It struck me when I realized that within the space of two days, I seem to have gained a friend—a kindred spirit—and lost the very same.
Recently a reader of these scribbles who grew up with my little The Birthday Cake Book –A Child’s Golden Butterfly of Orange Cake with Meringue Marmalade and Jam Frosting celebrated her SECOND birthday—was in touch. She has the lovely name of Zola and she’s writing about food. Actually, Zola found her way to becoming a professional baker through my book (my Marbled Chocolate and Lemon Cake with Chocolate-Spattered Lemon Frosting got her a job, imagine). She asked if we could chat, so naturally we met on Zoom. I was enchanted. SIXTY years separate us but clearly we are sisters under the skin.
I volunteered to test recipes for her—starting with a cake tangy with sumac and rich with olive oil. Felicitous because I no longer bake at 6,000 feet, as I did when creating The Birthday Cake Book.
That was Saturday. Then Bill—who saves obituary pieces from The New York Times (we like to keep track)—said, “I think you know this person.” Oh no.
It was Diana Kennedy. Died at ninety-nine. Oh no.
Unless you’re an aficionado of English language books on Mexican cookery, you might not know the name.
Diana Southwood was born an hour north of London, served her country in WWII measuring the girth of trees, then in England and Scotland held down jobs doing this and that until at thirty she emigrated to Canada. There she earned her bread and butter selling Wedgwood china, running a film library, mucking about, it seems. All this time the brilliant feisty no-nonsense Englishwoman was slowly, steadily, filling her quiver. Unbeknownst.
When Diana was thirty-three, she happened to take a trip to Haiti…happened to meet The New York Times correspondent for Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America Paul Kennedy…happened to fall in love with him…he happened to live in Mexico City. Diana moved there, married him, fell in love with the foods of Mexico. Diana told Saveur magazine the markets “really blew my mind…the color of everything…the smells, and all the wild things that I hadn’t seen.” Wanted to cook them. For example, who can eat meticulously prepared corn fungus—the Aztec name is “huitlacoche”–without being curious as to where it came from, who imagined it might taste good, how it got to where you were eating it, and how to cook it? Not Diana.
Nine or so years after their marriage, Paul Kennedy fell ill with cancer. The couple moved to New York and there, Paul’s colleague, Times’ restaurant critic, Craig Claiborne, persuaded Diana to teach classes in Mexican cooking. She was game, taught every Sunday in their apartment. As fate would have it, one of her students was an editor at Harper & Row, Frances McCullough. Fran persuaded her teacher to set down her passion in print. Diana had no experience writing, but brilliance is brilliance, and so she did. Published in 1972 when Diana was pushing fifty, The Cuisines of Mexico sold 100,000 copies. It was the first of eight books.
After Paul’s death, Diana returned to Mexico, in time built herself an ecological house on several pristine acres in western Mexico, Michoacán. Grew everything, including her own coffee beans. Over the next fifty-five years, Diana chased across her adopted country on foot, burro, car, bus, and pick-up truck, one kitchen to the next market to the next bakery to the next field to the next hog slop…peering, inquiring, digging, jousting, tasting, cooking, preserving the flame, the stories, the faith.
“I’m out to report what is disappearing. I drive over mountains, I sit with families, and I record.”*
Now Diana was a very grande dame. Smallish, wiry, wrinkled, fierce, bristling with authority, truth, honor, to her gnarly fingertips. Why do I say honor? Because this woman’s life’s work was to document the commonplace…with perfect truth. Honor was essential.
In 1991 Diana was our overnight guest. How haps it Diana Kennedy was my husband’s and my guest?
Fran McCullough was my editor as well. It was when my Kitchen Garden books were in the works. Gene (Thompson, my late novelist husband) and I were living on a mountaintop, very super. Fran had invited Gene and me to come down off the mountain and have dinner with a visiting Diana at Campanile—Nancy Silverton and Mark Peel’s incomparable new restaurant. Who knows how I tempted Diana Kennedy to come back to the mountain with us. Gene was amusing company, I could cook. Diana was, I guess, appealed to by the idea of a mountain away from Los Angeles. She was very interested in native edible plants, which she heard I grew. And I’d designed the house, which I guess also interested her—as she was concerned with ecological living…was our house ecological? as much as could be in those days.
Now in my life thanks to circumstance, I’ve been privileged to stand next to, observe, maybe chat with or even share a meal with a handful of the earth’s more talented, celebrated people. But here I sit at my desk hundreds of miles and thirty-one years since Diana Kennedy and I were together in the kitchen of the Chimney House, preparing supper. I remember feeling keenly that she was sizing me up: “Who is this woman who writes about the garden with supposed authority—is she for real? Does she have a genuine knowledge of what she’s saying? or is she just a Hollywood brat who’s stumbled onto a metier?” Yes, no question that was what Diana was thinking as we scrubbed and sliced and diddled over supper. My husband was in his study working. It was we two women—Diana in her late sixties, I in my late fifties—playing together.
I was, of course, in heaven, but petrified.
What did we cook? Wish I knew. Was it good? Hope so.
But I do remember a moment at the sink and Diana, standing close, looking at me long and hard and suddenly out of the blue saying softly in her British mode, “I think we are soul mates.”
I was stunned. It was as though she’d decided to let her guard down for a moment, didn’t have to be the “brilliant ferocious direct uncompromising irate prickly” force the food critic Tejal Rao wrote about*.
My impression was that Diana had blue eyes…they were bright—ah, I read they were brown. But they shimmered as though they were blue.
We weren’t much in touch after that—Christmas cards for awhile–both of us dug deep into our lives. But Diana’s presence has never left me.
It was another handful of years before Diana Kennedy was awarded an Order of the British Empire from the monarch of the country in which she was born. Overdue.
She was ninety-nine when she took her leave. Damn stupid not to hang in there for the centenary. Except you know, I’m sure Diana didn’t give a fig about such things. That would be a stupid person’s goal (such as yours truly’s).
If there is a heaven and should I squeak through those gates, it would be delightful to see Diana Kennedy again. I hope there’s a sink for us to prepare vegetables at. (Is that a sentence?) A heavenly sink, what fun.
Well, yesterday grandson Cameron and I baked Zola’s Sumac, Lime, and Olive Oil Cake. Delectable. Cameron did most of putting it together—one bowl. Yum. The recipe will be online very soon for you to enjoy.
Then here’s to young Zola Gregory and her quest to elevate the unusual, the amusing, the delicious. Always a place at the table for that.
I am grateful for a new kindred spirit lighting my life.
* From “Road Tripping with Diana Kennedy” by Tejal Rao, The New York Times, May 21, 2019.