I thought I flew to Mexico because I wanted to study cooking with Diana Kennedy, who died last this year at ninety-nine years old, but the opportunity turned out to be about more than my kitchen skills. In the end, this active, energetic woman spurred my own retirement.
Slouched at my library reference desk in Seattle in December 2009, I saw an email message from my friend Clayton.
"Is anyone interested in four fabulous days working like slaves and eating like queens in Zitacuaro, Mexico in July?"
Reviewers called her "the Julia Child of Mexican Cooking" and the Mexican government honored her contributions to their cuisine over fifty-years research in Mexico. To me, she was a favorite author whose books I had collected since the Eighties when my friend Clayton sent me Nothing Fancy. Most recently, I had been photographed with a copy of her book My Mexico in a READ poster for the library where I worked, and I owned eight of her cookbooks.
An avid cook, Clayton had scored an invitation to bring four of us to study with the doyenne herself. Kennedy rarely offered private classes, but Clayton had known her for years and snagged this rare invitation.
I knew she was a tough teacher, but I was excited to meet her, work in her kitchen, learn from her. Anxious to see if my boss had approved my vacation request submitted an hour earlier. I literally couldn’t wait; I got up and went straight to the boss’s office.
She glanced up at me, brushed her perfect blonde pageboy behind her ear. "Mary Kay, let me check the schedule for next summer,” she said, unlocked the gray filing cabinet next to her desk. “Library policy now allows only one of you to take leave at the same time." "Since when?" I asked, aware that edicts flew back and forth from management with regularity. "The board changed policy in the last month or so. I see someone else has already asked for that week, so I'm sorry, but I cannot let you take it off." She closed the drawer. I asked her about providing my own substitutes to fill needed hours, but she said no. She turned the key in the closed drawer.
Steaming inside, I returned to my desk to phone home. When my husband Michael answered, I spoke in a low voice from my open cubicle.
"I am tempted to retire right now?" I would be retirement age in August.
The job had become increasingly stressful, with changes in technology. Most of our queries were about downloading this app or service from the library website, not the mind stumpers of past years. Michael was tired of wondering if Dr. Jekyll or Ms. Hyde would open the door each evening after my hour commute. I checked pension requirements online and started filling out the paperwork. This would be it, no turning back once I made the request. I could imagine how a canary might feel with the cage door opened. Within an hour of my denied leave request, I returned to my boss’s office, this time thrusting my retirement papers at her, effective in June. Not one hair moved on her golden head as my boss perused the papers, her face as pale and smooth as the Japanese dolls she collected. “We’ll miss you,” she said, forcing a smile.
That evening, I put up my feet, poured a glass of Sauvignon Blanc and contemplated my upcoming freedom in the same way I contemplated Diana Kennedy—with equal measures wonder and fear. Could I survive on the pension? Would I get bored? My retired brother-in-law floundered between volunteering and daytime TV after he planted his garden. But that wasn’t me. I had lists of postponed tasks, book titles and travels in mind.
And I intended to become a tamale queen after these classes.
In early July of 2010, Michael and I were in a roomy chauffeured van zooming northwest from Mexico City to Diana’s home in Zitácuaro, Michoacán, with our cohort: my old friend Clayton from New York, Kristine, a gourmet pal twenty years my junior; Mark, a fellow librarian; and Darrel, who owned an art gallery in Los Angeles. Michael did not plan to cook, but he’d join us for lunch. When we got to town, black-masked federal police stood in the beds of new pickup trucks, sporting M-16 rifles in front of their bullet-pocked police headquarters. Diana had discounted the narco trafficking concerns in the news. “Oh, they don’t shoot tourists,” she wrote in her email. Our driver, seeing the police spectacle, sped to our hotel, a sublime oasis of rustling palms, bougainvillea, and colorful songbirds. This area of Mexico was known as the winter home of the Monarch butterflies. Cozy casitas bordered a curvaceous swimming pool. Three big chocolate Labs sprawled in front of the doors to our rooms.
We had just finished feasting on pork stew with tomatillos and squash tamales when Diana bustled into the restaurant dining room. She was in her late eighties, dressed in white with colorful embroidery, no bra, no makeup, sprightly, nimble, boiling with energy.
Her British accent intact after fifty years in Mexico, Diana outlined our agenda for the next four days and presented the rules: no tardiness; one-half gallon of drinking water for the duration — there was a shortage of potable water, and she loathed those plastic water bottles; and only one beer each for lunch—no squiffy cooks. We were to stay in the kitchen and main living room, not to trail through other parts of the house. She emphasized that we would be in her home, not a public school. The lavatory was outside, downhill from the house, a comfortable airy pine-bough floored hut. Copies of the recipes could be found in her books. No need to ask. "Read the book" was her watchword and already we punctuated every sentence with it.
She went around the table, shaking each of our hands warmly. She exuded confidence, authority, and pluck.
The next morning around 8:30 the lessons began.
We stared at the pile of pink meat on the counter as Diana mixed chopped herbs, chiles and chard into the freshly ground pork for green chorizo. We worked in pairs, each grabbing a pile of the raw meat to stuff into casings. Kristine and I giggled as we tried to force the mixture, bright green with herbs, into the recalcitrant condom-like pig gut casing. At a glance from Diana, we put on serious faces.
"More meat," Kristine advised as I stuffed the bright piles into the now-bulging, two-foot cylinders stretched out on the tile counter. After frying sample bits to taste test the sausages, both the herb version and the chile-studded red, we tied off the fat cylinders and hung them in the window above the sink to weep their spicy juices.
Diana quizzed us daily on the names for different chiles and their treatments. "Read the book," Diana said in response to each recipe query. But asked about the chiles, she preached eloquently on which state they grew in and their uses by local cooks. "You cannot rely on just knowing fresh from dried and thinking there's a blanket prep method. Each chile is different." Every time we mentioned chiles, I got anxious, fearful of screwing up the name or purpose and being scolded.
“Set out a template for dicing squash and follow it for conformity. You can’t expect the pieces to cook evenly if they are different sizes.” We felt the phantom sting of rapped knuckles; we re-cut our squash to uniform half-inch cubes. She chastised one of my companions for not listening: “I am the teacher here, listen to me,” Diana said. shaking her finger at Mark.
I chopped peaches for the celestial guacamole sparkling with pomegranate seeds, and I thought of my library colleagues back home. Answering queries at the telephone reference desk was one of the best jobs in the library, but the times had changed. The work with the public was satisfying, but institutional politics rankled. My evaluations accused me of not being a “team player.” I had a headstrong streak, not unlike Diana, but I was not such a perfectionist. I filled the blender with vegetables, whirring them into a smooth concoction for sauces. But not the guacamole. Diana showed how to smash the avocadoes by pestle, so they were chunky. Never wasting a motion, she glided from the counter--which held machines and glass jars of fermenting vinegars--to the stove, always aware of what was cooking and for how long. Compared to her efficiency, I sallied back and forth. My mind wandered before I reined it back in and paid attention.
“Get a couple of mulatas from the tray, please,” she ordered. The dark red mulata chiles and the reddish-black anchos continued to confound me, and she had no time for fumblers. I hesitated before taking a lucky guess.
One morning Diana announced we were to go upstairs to see her balcony herb garden. We were all excited to see the rest of the house since we were only permitted in the kitchen and meals were served outside on the veranda. After lunch, our footsteps echoed on the old, glazed floor tiles. As we walked through the living room, I tried to take in as much as I could: her small desk, her cookbook collection, the display of shiny green and black antique ceramics, the framed photo of her late husband, Paul. Had she had more lovers after she was widowed so long ago, I wondered? Or did she keep her passion for the man she had lost to cancer in her forties? She was an attractive woman, not someone to sit on a shelf and, in my experience, Mexico was not a place where that would happen.
My mind was imagining her love affairs when Diana announced she’d forgotten key. We lined up on the indoor terrace of the living room while she went back downstairs. In her absence, my classmates chatted quietly. I sidled up the five steps to her bedroom for a quick peek into the inner sanctum, which was shielded by a large potted plant. She must have crept like a cat across the living room because I never heard a thing until a distinctly upper-class British accent rang out:
“Excuse me, who gave you permission to be there?” My friends turned to her. She had appeared out of nowhere at the bottom of the staircase, her arms folded across her chest as she chastised me. “I told you my private rooms were strictly out of bounds when you came. The nerve.
“A slow burn starting up my cheeks. “I’m so sorry…”
Perhaps what I wanted to find in that secret bedroom was evidence of a lover, a stash of exotic aphrodisiac drugs, a clue how she had lived independently in Mexico for these many years. Admittedly, I was a snoop. She had lived alone almost as long as I had been alive. Where were those stories? Was her work enough to sustain her? All I managed to see in the bedroom was a luxurious Mexican quilt and mosquito netting, heavy bedside tables with one lamp, very tidy. If I had her opportunities, my boudoir might have included a golden-skinned young man sprawled on the counterpane with a glass of Mescal. I sheepishly retraced my steps, last in line as Diana opened the door to the herb garden and we filed into the greenhouse to examine her oregano, thyme and cilantro.
Diana may have been a closed book to us, her participants, but her interactions with the men and women at the meat and produce counters at the local market sparked attention and she knew every vendor by name. She took her time and appreciated their offerings. In her books, she was careful to use Latin names for the herbs and vegetables. She was as fussy over accuracy as any librarian. In her fieldwork tearing around the Mexican countryside in her 1992 Nissan King Cab Pickup, she included a botanist and always had her camera. She shot most of the photos in her books. There were many shots of the cooks. “I’ve credited every woman who gave me a recipe,” she said. “You can see their names in my books. I couldn’t do it without them.”
I’d majored in Latin American Studies but went no further other than vacation trips to Latin America. Here, under Diana’s tutelage, I couldn’t help but compare our lives, our divergent paths. She would test a recipe dozens of times to be sure it worked. Her passion for her subject fueled her work ethic. I was heady with freedom when I divorced after a brief marriage at eighteen, enjoyed seventeen years of singlehood—a librarian cliché, except for the romantic trysts--before I married Michael thirty years ago and a lucky pendulum swung my way. Maybe each of us has only one great love in a lifetime.
After five days together, our final meal at Diana’s was on Thursday: cochinita pibil cooked in the horno or outdoor clay oven. A baronial hunk of pork had been roasting on a wood fire since dawn. The slow oven yielded a mahogany-colored, heavenly-scented roast dripping with succulent fat ready to shred for our waiting tortillas. Michael and I have tried to duplicate the meal ever since, but something is different in the construction of the horno and the species of wood she used, or maybe it’s an indescribable ambience that is missing from our Seattle backyard.
Diana was right; I did have nerve. In my garden each summer, I coddle the pot with the huge leaves of the Hoja Santa plant (“holy leaf”) which we smuggled from Diana’s garden past enforcement at Customs, concealed in underwear in Michael’s suitcase. The leaves lend a mysterious licorice allure to bean and fish dishes and link me to my lessons from Diana.
While Diana and I didn't become close, I think she forgave my trespass, and she was taken with Michael. She's not a grudge-holder and I was a good student and book-valuing librarian. She had fulfilled our expectations, no one had cried, and we had a good grasp on tamales.
At ninety-nine, Diana has not yet retired. My own impromptu retirement was the right move. The life I sought, sparked by Diana’s cooking class, was exactly what I wanted. A man I love sprawls on the embroidered Indian tapestry from our travels which decorates the king-sized bed. A Labradoodle snores at the foot and books overflow our bedside tables while we plot fantasy Mexican meals over Diana’s books.
Take a peek inside any time.
Mary Kay Feather, retired librarian, is writing a memoir about growing up in the Sixties. She has been published in Ruminate and Persimmon Tree. She has lived in Seattle most of her life and once powder-puffed as a driver at a local auto race track before marrying an anti-war activist.