It seems like everything I’ve dreamed of doing in Mexico, Diana Kennedy has already done -- which makes sense, considering she arrived here in 1957. Kennedy has worked in a Mexican panadería. She has toured the country befriending fabulous cocineras, and coaxed out the secrets of their prized recipes. She's passionate about preserving traditional Mexican cuisine just as it is. And she hasn’t wavered in that mission, even into her 80’s. Last Friday she gave a book presentation at UNAM’s Jardín Botánico, hosted by the university’s Instituto de Biología. The event honored her new cookbook, Oaxaca al Gusto, and Kennedy was scheduled to give some remarks and sign copies. Afterward the crowd could partake in a Mexican food degustación. The event was open to the public, but the simple flyer belied how star-studded the afternoon actually was. Preparing the tasting were some of the best-known women in Mexico City cooking: Carmen "Titita" Ramirez of El Bajío; Gabriela Cámara of Contramar, and Marcela Briz of El Cardenal. Kennedy herself had brought beans she’d prepared at home in Zitácuaro. Dr. Robert Bye, Investigador Titular with UNAM’s Instituto de Biología, opened the talk with a funny, comprehensive power point presentation of Kennedy’s past. There were pictures of her house in Zitácuaro and bits of her bio cut-and-pasted from various articles. Interestingly, Bye heard of Kennedy through Julia Child, who’d raved to him about Kennedy’s first book, The Cuisines of Mexico. After Bye’s remarks, Dr. José Sarukhan, the national coordinator for CONABIO, Mexico’s biodiversity commission, spoke of Kennedy’s efforts to help categorize and organize information about Mexico’s native plants. And then, finally, Kennedy herself took the microphone. She looked stylish in white linen pants and a peach-colored poncho top with a chunky necklace. Her voice was raspy and slightly high-pitched, and she poked fun at the organizers for their praise-filled introduction. “Let’s stop with all this ‘Diana Kennedy,’” she said in Spanish. “You all know I have my sharp points, eh?” Everyone laughed. Much has been written about Kennedy’s brusque personality, but during her talk I found her to be refreshingly candid, and practically joyful about the job she gets to do. Oaxaca Al Gusto is not the typical cookbook. Kennedy spent years traveling through the state to find these recipes, and I don't doubt that it's the first time several have been written down. The hyper-local ingredients mean mainstream cooks probably couldn’t make most of the dishes. But the book is not really aimed at those people. It’s a book of how people eat in Oaxaca -- an anthropological work that should be shelved next to the Concaculta indigenous recipe books, and other important Mexican food references. During her presentation, Kennedy engaged the crowd with some of the highlights of her research: pockmarked tortillas made in a cylindrical oven, steamed tortillas wrapped in hoja de milpa, polka-dotted fruits used to make mole amarillo in the Chinantla region. When she got particularly excited, she’d lean forward and gesture with her arms, using adjectives like “maravillosa” or “muy intersante” to describe a particular chile or foam she’d found. (I don't mean molecular gastronomy foams here -- this foam refers to the "espuma" atop an atole or a tejate.) I was enchanted by this thin, delicate-boned woman. She was inspired by the very same things that inspired me -- the diversity of Mexican ingredients, the patience required to prepare them, the exotic techniques sometimes called for. She was still on fire for Mexican food, more than 50 years after she first tried it. After the talk, the crowd filtered out into the courtyard for the degustación. Degustación was not really the correct word -- this was a full-blown meal. Two types of tamales had been prepared by Titita, plus chichilo mole, pipián de camarones and tortitas de bacalao from El Cardenal. Cámara brought tostadas de atún, ceviche, brochetas de camerón and tortilla de acelgas con quelites. Then there were Kennedy's beans, which were served smeared on a totopo. Kennedy had talked down the beans during her speech, saying they were a bit "tired" because she'd cooked them two days before. (“Vamos a tener que usar el ‘microwave,’” she’d told the crowd, grimacing a bit.) I found them simple and lovely, although the fuerte mole and pipián had numbed my palate a bit. Since I already have a signed copy of Oaxaca Al Gusto, I got in line with my copy of Mexican Regional Cooking, one of Kennedy's older cookbooks. I’d bought it at a used book store maybe two years ago and hadn't actually read it yet. But I had used it as a reference several times. Kennedy asked me how to spell my name. Then she said, "Did you read about when I worked in a Mexican bakery?" I thought she meant in a newspaper article. "No!" I said, surprised and suddenly adoring her that much more. She frowned a bit. "It's in the book. You didn't read it?" I started babbling. "No, I...." "You haven't read it. These books are for reading." She emphasized the last word, as if I was some frivolous cook who makes a recipe without reading it first. (Okay, so I've done that before. But not with one of her recipes. Well... maybe I have done it with one of her recipes. But that was, like, more than a year ago. I've learned a lot since then.) I tried to tell her, "I'm reading the book right now!" but it came out like, "I own a book library!" so I shut up and got out of the line. I sat on a nearby chair and felt foolish. She didn't seem too annoyed, however. She smiled at everyone in line, and her eyes lit up again when one person mentioned papalo quelite. Kennedy asked whether the woman had tried a specific papalo quelite in Guerrero, and told her of a certain market where she could get it. I tried not to stare too much at her, although I felt completely in awe of her knowledge. At the end of the day, after all the guests cleared out, Kennedy stood around with the organizers of the event. You could tell she was happy. "You kids really put on a show," she told them, smiling wide, the corner of her eyes crinkling. In case Kennedy ever happens to stumble upon this article, I have since read several pages of Mexican Regional Cooking, including the portion on her bakery apprenticeship. *** If you're interested in reading more about Diana Kennedy's life and her new book, Oaxaca Al Gusto, I highly recommend Alma Guillermoprieto's fabulous article in the New York Review of Books.