By Soll Sussman
Photography by Jenna Noel
I first met Mexican cuisine expert and cookbook author, Diana Kennedy, more than 25 years ago while interviewing her at her farm in Zitácuaro, Michoacán—about a three-hour drive from Mexico City. Even then, when environmental activism wasn’t exactly common in Mexico, her home was known as the Rancho Ecológico for her intense practice of rainwater conservation and other ecological steps.
We became friends over the years during her stays in Austin, her U.S. residence, sharing long conversations about Mexican and American politics, environmentalism, movies and life. We talk only rarely about food. Frequently, she’s been the first to bring an ecological topic or practice to my attention—declining plastic bags in stores, for example—long before it became a common practice.
“I’m a pain in the ass in the supermarket,” Diana once told me, “because I will speak out in a very loud voice to the person who has one banana in a huge plastic bag, two apples in another…at least ten plastic bags with one little item in each.”
Over the past year or so, I’ve been hearing more and more from Diana about the growers at the Austin farmers markets and how impressed she’s been by their enthusiasm and commitment to sustainability. She suggested I write about them, and I agreed to—but only if my dear friend and movie-going buddy would accompany me on the journey. We’d make it an anthropological experiment of sorts—I’d tag along as Diana investigated and chatted with farmers. Much to my surprise, Diana agreed to the idea—but only if I promised to keep the spotlight on the farmers and away from her celebrity.
We began at the Austin Farmers’ Market downtown, and curiosity was the order of the day. Diana was eager to learn about the difficulties and expenses of organic certification, where the farmers’ children go to school, how much grass it takes to feed bison and why plastic bags are still being used. It was a nonstop discussion carried out amid the pleasant bustle of shopping, tasting, visiting and music.
“How much are your onions?” one shopper loudly asked Acadian Family Farm’s Nannette Ardoin, interrupting a cheerful account of her years living near Puebla, Mexico as a missionary. “Fifty cents apiece,” she answered, before resuming her conversation with Diana.
“We were doing mission work, so we wanted to live out in a country area so my husband could have a dairy,” Nannette said. “They were supposed to bring our electricity, and they just never got around to it. We lived there for three years without electricity.”
A few stands down, Diana was drawn to an impressive spread of tiny Brussels sprouts, yellow and green squash arranged artfully in small baskets and other fresh delights John Engel had brought in from his farm near Fredericksburg.
“I love your mixed squash there,” Diana told him, in her precise British accent. “I think that’s a very interesting idea—very pretty. Charming.”
Engel shared that originally tomatoes and squash were the farm’s main crops back when his grandparents were working it—organically, as a matter of course, since there were no synthetic alternatives in the old days.
Unlike Engel, with generations of farming experience, Govinda Hough and her family are new to the Austin market with their sustainable produce from Winfield Farm in Red Rock. She and her husband planted a 4,600 square-foot garden and began farming after moving to Texas from California in 2007 as self-described corporate refugees. When asked if the produce is organic, Hough responded with an enthusiastic “Yes—we put the seed in the ground by hand!” She joked that afterwards, she and her family stand around and plead, “Please grow, please grow,” to the hidden potential.
Diana recounted the story of a man in Mexico who claimed that if you want to put in papaya trees, you have to have a full moon…and you have to be naked. Govinda laughed and said that her neighbors might object to that method.
Kris Olsen of Milagro Farm in Red Rock studied chemical engineering in college and worked as a naturalist before becoming a farmer. He and his wife Amy, who is pregnant with their first child, are in their second year of farming about three acres. “I never thought I’d become a farmer,” said Kris. “I decided that this is how I can teach people about nature—by producing a product that tastes better because I’m in line with nature.”
We lingered a bit to admire Olsen’s heirloom red onions and robust Texas 1015s as the pungent fragrance of onions and green garlic encircled us and became intensified by the heady scent of dill from a neighboring stand.
Diana was interested in learning more about the wild Texas Guajillo honey from Thunder Heart Bison’s Shape Ranch near Carrizo Springs, and the various bison products that Patrick Fitzsimons was selling. She was impressed to discover that their bison herd is the first in the country to become Animal Welfare Approved. “We don’t use slaughterhouses or any of the other techniques that the big industrial guys use,” Fitzsimons told Diana, eliciting an “Oh, wow!”
“What about the innards?” she asked him. “We sell the liver, the heart and the kidney,” he said. “That’s really good for you—especially the heart.”
During our visits to both the downtown and Triangle markets, Diana—now well into her 80s—didn’t hesitate to remind shoppers and vendors that they should be using cloth bags.
“You’ve got to think about the end product…the beginning product, and the end product,” Diana said. “I have no patience with people who say, ‘Oh, yes, but I recycle.’ That’s not the point. You’re using a bag that has taken up petroleum and energy.”
When I considered using a plastic bag to take home a basket of purchased green beans, Diana chided me: “If you’re with me, no way! I’ll stuff them in my pocket if I don’t have a bag. We cannot have organic food if we don’t have a clean environment.”
Diana made a point to give credit to the farmers and markets for helping to grow environmental awareness. “I think what it’s done is help people become more aware of the contamination of our planet when they hear about the struggle to become organic,” she said. “I remember when I was growing up in England, listening to the radio—there used to be a gardening show. Let’s see when that was…that was in the ’30s. It was natural that he was talking about composting, and that the oak leaves were richer in compost…and you see then, all that went out of the window when people found they could get faster results with chemicals.”
Throughout our visit, Diana joked that she is never reluctant to tell it like it is, give advice or offer an opinion. “I do believe people are sick of hearing me say it,” she said. “Every calorie should be a good one. That’s one of my things, and everybody quotes me on that.”
Since The Cuisines of Mexico was published in 1972, Diana has written a series of books that have painstakingly documented and preserved the rich traditions of Mexico and its food culture. I asked Diana if her conversations and obvious interest in the Austin farmers resembled the approach she takes when researching her books.
“Yes, yes, of course,” she said. “That’s why people like my books, because it’s giving recognition to the culture and the experience of these people.”
Diana Kennedy’s new book, Oaxaca al Gusto, on the southern state of Oaxaca, was written and first published in Spanish. It will be published in English next year by the University of Texas Press.