ZITACUARO, Mexico – ZITACUARO, Mexico (AP) — The queen of Mexican cuisine is scolding me with a wooden spoon.
"You don't just fling the ingredients around!" says Diana Kennedy. "That. Is. Not. Cooking!"
She demonstrates the correct technique, delicately wrapping a warm pumpkin crepe around a fresh stew of huitlacoche corn fungus sauteed with onions and corn. She serves the lunch on china, carries it out to her sunny patio, sits down with a happy sigh and takes a bite.
"Brilliant, if I do say so myself," she says. And she's right. The food is brilliant. And that's because Diana Kennedy is brilliant.
Sparkling brown eyes, sharp tongued and hilarious, at 87, Kennedy still hauls kilos of dried corn hundreds of miles across Mexico in her rattling truck to grind and roll into savory tortillas and tamales. She recycles rainwater off her roof, uses solar pipes to heat her water, hosts cooking classes in her own kitchen and has a garden of rare edible plants that are a living museum of Mexico's culinary heritage.
And this fall Kennedy has a new cookbook coming out, "Oaxaca al Gusto," featuring more than 300 recipes Kennedy gathered over decades, rumbling up dirt roads to visit home kitchens in some of Mexico's most remote communities, studying distinctive cuisines that are both unique and familiar: after all, Oaxaca's key ingredients are chocolate, corn and chilies.
The cookbook, featuring gorgeous photos and cultural descriptions, is the latest in a lifetime of groundbreaking culinary contributions from Kennedy, who has received the equivalent of knighthood in Mexico with the Congressional Order Of The Aztec Eagle award for documenting and preserving regional Mexican cuisine. The United Kingdom also has honored her, awarding her a Member of the British Empire award for furthering cultural relations with Mexico.
Yet almost four decades after her now legendary and essential "The Cuisines of Mexico" was published, Kennedy is every bit as intrigued and excited about Mexico's ingredients, recipes and cooking techniques. It's a gastronomy that humbles her.
"Cooking teaches you that you're not always in control," she says. "Cooking is life's biggest comeuppance. Ingredients can fool you."
Kennedy seems to have been born with an instinctive curiosity and love of food. She grew up in the United Kingdom drinking fresh milk, gathering greens, catching fish, "good food, whole food," if not a lot of food.
Assigned to the Women Timber Corps during World War II, Kennedy toasted sandwiches over wood fires with roast potatoes and onions. There was homemade bread, fresh cream, scones and berries on good days, nettle soup or buttered green beans when rations were lean. Millions shared this simple food in Western Europe, but for Kennedy these meals launched a love of a lifetime: flavor and texture.
She talks about her first mango — "I ate it in Jamaica's Kingston harbor, standing in clear, blue warm sea, all that sweet, sweet juice." — the way some talk about their first crush.
Indeed that first mango and her husband, Paul Kennedy, a New York Times correspondent, arrived in her life around the same time. He was on assignment in Haiti, she was traveling there. They fell in love and within months she joined him in Mexico.
Here a series of Mexican maids, as well as aunts, mothers and grandmothers of her new friends, gave Diana Kennedy her first Mexican cooking lessons. Luz taught her to grind corn for tamales. Rufina introduced rabbit in adobo. Godileva's chili relleno recipe was included in Kennedy's first cookbook. While her husband wrote about insurrections and revolutions, Diana Kennedy traipsed a land that was, for her, "new, exciting and exotic," sampling unique fruits, vegetables and herbs of various regions.
Then the Kennedy's moved to New York in 1966 when her husband was dying of cancer.
"Poor Paul!" she still exclaims. "I was such a fish out of water, so needy, finding my way around New York, and he just felt so terrible!"
Two years later, at the urging of New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne, she taught her first Mexican cooking class, hunting out ingredients in the Northeast to reproduce the bursting flavors of Mexico. Soon she was spending more of her time back in Mexico, establishing a retreat there that still serves as her home in the country.
In classes, cookbooks and lectures, her fundamental principal is simple: "There is never, ever, any excuse for bad food."
To Kennedy, eating well means supporting local farms, it's good for the environment, it's good for communities and culture, it's good for your health.
"You go into the mercado, see, and those arbol chilies you see, great baskets of them, it ends up they may have been imported from Hunan, the jamaica blossoms from Yemen, or somewhere else," she says. "Appalling!"
In recent years, Mexico's government has allowed imports of low quality and inexpensive produce that is similar to locally grown fruits and vegetables. It's a slippery slope, she warns, toward losing the amazing and complex array of local ingredients that, when properly prepared, offer amazing epicurean possibilities.
Kennedy is fiercely private. Reaching her Mexican retreat requires a drive through pine forests laden with migrating monarch butterflies and trout-laden creeks, through the burgeoning city of Zitacuaro, a traffic-packed, increasingly smoggy industrial little city about two hours west of Mexico City, then up a winding dirt road on the outskirts of town. It's been 500 years since the local Indians here raised arms with the Aztecs in their losing battle against the Spanish empire.
Indigenous cultures were replaced by friars and nuns, who built churches and monasteries and mixed traditional ingredients like yams and turkey with imported almonds, citrus and meats. Pastas, pastries and fine cheeses arrived with the French conquest a few centuries later. Today, less than a mile from Kennedy's home, a vendor sells fresh honey, but nearby a stand also sells Coca Cola, potato chips, and cans of soup.
Growing in Kennedy's vast and enchanting garden, remnants — and resurrections — of the ancient culture wind their way up stone walls. She's single-handedly trying to prevent the loss of local ingredients, with a rolling farm of indigenous herbs, along with tomatoes, lettuce, chard, potatoes, turnips, carrots, broccoli, corn, cucumbers, squash, chilies, strawberries, oranges, apples, limes, berries and much, much more.
The growing continues in a vine-filled atrium in the center of her home, a steamy culinary paradise of vanilla, oregano, mint, bananas, and countless local herbs.
These days her life is a manic mixture of simple living and a high profile as the world's authority on Mexican cuisine.
This means book tours, cooking lessons and endless research in remote villages where she continues to gather recipes and ingredients. This fall she'll travel through the United States, sharing her wisdom at bookstores. It's hectic and exhausting, both promoting her books and studying countryside communities for new ideas, and she can be on the road for weeks at a time.
At home, life is uncomplicated.
"I take two hours a day in the sun. I warm my bones," she said. She reads, she writes, she prepares jams, vinegars and sauces from her garden. No one is welcome unannounced. Cell phones are turned off, computers are kept in a writing studio. Her companions are her paid help, a staff of four who treat her like a dear friend, and several beloved — if somewhat fierce — dogs.
She doesn't eat a lot, but her meals are fantastic: leftover duck breast, fresh greens and potatoes from her garden, a light pomegranate-lime juice.
Sipping a glass of the tangy red juice, Kennedy reflected on how much she enjoyed the quiet peace of her home.
"At this point in my life it would be pleasant to slow down a bit," she says. "But I just can't."
She springs to her feet. "I can't! There are so many more recipes out there, handed down mother to daughter, that are going to be lost. There are seeds and herbs and roots that could disappear. There is absolutely so much more that needs to be done!"