Amy Rushing, the head of special collections at the University of Texas at San Antonio’s libraries, had a surprisingly touching moment with Diana Kennedy earlier this year.
The 96-year-old cookbook author and ethno-gastronomer had just made the nearly 900-mile drive from her home in Michoacán to San Antonio to make a special delivery.
Kennedy had announced earlier this year that she would be donating her archives and cookbook collection to UTSA, and in February she dropped off her rarest cookbooks, a set of 11 books from the 1800s, including an 1828 edition of “Arte Nuevo De Cocina y Reposteria Acomodado al Uso Mexicano,” which is possibly the only existing copy of the book.
When Kennedy arrived to hand over the books, Rushing says, she asked the staff not to open the box until she could come in the next day.
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“We had this unboxing ceremony with her,” Rushing says. “She took them out of the box, one by one, and told us about each one. They are special books for her, and she wanted to have one last look.”
Rushing says it was an emotional moment with a woman who is known for her stoicism and grit.
“She used them over and over again,” she says. “Many of the books have her notes in the margins as she pored over them to recreate some of the recipes.”
UTSA has what is likely to be the country’s largest collection of Mexican cookbooks, more than 1,900 books, including the earliest known manuscript cookbook, a hand-bound notebook from 1789.
Rushing says that when she first became head of special collections, the original donation for the Mexican cookbook collection came from a former public librarian, Laurie Gruenbeck, who donated 550 books from her travels in Mexico and beyond.
Over the past five years, Rushing and her staff have intentionally set out to expand the collection, but Kennedy’s library of more than 600 books in all will add significantly to the stacks, which are available to faculty and food scholars, as well as chefs and members of the community.
Rushing says that the library works with faculty to develop curriculum around the materials, so they have had history and sociology students who used the cookbook collection for their assignments.
“Food really resonates with people, and every time we bring the cookbooks out for people to see, they just go crazy,” she says. “Because of our strong connections to Mexico, they see recipes in these cookbooks and say, ‘Oh, my grandmother made that,’” she says.
Last year, San Antonio was named a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy, so there’s a lot of synergy between the current and historical food cultures, Rushing says.
Because Kennedy is still very much a working culinary professional, the remainder of her donation to UTSA will arrive over the next few years.
Kennedy will be back in Texas next week for two sold-out events, one at UTSA on May 5 called Ven a Comer that will honor Kennedy and Mexican chef Juan Cabrera, followed by a celebration on May 6 at Fonda San Miguel in Austin.
“Diana has always been on our radar because as far as Mexican cooking and the documentation of traditional recipes, she’s it,” says Rushing.
In addition to the books, Kennedy is donating the equivalent of 11 linear feet of archives, including correspondence with Julia Child and Paula Wolfert, photographs, scrapbooks, menus and field notes from the decades she has spent traveling throughout Mexico to document the country’s varied cuisines, botanical riches and the culinary lives of everyday Mexicans.
“Her papers and cookbooks will allow for a totally different way of studying Mexican cooking and history,” she says. “This is the most amazing collection. Katie Rojas, the archivist who is processing this collection, can’t stop smiling.”