For those removed from the culinary world, it may come as a surprise that one of the leading experts on traditional Mexican cuisine is an elderly English woman from Essex.
After moving to Mexico in the 1950s, Diana Kennedy developed a fascination with Mexican cuisine into a decades-long career as an author, historian, and celebrity chef. Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy, the new documentary from director Elizabeth Carroll, follows the 95-year-old firebrand across the world as she shares her secrets and turns her nose up at the mistakes people make in pursuit of authentic Mexican cuisine.
Kennedy was not the first woman to write about traditional Mexican cooking techniques and ingredients. That distinction belongs to Josefina Velázquez de León, who has been described by Saveur magazine as “the country’s first culinary anthropologist.” During her career, Josefina published more than 140 books on regional Mexican cuisine. Kennedy readily points to these books as the beginning of her obsession with the culture and composition of traditional meals. Both became fascinated with the means of manufacturing as much as the results, and Kennedy spent much of the 1960s traveling to remote parts of Mexico and documenting exact methodologies.
No scene better captures this spirit than when she makes guacamole for the camera. Cutting between present-day Kennedy and clips from her 1970s cooking show, Carroll shows the remarkably consistent approach Kennedy has taken to cooking over the past half-century. Both versions of the woman scoff at the shortcuts their American audiences might take (“You may not have a molcajete, but buy one”); both versions also decry contemporary touches – such as garlic or jalapeños – that represent departures from the old family methods. It is this adherence to tradition that demonstrates the power of food as history, not just sustenance.
Not content to explore Kennedy’s work as a historian and cook, Nothing Fancy also explores her efforts as an environmentalist. We are taken on a tour of her ecologically sustainable home – including the various fruits and vegetables she has brought back from her trips across rural Mexico – and listen to her as she voices her concerns regarding pollution and industrialization. Kennedy continually jokes about her mortality, but we soon come to understand this as a practical concern. Who will badger people into caring about regional cooking and culinary conservationism if she is not around?
Of course, one could hardly fit a life this big in under 90 minutes, and Nothing Fancy shies away from trying to unpack Kennedy’s enormous impact on both the United States and Mexico. Much could be said about how Kennedy’s work helped shape the cultural perception of Mexico for Americans; even the divisions within the food world – such as the rise in popularity of Tex-Mex as a culinary niche – might warrant another feature-length study. The fact that Carroll and her crew choose to focus on the individual makes for a more engaging narrative, but the lack of broader context sometimes feels like a missed opportunity.
Still, Kennedy’s repeated declarations that some things are worth the extra time comes to serve nicely as the film’s grand unifying theory. In one scene, she uses antique cookware to boil her coffee beans over the stove. This is a process that takes 20-30 minutes to complete, but this is time Kennedy is willing to spend for even incremental improvement to the taste. Imagine how much better the world might be if we were all as intentional in our actions?
Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy is currently available through Greenwich Entertainment’s initiative whereby streaming “tickets” can be bought through virtual ticket booths for local arthouse cinemas. Choose from:
• Violet Crown Cinema (Tickets here)
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