By C.J. Hirschfield
When a 97 -year-old cookbook writer is called “the Mick Jagger of Mexican cuisine,” and the “Indiana Jones of food,” you know there’s gotta be a story there. There is, and a fascinating one at that. Directed by Elizabeth Carroll and screening at the Legacy Film Festival on Aging, the documentary Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy shares the life and work of an impatient, antisocial, cranky, profane, opinionated woman—whose life has been driven by her enthusiasm and curiosity about authentic Mexican regional cooking. She is an absolutely marvelous force of nature.
Kennedy grew up in wartime England, where “you couldn’t waste a thing,” and later found herself traveling in Haiti just as a revolution was taking place. There she met dashing foreign correspondent Paul Kennedy, whom she married in 1957, and who led her to where he was based– in Mexico. “It was a fascinating time,” she says. “I was in love, and in love with the country.” Thus began her lifetime fascination (bordering on obsession) with Mexican cuisine. Celebrated restaurant critic Craig Claiborne says of the author of nine acclaimed cookbooks, and two-time James Beard Award winner, “If her enthusiasm were not beautiful, it would border on mania.”
Armed with a tape recorder—and a pistol—she traveled solo all around the country (many times), often sleeping in her truck, through hail, floods, and even landslides. She searched for stories and recipes, and returned with foods. “I appreciated Mexican cooking in an honest, giving—and hungry—way,” she says about her extensive research. She prized authenticity, and the foods of the country’s indigenous population.
It is a delight to follow Kennedy through colorful marketplaces, gardens and the countryside, and to hear from her many admirers, including noted chefs Alice Waters, José Andrés and Rick Bayless. When her husband died in 1967, it was Claiborne who suggested she teach classes, and then write about her culinary passion. Published in 1972, The Cuisines of Mexico was the first of her many books, bringing her, and a country’s unique cuisine, to a much wider, and appreciative, market.
A wonderful segment in the film has Kennedy demonstrating how to make authentic guacamole, and she’s a hoot. (“Leave the tomato seeds in! Don’t pulverize it, you want it lumpy!”) And God forgive you if you even consider adding garlic. But while she has her standards, she also knows that cooking is “a great comeuppance,” with failures serving as valuable lessons. We also observe her painstakingly preparing and roasting her own coffee beans. “We need things that take a long time, occasionally,” she says. What a perfect time for this message, as many of us find ourselves with more time to cook.
It’s also a great treat to visit the beautiful ecological home that Kennedy built 100 miles from Mexico City, in Michoacán. “We have to live with nature,” she says as we tour her gardens and greenhouse, in which no fertilizer or monoculture is tolerated. “I live sustainably,” she says.
In the film, Kennedy muses about her legacy, saying that she doesn’t care that people like her; only “that things get remembered.”
At the end of the day, Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy is about someone whose whole life has been driven by curiosity, enthusiasm and energy, and it serves to inspire.
“Keep on doing what you want to do,” says Kennedy. “You’ll either make your mark—or not!”
Nothing Fancy: Diana Kennedy is showing at the Legacy Film Festival, May 24-31 as part of a program on food, “Savory Traditions.”
It can be viewed at your convenience during those dates.
A virtual Q&A took place with director Elizabeth Carroll, chef Alice Waters (Chez Panisse), chef Gabriela Cámara (Contramara & Cala), The New York Times food writer David Tanis and cookbook author & moderator Lesley Tellez.
The entire conversation can be watched anytime by clicking here.
C.J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and advocated on behalf of the industry. A former writer for Film Month, she also penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years and now writes features and reviews for EatDrinkFilms. C.J. holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.
Hirschfield currently serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.
C.J. says, “A good documentary takes us places we never could never have imagined, and changes the way we see the world.”
“56 Years of Traveling, Cooking, & Writing in Mexico”
Diana Kennedy billed her MAD (Danish for “food”) talk as a reflection on the six decades she has spent celebrating Mexico’s culture, landscape, and gastronomy. But given her brilliant, charmingly irascible ways, it was no surprise to see that she didn’t simply use her time for a nostalgic look back. Instead, she drew on her studies and experiences as a way to argue for the importance of sustainability.
Stirring the Pot by Patricia Sharpe, Texas Monthly