This award is given to a cookbook or body of work that has had a significant and enduring impact on the way we cook and understand food.
We have the late Craig Claiborne to thank for the force that is Diana Kennedy. A casual suggestion made to Kennedy during Claiborne’s days as the New York Times restaurant critic led her to write The Cuisines of Mexico, an achievement of meticulous research, fine writing, and groundbreaking recipes that by itself would merit its author a place in the James Beard Foundation’s Cookbook Hall of Fame. But Kennedy, never satisfied, as anyone who has spent time with her knows, kept researching, kept cooking, and kept writing books that just barely met her perfectionist standards and raised the bar for all who followed in her footsteps.
Kennedy lives what she writes. All around her adobe home in the mountains of Michoacán, she grows a botanist’s dream of indigenous herbs, fruits, and vegetables. And she has never stopped searching Mexico’s marketplaces, often in her familiar pickup truck.
Even at the age of 91 she continues to travel, ever on the lookout for honest cooks she can cajole into sharing a recipe that sheds light on a little-known technique or ingredient. As recently as 2011 she won the James Beard Foundation’s Cookbook of the Year award for the formidable Oaxaca al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy.
Editor Fran McCullough has said that Kennedy works “with an anthropologist’s eye but a home cook’s approach… She has both authority and an amateur’s total surrender to her subject.”
Her influence might best be described by Kennedy herself in a passage from Nothing Fancy, where she relates an exchange between herself and her late husband, Paul:
“We were in a motel room somewhere in Texas. Paul laid his knife and fork down soon after he had started his meal. ‘I don’t know whether to thank you or not,’ he bellowed. ‘Most of my life I could eat anything anywhere, but now look what you have done to me. This damned rubbish…’ With that he pushed his plate back in disgust."
Her books have not only helped us see Mexican food as something much more complex and delicious than the No. 2 combination dinner at our local neighborhood joint, but they have also forever changed our expectations of what it is to be a great cookbook writer.