restaurants would be considered tradition. While Kennedy brought authentic Mexican cuisine into our kitchens, Camara is taking these ingredients and redefining Mexican food. What was unanimous across the panel however was to seek ingredients sourced from local growers.
Panel members Bricia Lopez (L.A.’s restaurant Guelaguetza featuring Lopez’s Oaxacan cuisine) and Carlos Salgado (Orange Counties’ Taco Maria) spoke out about giving farmers the credit for producing the very best quality of ingredients and they, along with restaurant staff, should be paid accordingly. Salgado – Food & Wine’s “Best New Chef” for 2015 – like Kennedy, carefully sources his food such as the corn used in tortillas and tamales to create the very best dishes possible. “GMO corn can not be used in the masa for tamales,” Kennedy said. “They fall apart.”
Ultimately, the concept of authentic ingredients and dishes is a misnomer in that almost all of our food has a history of migration. Chilies and tomatoes that are key ingredients in Mexican cuisine are not indigenous to Mexico. Mesoamerican corn is found along northern Turkey’s Black Sea region in “authentic” dishes. How and when corn migrated has been lost to history. The migration of foods is as varied as the migration of people. So, while we think of food being authentic Mexican or authentic Turkish, it’s only as authentic to the people bringing their recipes and seeds with them to new lands. This great food migration is what brings us together and enriches our lives and stomachs. Without it we might be making dishes with ground acorns and cactus flowers in Southern California.
Diana Kennedy Center in Mexico: http://www.dianakennedycenter.org/
Documentary film due to be released: http://nothingfancydk.com/contact