Diana Kennedy has spent six decades writing about the traditions of Mexican cooking. But despite her James Beard awards and other honors, the British author’s legacy has become more complicated now that Mexican chefs and writers are telling their own stories.
The feisty woman who set out to chronicle the country’s regional cooking was influential particularly for English-speaking readers and cooks, so documentary filmmaker Elizabeth Carroll wanted to document the fascinating life of the now-97 year old author.
In “Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy,” now in virtual cinemas and coming June 19 to VOD, Kennedy recalls arriving in Mexico in 1957 and traveling around the country in her truck learning local traditions.
Aside from a long-ago cooking series for the Learning Channel, Kennedy isn’t a familiar face on TV like Julia Child, but her nine books and her cooking workshops were influential in bringing a deeper understanding Mexican cuisine to the attention of English-speaking chefs.
Kennedy, whose husband was the Mexico City correspondent for the New York Times, had the ear of people like New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne, who encouraged her to teach Mexican cooking at a time when many Americans were totally unfamiliar with the vast regional variations of the country’s complex cuisine.
Carroll said she found Kennedy when she was looking for Mexican women to interview for a project on the matriarchy of Mexican food culture. “She’s obviously a master of the subject. But I was surprised that she was British and not Mexican, and that she wasn’t the household name you would expect.”
After trying to contact her for some time, Carroll was surprised to come across her doing a book signing in the director’s home base of Austin, Texas.
When Carroll finally got in contact with the author, who lives in a remote area of Michoacán, the famously cantankerous nonagenarian had just been burned by a previous documentary crew. “They screwed me, so I am suing them,” she told Carroll.
“She’s definitely difficult,” Carroll admits, “and I was nervous about that.” But nearing the end of her life, Kennedy was also ready to have her story told.
Soon Carroll was following the author from her ecologically-minded adobe house to Oaxaca to Los Angeles, where she participated in a talk for the Los Angeles Times Food Bowl.
“She wanted to feel like she was in control — after a while she trusted me,” says Carroll, who shot the documentary off and on for six years.
The vast landscape of Mexican cuisine is now appreciated around the world, but Carroll is understandably cautious about attributing that recognition to Kennedy.
“She gave regional Mexican cuisine in all of its detailed glory to cooks and home cooks who had never experienced it before. At that time in the early ‘70s, no one in the English-speaking world had been exposed to it,” Carroll explains.
Chefs including Gabriela Cámara of Mexico City’s Contramar and Santa Monica’s Onda, Chez Panisse’s Alice Waters and José Andrés credit her influence in the documentary, which takes a verité-style look at her life and travels around Mexico studying ingredients and cooking methods.
“At the time she was writing her cookbooks, she did something incredible for Mexico which was to make sure all that information was crystallized, and that was critical at the time she was doing it,” says Carroll.
“In the late 1950s when Diana arrived in Mexico, she realized that there was a problem, because of the industrialization of the food system, there was a chance that some of these older recipes might not be recorded in an official way and might get lost. The same goes for the different seeds and the chilies. It was a totally different time. The work that she did was important to assure that those things wouldn’t happen, she was the safety net.”
“Now there’s a much broader understanding of regional Mexican cooking, people like Enrique Olvera or Gabriela Cámara are able to riff because they learned the rules from their grandmothers. Diana sort of functioned as a person who brought that information to the English-speaking world at a specific time. It wouldn’t work the same way today, it would be potentially questionable in terms of cultural appropriation.”
At this point in her long career, Kennedy is also passionate about preserving the environment for those who come after her — she still lives in her solar-powered home using recycled rainwater and “barely any electricity,” Carroll says. Fanatical about not wasting anything, Kennedy is shown in the film saving scraps of envelopes for notepaper. There are plans to turn her Quinta Diana rancho into an ecological preserve, but for now, Kennedy continues to putter around her sprawling garden while finally enjoying her close-up.