Gourmet's 50 Women Game Changers in Food: # 45, Diana Kennedy

Diana Kennedy was born in 1923 in Essex, UK. 
When the war broke out in 1939, Diana was not yet old enough to join any of the services, but when she turned 18 in 1941, she, like everyone else, had to join one of the forces. Either the Army, the Navy, or in her case — The WTC, The Women's Timber Corps. ( A British civilian organization created to work in forestry replacing men who had left to join the armed forces.)

"And because I would not salute anybody, I had to join the Timber Corps."
(Diana is famous for her tart tongue and quick temper, which obviously was in evidence way back then.)

She emigrated to Canada in 1953 and after four years, felt it was time to move on. On her way to visit a friend in Jamaica, she stopped off in Port au Prince, Haiti. There was a revolution going on. 

"And there were all sorts of guards in the airport, with their guns. [So I went to the hotel], and the first person I saw was Paul. And he was to be my future husband." 

Paul Kennedy was a New York Times correspondent and after their marriage in 1957,  they lived in Mexico. So not only did Diana have a new husband, but she found her calling. She developed a great interest in Mexico and its food and began to study, cook and write down Mexican recipes and ingredients. 

In 1966, they moved to New York. Paul died of cancer in 1967.

At the suggestion of Craig Claiborne in 1969, Diana started teaching Mexican cooking classes in New York. An editor heard about them and asked her to write a book. 

"I said okay, but I can't write," Diana recalled. 

She sent in her first pages, and then came down to Mexico to do further research, deciding to rewrite the book. The editor read the result, then called and told her, "Diana, what did you do over the summer? You taught yourself how to write." 

Published in 1972, "The Cuisines of Mexico" carries the dedication, "To my beloved Paul, who was my reason for being in Mexico in the first place."  She was referred to back then as, coincidentally, a "Game-Changer" because our understanding of Mexican food was never the same after that book was published.

Diana spent more than half the next 7 years travelling intensively to do research for future books. She says that every book has reflected a different time of her life. You will discover in
 all of Diana's books a respect for Mexico and Mexican cooking.
"You can see why a cookbook is so difficult and so laborious," she said. First there's the research, then the cooking and only after everything has been fully tested can the writing happen."

Her last book was about the cuisine of Oaxaca in southern Mexico. When asked if she was going to do yet another book she said: " I’d like to make a pact with the devil. I’m very old. No, I don’t think I would do another. What I’m going to do now is direct my attention to the uses of the edible wild plants, whether they be flowers, fruits, leaves, roots—whatever. "

Diana has also talked a bit about doing a book about Michoacán, her home since 1980. It's an adobe home on seven acres, mostly wild. Gardening is organic -- "There's no need not to be" - and nothing is wasted. 
Anything that can't be fed to the chickens goes to the compost pile, and, if it can't be composted, it's carted off to a sanitary landfill.

In 2003, Diana traveled to England to receive the Member of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth, awarded for improving British-Mexican cultural relations as well as her environmental activism.

Because I love cookbooks, I found it interesting to read about which are her favorites:

"The ones I cook from are The Cooking of Southwest France, by Paula Wolfert, and her Eastern Mediterranean.
Obviously we all go to Julia Child for the details.
And [some of what] Jacque [did] in the early days, Jacque Pépin.
Oh, and, Maida Heatter’s cookie book. I think that’s a phenomenal book! So I’ve done a lot of those, but I always have to reduce the sugar and put more fat in it.
Oh, another book that I love and I use, I cook all from it, is Carol Field’s The Italian Baker. It’s a phenomenal book. All the breads, the different pastries. You know, I cook. I’m a cook. People don’t realize that, but everything in my kitchen, I make. Pickles, everything. I’ve got pickled lemons, I’ve got English chutney — everything, I make. And that, to me, is the test of a cook — to know how to do everything. So all my bread, I make everything. I’m a cook."

Diana is known for her withering appraisals of competitors. The "Julia Child of Mexican Cuisine" is not a celebrity television chef, or a restaurateur with customers to pamper so I guess it's not necessary to be nice.
"She is a dogged, obsessive pop anthropologist who has spent the past 50 years traveling to some of the most remote corners of 'my Mexico,' as she calls it, wrangling home cooks to reveal their secrets with the imperial attitude." 

                                                                                                     Diana's Books

One interviewer was visiting and relates: "All the while, Kennedy complains. She complains of flu. She complains about poblano peppers from China and apples from America. "Outrageous!" She isn't happy about the state of her chicken house. She regrets deeply the rise of the Mexican industrial tortilla. She calls her gardener lazy. Warns us twice about the toilets. Gets really mad when someone tries to serve the women first. She apologizes for being prickly but doesn't stop." 

In David Kamp's 2006 book about the foodie revolution, "United States of Arugula," there is a funny passage about Rick Bayless meeting Kennedy for the first time in Mexico. "She did everything but just chew me up and spit me out," Bayless recalls. "I'd never been so poorly treated by any person. She said, 'This is over, I think we're done,' and kicked me out of her car and left me on the road. I had to walk back to town." 

Diana's an original, that's for sure. A very blunt woman who speaks her mind on just about everything. The stories I read about her while researching were really quite amusing. I guess when you're 88 you can do and say pretty much anything you want. And have a great time doing it :)


This dish reminded me of an old favorite my MIL used to make. A roasted fruit compote...which I posted HERE. It's composed of caramelized fruit, topped with sour cream to cut the sweetness. It takes about 2 hours in a slow oven. I consider Diana's dish the Caribbean version, as it is made with pineapple and bananas rather than canned peaches and dried apricots. 

The mixture is quite watery to begin with and nearly fills a baking pan. I used one that was 9 by 11 with sides about 2 inches. It also bakes in a rather (I thought) hot oven (350) for 4 hours. I kept a close watch on it not knowing what to expect. About 2 hours into baking, I lowered the oven temp to 325. Still, even then, it was easily done in three, not four, hours. You need to do quite a bit of stirring the last hour and a half to keep it from burning around the edges. When it got extremely thick and dark in color, I removed it from the oven. The flavor is amazing. Diana suggests serving it with creme fraiche, but if you don't have any, use sour cream. I like my MIL's dish served a bit warm with cold sour cream and think ideally this should be served that way as well.

In the cookbook, Diana tells about being introduced to this dish by her first Mexican maid, Luz. She neglected to ask her for the recipe and after much searching, finally it found years later in an 1895 cookbook published in Guadalajara.

Cajeta de Pina Y Platano 

From The Essential Cuisines of Mexico by Diana Kennedy

1 1/2 cups dark brown sugar
3 cups water
2 inch piece of cinnamon
1  pineapple (about 4 pounds)
2 pounds bananas (not too ripe)
2 inch piece of cinnamon stick, broken in half
Zest from ½ lime
Juice from ½ lime

Method:Pre-heat the oven to 350.
Boil water, sugar and cinnamon stick together for 20 minutes. Liquid should be reduced to about 2 1/2 cups. Remove the cinnamon stick.
Clean, peel and dice the bananas and pineapple. 
Puree all the prepared fruit with the syrup in a blender or food processor, to a medium texture. 
Put the puree in a roasting tin and add the second piece of cinnamon and the lime zest and juice. Place in the oven. 
Leave to cook for 4 hours, periodically scraping down the sides of stirring with a wooden spoon until the mixture becomes a rich dark brown. 
Remove from the oven, cool  and serve with  queso fresco or thick sour cream. 

Bench notes:
Can be kept in the fridge for up to 2 weeks 
The cooking can be started on the top of the cooker to speed things up, but it must be stirred all the time to avoid burning. 

Join Mary from One Perfect Bite and all the other participants in this fun series.


  1. A very interesting recipe! I've never heard of this dish...



  2. She is a character that's for sure and it sounds like she's been one all of her life.

    In the back of my memory I think she had a cooking show on maybe PBS a long time ago. It was way before the the Food Network and I seem to remember it was from her home in Mexico. She is the undisputed authority on the food of Mexico that's for sure.

  3. I enjoyed reading about Diana and her interesting life. Thanks for sharing it all with us Barbara.

  4. Found your post very interesting. Diana was quite a character and way before her time. Your dish is very unusual. Interesting flavors!

  5. Ha! She is definitely a feisty one. Can't fault somebody for speaking their mind, I suppose. I didn't know that story from Rick (my personal favorite)...crazy since they share so much of the same view on Mexican cuisine. I bet the long roasting time on this fruit intensifies the flavors so incredibly. Would love to try it!

  6. I like that she doesn't feel the need to be popular! You found a fascinating recipe! Never have seen anything like it - but oh my - wonderful flavors!

  7. I am thrilled to have discovered your blog and this wonderful series. The recipe is intriguing and your photo is lovely. Thank you for an entertaining story!

  8. Great info about Diana Kennedy..interesting recipe, too!
    Happy Friday from Gary St. Paul, Mn!

  9. Smart iPad.. Gray, not Gary!

  10. Wow. I want to meet her!! Not only do I adore Mexican, her appraisal of her peers is in line with my own opinions, and even if we disagreed, I think my can-be-sharp tongue would enjoy a lively debate...

  11. What a wonderful tribute to Diane Kennedy, Barbara. I do believe I sought out The Cooking of Southwest France, by Paula Wolfert because of her. It is one of my favorite books. I also have a few of Diane's early books too.

    The Pineapple and Banana dessert looks lovely. I sure would love a dollop right about now:)

    Thanks for sharing...

  12. This looks delicious, and your MIL's recipe sounds great too.
    Another great profile! I am so enjoying reading my way through this list.

  13. Diana sure sounds like a crochety old woman. I wouldn't want to be in the way in her kitchen. Beautiful and informative post!

  14. Looks wonderful! I'll bet I'd get along with Diana...

    just saying...

  15. Interesting character for sure. I'd stay out of her way but her recipes are fabulous. Dessert looks different but so delicious!

  16. what nice Lady and nice recipe Barbara!

  17. I loved the fruits of your research. This is a great post and introduction to Diana Kennedy. Having said that I love your recipe as well. Have a great weekend, Barbara. Blessings...Mary

  18. Looks like I need to invest in a Diane Kennedy cookbook!

  19. Diana Kennedy is a brilliant and fiery woman! I can vouch for the vivid flavors of her cuisine. This Cajeta de Pina Y Platano sounds amazing. I've never caramelized pineapples in the oven, but it sounds like something I ought to try.

  20. Diane Kennedy is practically an institution! I'm amazed at all that she has done and still continues to do.

    This cajeta sounds amazing. All of those fruits roasted and caramelized beyond belief...so good.

  21. You did Diana proud, Barbara. I loved the Bayless story, can you imagine a hero of yours treating you that way? On the other hand, the few times I've seen her she is an irascible character if ever there was one. I have a few of her books and remember getting her first one in the 80s when I started cooking. Before her, I thought of Mexican food as bad tacos with ground beef. After her many moles.... I was in love. I still make them from time to time and even kept her books after the moving purge a few years back (there was a library-full of cookbooks –– everyone gave me cookbooks, surprise).
    The recipe is so unsual... I've never made it before. Thanks for all the tips. Great post!

  22. Yeah, we ALL teach ourselves how to read over the summer! Wow. What a lady!

  23. What a very interesting recipe you picked. I made something similar to this without the cinnamon. I put it on toast. Thanks for sharing with us.

  24. She sounds like a Mexican version of Mrs. McGill!

  25. This looks like a jam or spread that I would totally use on breads, buns etc. Interesting pineapple and banana combo with cinnamon.

  26. What a remarkable woman and what an amazing dish. I didn't know about either of them before reading your post so thanks dear Barbara! Love your presentation and the beautiful plate you've used. Must look out for one like that here.

  27. This compote is such a neat dish ... done in the oven huh? Pineapples and bananas certainly work well together! I bet it was incredibly rich by the time the flavours were concentrated so intensely by the long cook time!
    You picked a truly one of a kind dish to share and your write-up is stellar!

  28. What an interesting life she has had and quite a collection of cookbooks she has written.

    I've never heard of this dish but the flavors sound wonderful!

  29. What an interesting dish you found to represent Diana Kennedy. Nobody can accuse her of not living life on her own terms, that's for sure. Thanks for such an informative read.

  30. i won't comment on the attractiveness of this dish, but it sounds delicious! thanks for the introduction to this fine lady and this fine treat!

  31. Hehehe, what a colorful woman. I can't wait to be 88 so I can throw around my attitude. This looks like a dish with intense flavor!



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