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Diana Kennedy, food writer who championed the authentic recipes of Mexico, dies at 99

The head of Mexico's Secretariat of Culture called Kennedy "a pillar of Mexican culture."
Diana Kennedy
Diana Kennedy in her kitchen on June 23, 1990, in Zitacuaro, Michoacán, Mexico.Paul Harris / Getty Images

Diana Kennedy, a food writer who championed the recipes of authentic Mexico, died Sunday at her home in Mexico’s Michoacán at the age of 99. Kennedy's friend and collaborator chef Gabriela Cámara said that her cause of death was respiratory failure, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Born in 1923 in Loughton, a town in the county of Essex, England, Kennedy became a prominent advocate for traditional Mexican food. After a stint in the Women Timber Corps during World War II, she traveled abroad from her native England, falling in love with the food of the lands she traveled to. She often spoke of her experiences, the first mango she ate “in Jamaica’s Kingston harbor, standing in clear, blue warm sea, all that sweet, sweet juice.” 

During a spontaneous trip in 1957 to Haiti, she met her husband Paul Kennedy, a New York Times correspondent. That same year, Paul was assigned to Mexico, and Diana accompanied him there. In her new surroundings, she received her first Mexican cooking lessons from local women, both acquaintances and friends, and fell in love with it all.

As her love for the food of Mexico grew, Kennedy opted to focus on Mexican food prepared in traditional family settings and “fondas” — small family restaurants — rather than the “haute cuisine” of more monied establishments.

During her lauded and celebrated career in the food sphere, Kennedy challenged perceptions outside of Mexico that held a very limited view of the breadth that Mexican cuisine holds. For years, she worked to gather recipes she received from home chefs she encountered, all while traveling around the country in a Nissan pickup truck she still drove in her later years. For over five decades, Kennedy gathered these recipes in her cookbook collections, first publishing “The Cuisines of Mexico” in 1972, the first of nine books she authored.

In 1982, Diana was decorated with an Order of the Aztec Eagle from the Mexican government, the highest honor a non-native of the country can receive, for spreading knowledge about the cuisines of Mexico. She received a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 2002, becoming Diana Kennedy, MBE, for strengthening cultural ties between Mexico and the United Kingdom. In 2014, Kennedy was inducted into the James Beard Cookbook Hall of Fame, having already received three other James Beard awards for her work in 2011, 1986 and 1973 for her first book.

In 2019, a documentary “Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy,” followed Kennedy in her element, still working to teach others of the culture she felt was owed its due after having gone overlooked by the global culture at large. Of the documentary, Saveur magazine said at the time that Kennedy was a great example of cultural “appreciation rather than appropriation.”

In another short documentary, Kennedy tends to her garden which she called her “jewel box,” which held produce of Mexico, chiles sourced from her travels, edible plants, herbs and fruits, in a celebration of Mexico’s ecosystemic variety.

“There’s a lot I want to do,” Kennedy said in the Nowness documentary “At Home with Diana Kennedy.” “When I make this place a foundation, it will keep my ideas of conservation and sustainability alive.”

Kennedy said there are so many recipes out there, handed down from mother to daughter, that could be lost to time. Her life’s work was an attempt to save some of these traditions by sharing them with the word.

Alejandra Frausto, the head of Mexico's Secretariat of Culture said via Twitter (in Spanish) that Kennedy “sowed respect” for Mexican communities and “harvested knowledge,” leaving valuable texts on the food wealth of Mexico, and also called her a “pillar of Mexican culture.”

On Sunday via Twitter, Mexico’s Culture Ministry said (in Spanish) Kennedy’s “life was dedicated to discovering, compiling and preserving the richness of Mexican cuisine.” Mexico’s Culture Ministry added that, in choosing to transform her farm, Quinta Diana (also known as The Diana Kennedy Center) became a hub of sustainability which aimed to conserve the nature and biodiversity of Mexico.

Fellow culinary personalities also shared their appreciation of Kennedy’s life and work on social media, mourning her loss. 

“When I met Diana Kennedy for the first time, to join her on the road from Michoacán to San Antonio, she was 96,” said New York Times restaurant critic Tejal Rao on Twitter. “Absolutely ferocious, devastatingly funny.”

“A great raconteur, she was warm, feisty, opinionated, cantankerous at times, but always witty & interesting,” tweeted Padma Lakshmi.

“She was my teacher and already miss her. Will cook together one day again!” said Jose Andres on Twitter, adding that she gave voice to many Mexican cooks, especially women.

“We knew she’d have to go at some point, but it still hurts,” tweeted LA Times food editor Daniel Hernandez.

Kennedy left an indelible mark in the culinary world, joining food writers and authors like Julia Child and Karen Hess in gathering the unaltered historical record of food cultures directly from the people who actually made them.

“I just think it’s insatiable curiosity,” said Kennedy to the Chicago Tribune in 2010. “To me, life is a continuous process of learning.”