At 95, Diana Kennedy has quit caring what other people think. The white British woman who became the foremost expert on Mexican food has been called by José Andrés the “Indiana Jones of food.” Even as a nonagenarian, Kennedy still travels throughout Mexico, trying to learn more about the cultures, ingredients, and recipes that she’s been fascinated by for decades. Kennedy has no qualms about yelling at people for putting garlic in guacamole, at Mexico for importing their peppers, and, understandably, at Trump for his policies that are ruining the environment.
In Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy, director Elizabeth Carroll barely cracks the surface of Kennedy; there’s almost a century’s worth of knowledge and life and experiences contained within her. As she shows off her home, full of trinkets and souvenirs from her constant journeys, she talks about how she wants these memories, and what she learned from her trips around Mexico, to be preserved in some way. Yet, given that a documentary on Kennedy’s life would be a perfect time to document some of that, Carroll misses the opportunity.
Carroll’s documentary rapidly flies through Kennedy’s life. There are quick glimpses of her time in the Timber Corps (Kennedy wasn’t allowed to join the military because she refused to salute anyone), her marriage to New York Times writer Paul Kennedy – who would die only a decade later – and a rundown of her work in television, as well as a run-through her cookbooks. The film’s only interview subjects beyond Kennedy are other world famous chefs who all seem to know her personally, but tend to focus on her work, rather than who she is. Carroll’s interest in Kennedy’s past rarely extends past her history with Mexican food and her important role in sharing it with the world.
In the present, Carroll follows Kennedy’s routine; she displays her ecological house, her Mexican cooking center and her greenhouse, all of which focus on sustainability. Kennedy’s personality makes this interesting, but it’s not much more than an airing of her grievances over how we take care of the planet.
Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy has plenty of telling what Kennedy has done in the world of Mexican cooking, but not enough showing. Kennedy points out that still to this day, she wants to understand the hows and the whys of cooking. She wants to know why a certain region uses certain ingredients, what resources they have and how they personally cook it. She’s a student of cultures and traditions, and it would’ve been great to see that process in practice.
When showing Kennedy’s past, Carroll shows clips from various television appearances, including her own show, “The Art of Mexican Cooking”. In one particularly great scene, Carroll cuts between Kennedy making guacamole decades ago on TV, to her making it now, when she doesn’t give a shit about being too nice. The sequence is an interesting example of how Kennedy’s loves have stayed the same, but her passion for getting these foods right has only grown stronger.
Yet beyond showing that Kennedy brought traditional Mexican cooking into the mainstream through her cookbooks and TV show, it’s never quite explained what this contribution achieved. As the film explains over and over, she’s likely the foremost expert on Mexican food, but the film never gives strong insight for those unfamiliar with her work as to what her efforts have done in a larger sense. Again, it’s fine to tell the audience this all you want, but it would be better to be shown an argument.
Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy lives up to its name. Carroll has given a basic yet entertaining rundown of Kennedy, but doesn’t go deep enough into her life or importance, focusing instead on her eccentric and often cranky behaviors. Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy is a solid appetizer, but it could’ve been a full meal.
You can watch Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy at AFI Silver’s Virtual Cinema.
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