Halfway through “Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy,” the 96-year-old doyenne of traditional Mexican cooking offers a brisk lesson in making guacamole, complete with a number of strict, sharply emphasized rules: no garlic; serrano chillies only; chop the onion, don’t mince it; never blend the avocado; and if people say they don’t like cilantro, “for heaven’s sake, don’t invite them.” It’s a tart tutorial that would cut cheery “Queer Eye” food assembler Antoni Porowski to the quick, and is emblematic of the veteran’s uncompromising, no-guff approach to the cuisine that has adopted her and consumed her for over six decades: In an era of fusion food and anyone-can shortcuts, she remains an unfashionable but essential stickler for the old ways. Elizabeth Carroll’s zingy documentary portrait, meanwhile, puts a relevant, environmentally-minded contemporary lens on Kennedy’s cherished traditionalism.
A crowd favorite at SXSW in March, where it won a jury prize despite unspooling in unfinished form, “Nothing Fancy” (named for one of Kennedy’s many authoritative cookbooks) premiered its final cut in Toronto’s Hot Docs fest, and should sell like hot tamales with distributors on the strength of its lively character portraiture and sunnily shot passages of gastroporn. (That term would almost certainly earn a stern slap on the wrist from Kennedy, who at one point reprimands a photographer for his innocuous use of “cool,” but those tamales do look very good indeed.) The film also benefits from a degree of topicality, and not just because burrito bars are starting to rival burger joints for international fast-food ubiquity: At a moment when debates over cultural appropriation in the culinary world have entered the mainstream, Kennedy’s legacy merits fresh appraisal.
As a white British woman who has made a career of documenting, disseminating and teaching indigenous Mexican recipes, Kennedy is vulnerable to such charges. Yet the film, via an ensemble of awed talking heads, positions her less as an individual cookery queen than as a kind of gastronomical anthropologist — “an Indiana Jones of food,” notes one Mexican chef — responsible for concretely preserving and sharing a wealth of regional dishes and methods hitherto passed down largely through oral tradition, mother to daughter.
Kennedy is adamant that she doesn’t claim or interpret recipes, but simply puts them on the record: Carroll’s team hits the road with the dauntless nonagenerian on a couple of her frequent cross-country research missions, as she drives her battered Nissan pickup through a tangle of remote villages, sampling street food, perusing markets and chattily consulting local cooks along the way. Certainly, “Nothing Fancy” will open the eyes of viewers whose knowledge of the national cuisine extends scarcely further than a Chipotle menu.
The film’s biographical elements are straightforwardly but attractively presented, mixing archive material with Kennedy’s witty, unsentimental testimony to explain how, in 1957, she first came to live in Mexico with her foreign-correspondent husband Paul and swiftly realized she’d found her spiritual home. Widowed young a decade later — she never remarried — the self-confessed “unconventional housewife” channeled her grief into cooking projects, with influential New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne as her most significant patron.
Elsewhere, the film drolly chronicles Kennedy’s daily routine at her idyllic ecological home and educational center in the forested outskirts of Zitácuaro, where she devotedly tends her gardens, zealously advocates the possibilities and virtues of sustainable living, and offers cooking classes to simultaneously awed and terrified admirers — some of them pro chefs in their own right. She’s not a gentle teacher: In the film’s single funniest scene, she picks apart one student’s failed rice dish with the not-angry-just-disappointed severity of an aggrieved parent.
If Kennedy’s passionate ferocity is part and parcel of her legend — “If her enthusiasm were not beautiful, it would border on mania,” Claiborne noted, in a quote that opens the film — though it may be why this richly enjoyable tribute doesn’t interview her as pressingly or curiously as it might. The question of cultural appreciation versus appropriation is tactfully touched upon, with other interviewees gingerly alluding to some Mexican resistance to her work, though it would be fascinating to hear Kennedy’s direct thoughts on the matter.
Taken as a celebration, however, both of the woman herself and the food to which she has dedicated her life, “Nothing Fancy” is cinematic comfort food of the first order — further perked up by Paul Mailman and Andrei Zakow citrus-bright lensing and lush, string-based musical contributions from Graham Reynolds and Dan Teicher. On the downside, it may forever ruin lesser faux-Mexican junk food for previously undiscriminating viewers: Just try eating a plate of nuclear orange nachos afterwards without feeling Kennedy’s withering glare at your back.