In 1972, when the editors at the publishing house Harper & Row came across a promising proposal for a Mexican cookbook, they had one question: How would they sell a British woman’s take on Mexican food?
That woman was Diana Kennedy, whom the American food establishment now embraces as an authority on Mexican cooking. Kennedy, an outsider to Mexico who’d lived there on and off since 1957, compensated for this deficit with her depth of research. She traveled across the country, recording regional recipes and crediting the cooks who taught them to her. Kennedy’s “The Cuisines of Mexico” (1972) set off a singular career that has led to nine cookbooks in total. Kennedy, 97, has won two James Beard Awards, and her accolades extend beyond the food industry: In 1981, the Mexican government conferred her with the Order of the Aztec Eagle, the highest honor the country can bestow upon a foreigner, and she became a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 2002.
Some may be skeptical of her prominence. “How can it be that a white British woman knows more about Mexican food than anybody else?” Frances McCullough, her Harper & Row editor, asks just minutes into “Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy,” debut director Elizabeth Carroll’s recent documentary. The question points to a tension that has roiled beneath the surface of Kennedy’s public image. The film searches for an answer.
Available on demand as of June 19, “Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy” has generated near-unanimous praise since its premiere at South by Southwest in 2019. The film won Special Jury Recognition for Excellence in Storytelling at the festival, and it recently received a James Beard nomination. The film has also provoked some dissent from some reviewers for presenting an antiseptic portrait of Kennedy, smoothing over the complications of her legacy.
The film functions as a tender character study of Kennedy in the twilight of her life. Kennedy, who lives off the grid near Zitácuaro in the state of Michoacán, cares little about being liked. Her passions are still blazing, her rules still inflexible: No garlic or kosher salt in your guacamole, for example. She has a moral impetus to preserve the environment, wanting to ensure a just future when she’s no longer around. In one scene, she brags that she once sent an American food magazine 30 corrections for an issue with enchiladas on the cover. The sequence doubles as a reckoning with her mortality. “What are you going to do when I’m gone?” she asks. “Who is else going to start screaming? Nobody!”
Carroll, based in Austin, spent six and a half years making the documentary. She accumulated interviews with over 25 admirers of Kennedy in the food industry and assembled archival footage from periods in Kennedy’s life, such as World War II-era Britain and Mexico in the 1950s. The resulting film is compact; Carroll pared over 120 hours of footage down to just over an hour.
“Ultimately, I would’ve preferred for it to be longer than it is,” Carroll says. She explains that this truncated length was the outcome of arduous editing and postproduction processes. “My original concept had basically been, let’s make a vérité documentary about Diana Kennedy, that was more like ‘Grey Gardens’ than, you know, ‘Chef’s Table,’ in a way,” she said. “But then, of course, there was a responsibility that I felt that weighed pretty heavily that this is probably the only film about Diana that’s ever going to be made.”
The film economically covers the plot points of Kennedy’s life. Born as Diana Southwood in England in 1923, she moved to Mexico in 1957 after falling in love with Paul Kennedy, a correspondent for the New York Times. The two wed, but his prostate cancer diagnosis brought them to New York in 1965. He died two years later. During that brief detour in New York, she began teaching cooking classes. She found a vocal champion in Craig Claiborne, the influential editor of the Times food section who would write the foreword to her first book. The following decade, she settled in Mexico for good. (Because of the complications of quarantine, Kennedy was unable to comment for this report.)
Carroll surrounds this snapshot of Kennedy with a parade of non-Mexican chefs including José Andrés, Rick Bayless and Alice Waters. All speak glowingly of Kennedy, demonstrating how deep an impression she left on non-Mexicans. The film consults three Mexican chefs: indigenous chef Abigail Mendoza of Teotitlán del Valle’s Tlamanalli Restaurant, Pati Jinich of the PBS series “Pati’s Mexican Table” and Gabriela Cámara of Mexico City’s Contramar and San Francisco’s Cala.
The film ponders whether Kennedy gets enough appreciation within Mexico. To Cámara, the answer is no. “I feel that Mexicans are very proud in a very — we’re proud in weird ways,” says Cámara, who’s become close to Kennedy in recent years. “Because on one hand, we do recognize that she knows so much more than most of us. But on the other hand, we also take for granted what we have.” Cámara adds that Kennedy’s challenging character may have made it “difficult for her message to be more widely spread in Mexico.”
Casual viewers may not know that Kennedy has attracted a legion of critics. The film, Carroll explains, required a careful negotiation between Kennedy’s demands and Carroll’s creative impulses. According to Carroll, Kennedy made clear that there were certain people she didn’t want involved in the film. Carroll honored some of those requests. “I was just trying to understand her world and where she sort of existed within it,” Carroll says.
Mexican American writer Gustavo Arellano has been among her most thoughtful critics. In his 2012 book “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America,” he gently took Kennedy to task for positions like her well-documented disdain for Tex-Mex, a culinary language of its own.
“Her place in the history of Mexican food is secure: She made regional Mexican cuisine palatable to Americans,” Arellano says. “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.”
Nowadays, Arellano balances his appreciation for Kennedy with concerns about her purism. “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,” he says.
The film burnishes Kennedy’s legend without puncturing it. Kennedy’s rise had as much to do with her extraordinary talent as it did with her access to power that exposed a larger audience to her gifts. Her passion makes her a subject who certainly deserves celebration, but McCullough’s early query lingers after the film’s end: How is it that a white, Britain-born woman became such a renowned evangelist of Mexican cooking? The tension goes unresolved.
“I was given the opportunity to make the film about her, and this is a perspective that I’m offering on Diana,” Carroll says. “It’s not everybody’s perspective, and it doesn’t have to be.” That the film sidesteps critiques of Kennedy may strike some viewers as a missed opportunity. What a pleasure it would’ve been to see Kennedy spar with her critics. After all, she can certainly handle them.
Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food writer who teaches food journalism at New York University. His first book, on the immigrant women who have shaped food in America, will be published in fall 2021 by W.W. Norton & Company.
More from Voraciously: