As is the case with so many bio-docs, Elizabeth Carroll’s Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy is not all that stylistically distinct. There’s the expected mix of archival materials, modern-day footage of the subject’s daily life and, of course, a bevy of talking heads. But Carroll does has at least one visual motif. Whether Diana Kennedy, the venerated cookbook author still going strong in her mid-90s, is driving through her Michoacán village, exercising with tiny weights or grinding pepitas in her kitchen, the camera keeps showing us her hands, the wrinkled but still dexterous digits that forged her reputation and have served her well for more than half a century.
Kennedy, a middle class Englishwoman who loved to travel, moved to Mexico in 1957 with her American husband, Paul Kennedy, who covered the region for the New York Times. After eight years there, they returned to the States. Paul died of cancer in 1967 and Kennedy began teaching classes on how to cook the recipes she learned in Mexico. This led to her first cookbook in 1972 and, in 1976, her permanent relocation to the country whose food she so loved. Carroll tells this story through interviews and various television appearances while showing us how Kennedy sustains herself still with the food grown on her land and purchased at the nearby market. She still hosts exclusive cooking boot camps for those willing to pay and make the journey. And, in the film’s final minutes, we see her win a well-deserved James Beard award.
There’s no denying the pitfalls of positioning a white woman–no matter how fluent and ensconced she is–as an expert on Mexican cooking. A clip from the Martha Stewart show in which Kennedy shows Stewart and her viewers how to make authentic tamales is bitterly hilarious. Carroll doesn’t seem unaware of the optics, exactly, but, while she includes words of praise from multiple Mexican chefs, other Mexicans are little more than local, background color. And it’s frankly impossible to keep a straight face when Kennedy complains about people plagiarizing her recipes.
All that said, Kennedy’s love and respect for Mexican food seems fully genuine, never patronizing or self-serving. She sees herself as a sort of ambassador. She never reinterprets or puts her own spin on the classical recipes she presents in her books. On the contrary, her devotion to tradition is almost monastic.
In any case, Kennedy is an undeniably delightful person to spend the length of a movie with. Not because she’s a rayo de sol but because she’s got the hilariously crotchety impatience that comes with age and expertise. In the film’s one present day cooking segment–a brief but engrossing lesson in making guacamole–she tosses out multiple judgments and grievances like, “Anybody who says to take the seeds out of the serrano, well, they’re not a very good cook.” Later, when a photographer tells her, “You’re a legend,” she barks back, “I know, goddammit.”
Nothing Fancy is also nothing new, at least in terms of the cinematic form of the documentary. And Carroll’s lack of willingness to more deeply engage with questions of cultural appropriation is a disappointment. But, by one measure, I can consider it a success: I bought one of Kennedy’s books the very next day.