In this time of peril and chaos, Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy is a balm for the soul. Elizabeth Carroll’s documentary follows Kennedy as the famed cook prepares food, roams the Mexican countryside in her little truck, and recounts memories from her robust life. A British ex-pat who’s mastered Mexican cuisine, Kennedy has written many books and oversees a “boot camp” that’s frequented even by established restaurateurs. Living a hundred miles from Mexico City on an eight-acre ranch in Michoacán, Kennedy runs a solar-powered home with a greenhouse that allows her to cultivate rare and fresh ingredients ranging from cilantro to various peppers and tomatoes, the latter of which she says generally taste awful throughout society. The nonagenarian has a drive and sense of ambition that would shame many people a third her age. Odds are that you will leave Nothing Fancy inspired and hungry.
Carroll doesn’t burden Nothing Fancy, which is named after one of Kennedy’s cookbooks, with a lot of exposition, understanding that her subject’s life force is the real draw. We learn tidbits about Kennedy’s life, beginning with how she moved to Mexico in the 1950s with her eventual husband, Paul, a reporter for The New York Times who died of prostate cancer in the ’60s. Later, her fame rose as food editors at The Times became aware of her growing knowledge of Mexican cuisine, which she cultivated by venturing into the country’s food markets, as well as the homes of families who handed various culinary traditions down from generation to generation. (Kennedy carries a palpable, poignant sadness over Paul, having never married again.) But most of the film allows us to simply hang out with Kennedy as she discusses and creates delicious food and ruminates on the ideas that inform her lifestyle.
Like many films centered around food, Nothing Fancy presents cooking as a symbol of an overall pride in life, of a philosophy of savoring and truly seeing what’s in front of us, and Carroll celebrates the refusal to perform half-ass rituals or to take things for granted. For too many people, either out of choice or necessity, cooking is a rushed means to an end, while Kennedy and people of her ilk see it as an act of contemplative work that’s nourishing in itself. For one, Kennedy roasts her own coffee beans in an antique cast iron roaster—a process that takes roughly 25 minutes. In another scene, we see her buying tacos from a vendor who suggests she eat them with tequila, though she says it’s a little early in the day for that, promising to return later next time so that she may partake in the liquor. These are the sorts of ecstatically specific details that establish rhythms of life to the viewer, and they reveal, without preaching, the ways that people of various cultures are both similar and unique.
Kennedy is daring, capable of routinely traveling by herself as an elderly diminutive woman into remote country (she used to keep a pistol in her truck), and Carroll allows her audience to assume that this zest has empowered Kennedy’s remarkable longevity and acuity. As we enjoy Kennedy’s iconoclasm, political associations bob up and down throughout Nothing Fancy like buoys. Kennedy has earned her success, but she’s also profoundly lucky in terms of opportunity and genealogy. Many of us can’t afford to live in such harmony with our habitats, but shouldn’t we try on our own terms? And the issue of a white woman serving as a spokesperson for another culture is, of course, broached, though Carroll presents Kennedy as a refutation of the often-reductive criticisms of cultural appropriation.
Carroll and Kennedy clearly believe that humans should be allowed to be curious, to borrow from other cultures. Such practices are pathways to empathy, and Kennedy doesn’t obscure the sources of her creations. This is the distinction between racist acts of cultural appropriation (such as the way whites obscured the African-American origination of rock ‘n’ roll) and healthy comingling. Carroll, though, does stack her deck by offering Mexican testimonials to Kennedy’s greatness. Nothing Fancy might’ve benefited from a little friction, as surely there are people who resent a white person as the face of another cuisine.
Still, a monument to curiosity, the true subject of this film, is inherently, beneficially political in these xenophobic times of cultivated, commodified endless rage. Kennedy reminds us of the issues, especially climate change, that tribal politics consciously distract us from, and she shows how even minute bits of effort can make a difference. Enjoying the leaves of a tree and learning to make true guacamole (no garlic, not creamy) are more than passing diversions, as they are embodiments of pushing oneself beyond the immediate, conditioned obvious so as to question and savor the world around us. Such acts signify the discipline to want and learn more—to live more and better. By contrasting example, Kennedy reveals the damaging appeals of politicians she dislikes, such as Donald Trump: He glamourizes incuriosity and stasis, letting his disciples off the hook, helping them to live with less and less. Hatred and resentment are easier than empathy, which requires work. Like cooking.
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