Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy

Caution: testy nonagenarian at the wheel.

(2019) Documentary (GreenwichDiana Kennedy, Jose Andres, Rick Bayless, Alice Waters, Frances McCullough, Abigail Mendoza, Claudia Kirking, Nick Zukin, Pati Juich, Gabriela Camara. Directed by Elizabeth Carroll

 

Modern cuisine owes a lot to early cookbook authors and television cooking show pioneers, like Julia Child, Graham Kerr and Diana Kennedy. The latter championed Mexican cuisine, travelling throughout the various regions of Mexico to gather recipes (whose authors she duly noted), ingredients and techniques. This British ex-pat has done more to popularize Mexican cuisine than all the taco trucks in the world have done.

95 when this was filmed (she’s 97 now), she lives on a self-sustaining ranch in the state of Michoacán where she continues to grind her own coffee beans that she also happens to grow in her impressive garden. For those ingredients she can’t grow, she drives 100 miles in her beat-up truck to Mexico City, where she prowls the market, haranguing some vendors for using dyes in their food, getting affectionate and chummy with others.

Kennedy, whose husband Paul was the New York Times correspondent for Mexico and the Caribbean, is a fascinating subject in many ways. She is passionate about traditional Mexican food, and loathe to make substitutions or changes; she is something of a conservator of traditional recipes and techniques, and her eight bestselling cookbooks advocate for patience in making some of the labor-intensive dishes. She gets irritated at the thought of adding garlic to guacamole, or using minced onions rather than finely chopped ones. She’s unapologetically opinionated and will get right in your grill if she feels it is warranted.

There are a few talking heads – notably celebrity chefs Jose Andres, Alice Waters and Rick Bayless, as well as Mexican chef Pati Juich – singing her praises, but mostly it’s the woman herself. We see her teaching cooking classes (which she continues to do from her home), or hosting her cooking videos from the 90s The Art of Mexican Cuisine with Diana Kennedy. Kennedy pulls no punches and swears like a trooper which is a little bit pause-inducing when you consider she’s a 95-year-old Brit. Not that the British never swear, mind you, but it sounds oddly jarring at times.

Kennedy is opinionated but we don’t get really in-depth with her that much. She does explain why she chose not to have children, or why she’s against marriage but mostly she saves her commentary for her two passions – cooking Mexican food and the environment, both of which she seems to be equally enthusiastic about. We never really get a sense of what drove her to become so loathe to make no substitutions, or why she feels so proprietary about the techniques that are used. Not everyone has a mortar and pestle in their kitchen.

In an era when cultural appropriation has become an ongoing debate in the culinary world, one could be excused from wondering why focus on a 95-year-old British woman as an expert on Mexican cuisine, but in reality, Kennedy is adored in Mexico, having been decorated with their equivalent of the Congressional Medal of Honor and chefs speak of her with respect bordering on reverence. Are there Mexican chefs trying to preserve the culinary traditions of their country and making sure that regional recipes and techniques don’t disappear forever? I am sure there are, but none have done it as successfully and as thoroughly as Kennedy. I guarantee you one thing: after watching this documentary, you will absolutely have a craving for authentic Mexican food, and I don’t mean Taco Bell or Chipotle.

The movie is playing in virtual theatrical release, meaning that it is being shown by local art houses online, with the art house getting a percentage of the rentals. Here in Orlando, the movie is available on Enzian On Demand for the next couple of weeks. You can rent it here. For those who’d prefer to wait, it will be on Video On Demand in June.

REASONS TO SEE: Kennedy is an irascible firecracker who makes for a compelling subject.
REASONS TO AVOID: Lacks depth in some ways.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a surprising amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kennedy served in the British Timber Corps during the Second World War, cutting down trees for the war effort. Since then, she has actively been planting as many trees as she can in order to make up for all the ones she cut down – which is where here ecological activism was developed.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/23/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews, Metacritic: 75/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jiro Dreams of Sushi
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski

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