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Diana Kennedy Collection: 'If Something Happened To Me, What Would Happen To All These Things?'

One of the largest collections of Mexican cookbooks in the nation recently received a donation of archives, letters, and rare Mexican cookbooks from a doyenne of traditional Mexican cuisine.

Diana Kennedy has often been called the Julia Child of Mexican cooking. But she’s not a celebrity chef. Kennedy has spent over five decades traveling throughout Mexico to unearth the country’s unique cuisines and preserve them for posterity.

Kennedy’s collection of 19th century cookbooks, personal papers and photos are now part of a Mexican cookbook collection at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

The 96-year-old British native traveled nearly 900 miles from her home in Michoacán to hand-deliver her archives to UTSA Libraries Special Collections.

Dean Hendrix, Dean of Libraries at UTSA, said Kennedy had shopped around her collection to other cities and universities, and San Antonio came out on top.

Credit Amy Rushing / The University of Texas at San Antonio
Diana Kennedy at the unboxing of her 19th century Mexican cookbooks at UTSA Libraries on February 11, 2019.

“San Antonio is a crossroads,” Hendrix said. “The border has crossed us several times. This region is tightly connected, obviously, to Mexico. When Diana heard about the programming we’ve done, how we’ve been incentivizing faculty to use the cookbook collection to teach Latin American history or history of Texas, I think that peaked her interest.”

Amy Rushing, head of Special Collections at UTSA Libraries, said the collection doesn’t only contain her observations and documentation of her travels. It contains scrap books and correspondence.

“Some correspondence with famous chefs like Julia Child, letters that people have written to her, sort of fan letters. There’s documentation of Prince Charles’ visit to her home.”

Ven a Comer, which translates as “Come to Eat,” is an annual fundraiser inspired by UTSA’s Mexican Cookbook Collection, which consists of around 1.900 cookbooks, some of them dating back to 1789. Diana Kennedy’s collection is its latest addition.

Credit Norma Martinez / Texas Public Radio
This card demonstrates how much it will cost to conserve an 1845 cooking dictionary owned by Diana Kennedy.

This year’s Ven a Comer fundraiser honored the self-described ethno-gastronomer. The nonagenarian says her encroaching mortality inspired her to consider preserving her legacy.

“I’m getting old, you see, I’m 96,” Kennedy said. And I’ve been (living) almost 50 years in Mexico, and (written) seven books since then. It is an awful lot of material. I don’t think I’ll live very much longer. I’m trying to make it to 100. I have to recognize that if something happened to me, what would happen to all these things?”

Kennedy said some materials will stay with her until her death, including her culinary library, “which I use all the time. I have some lovely 19th century Mexican cookbooks that need to be under special care.”

Kennedy is concerned that her home in Michoacán isn’t the ideal place to store her collection.

“We’re about to enter another rainy season," she said, "so you know what happens to the old paper and print of these books.”

Credit Norma Martinez / Texas Public Radio
Leah Rios and Katie Rojas, archivists with UTSA Libraries.

Preservation is a costly process. Leah Rios, a project archivist at UTSA Libraries Special Collections, said Kennedy’s classic cookbook collection presents the biggest challenge.

“Each of them, they’re about over $1000 each to either get the pages cleaned,” Rios said. “It’s...expensive to redo the book binding. You have to un-sew it, re-sew it. That’s like a real specialty and it’s very expensive.”

She said digitizing the books will run another $2,000 to $5,000. 

Kennedy said no one item in her donated collection stands out to her, but they bring to mind the one constant companion that transported her to markets and homes across Mexico – her trusty Nissan double cab pickup truck.

“Nobody, nobody, has driven all over that country like me,” said Kennedy. Her truck is 19 years old, “but it still goes and it still is my pride and joy. I always say I wish it could talk because we’ve been through floods and landslides and all sorts of things together. This, I think will see me out. I would love another five years. It’s got history.”

Kennedy says if anybody walks away with anything from her writings and her culinary research, she wants it to be a respectful and proper treatment of the traditional ingredients.

“I wish people would realize that the preparation of Mexican food is detailed, and it takes more time,” said Kennedy. “Most people don’t bother. I do. I’m always saying, ‘oh my god, they didn’t do something,’ or ‘they put garlic in their guacamole,’ which they should never do. So I’m a bit of a scourge, all right?”

The frank-talking scourge’s legacy will be available for research at the University of Texas at San Antonio once the cataloging and preservation work are complete. Until then, no garlic in the guac. Got it.

Find out how to support the Diana Kennedy Collection here.


Norma Martinez can be reached at Norma@TPR.org and on Twitter at @NormDog1.

Norma Martinez can be reached at norma@tpr.org and on Twitter at @NormDog1
Lauren Terrazas can be reached at lauren@tpr.org and on Twitter at @terrazas_lauren