No foreigner has done as much to promote Mexican cuisine as Diana Kennedy, a 97-year-old British-born food writer, home chef and cookbook author who has called Mexico home for around half a century.
Now, a documentary explores the life and passions of the woman who has been described as “the rock star of Mexican cooking” and an authority on the cuisine of her adopted country.
Described as a “short, sharp, marvelously watchable docu-portrait” by The Guardian newspaper’s film critic, Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy is the directorial debut of filmmaker Elizabeth Carroll.
Just minutes into the film, Kennedy’s editor at the publishing house Harper & Row, Frances McCullough, poses the question: “How can it be that a white British woman knows more about Mexican food than anybody else?”
Carroll’s 80-minute film searches for an answer, says food writer Mayukh Sen in a review for The Washington Post.
The documentary succinctly covers key events in Kennedy’s life, including her birth in England in 1923 and her first trip to Mexico in 1957 with Paul Kennedy, a New York Times correspondent who would become her husband.
While living with him in Mexico City, Diana Kennedy – the author of nine Mexican cookbooks – developed a great love for Mexican food that would endure throughout her whole life.
She moved to New York for a period in the 1960s but after her husband’s death from cancer, Kennedy settled for good in Mexico in the 1970s and dedicated the ensuing years to continuing her intensive on-the-ground research about Mexican cooking and culinary traditions.
She continues to live on an off-the-grid property near Zitácuaro, Michoacán.
Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy, writes The Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw, “shows us her life in Michoacán, … vigorously engaged with her community, lecturing and giving media interviews and masterclasses in Mexican cooking, taking long walks, driving herself around the place, visiting markets and not hesitating to tell stallholders if their produce isn’t up to scratch.”
The documentary “functions as a tender character study of Kennedy in the twilight of her life,” writes Sen.
It features interviews with several foreign chefs and admirers of the nonagenarian as well as insights from three Mexican chefs: Abigail Mendoza of the Tlamanalli restaurant in Oaxaca, Pati Jinich, host of the television series Pati’s Mexican Table and Gabriela Cámara of Mexico City’s Contramar, who describes Kennedy as a “legend.”
The film, which has received near-unanimous praise since premiering at Texas’ South By Southwest festival in 2019, presents an overwhelmingly positive view of Kennedy’s contribution to the promotion of Mexican cuisine.
However, as Sen notes in her Washington Post review, some reviewers have criticized the documentary for “presenting an antiseptic portrait of Kennedy” and “smoothing over the complications of her legacy.”
Carroll, the filmmaker, said that Kennedy told her in no uncertain terms that there were some people she didn’t want involved in the film.
“I was given the opportunity to make the film about her, and this is a perspective that I’m offering on Diana,” she said. “It’s not everybody’s perspective, and it doesn’t have to be.”
One person who has been critical of Kennedy is Gustavo Arellano, a Mexican-American writer.
“Her place in the history of Mexican food is secure: she made regional Mexican cuisine palatable to Americans. I will never begrudge that, because it was an important step in the course of Mexican food in the U.S. that a Mexican chef or writer could’ve never accomplished,” he told the Post.
“My issue with Kennedy has always been that she wants to fix Mexican food in amber, and belittles any interpretation or deviance from her romanticized notions of what Mexican food should be.”
Indeed, Kennedy’s disdain for tampering with traditional recipes is on display in the film.
“No you don’t put garlic in!” she snaps as she hovers over a stone mortar while making guacamole.
While the documentary – and Kennedy – have their critics, the film provides an easily-digestible and fascinating insight into the life of one of the giants of Mexican cooking and will be of interest to anyone interested in Mexico, and especially Mexican food.