What better way to spend time at home during the pandemic than to cook? Mexican food expert Diana Kennedy inspires that pastime. The author of nine books on Mexican cuisine, this 97-year-old Brit who moved to Mexico in 1957 traveled all over the country to collect regional recipes. “I don’t always know where I’m going to stop,” she says. A documentary about her travels and her cooking, “Nothing Fancy: Diana Kennedy” starts streaming on the M.V. Film Center’s website on May 28.
One of the things that makes “Nothing Fancy” such an entertaining documentary is her feisty, rambunctious personality. The film’s title comes from her 1984 book, “Nothing Fancy: Recipes and Recollections of Soul-Satisfying Food.” Even at age 97, she brooks no nonsense from inquirers, even other cooks. The N.Y. Times food editor Craig Claiborne said, “If her enthusiasm were not beautiful, it would border on mania.” He was a fan and mentor, and encouraged her to write books about Mexican food. Her first, “The Cuisine of Mexico” (1972), was a bestseller, and is still the authoritative source for recipes and reflections on Mexican culture. Her work has led to a new understanding of Mexican cuisine, and even though she is British, Mexicans respect her expertise. She has been called the Indiana Jones of food, as well as the Mick Jagger of Mexico, and received the Order of the Aztec Eagle, Mexico’s highest award for foreigners. She emphasizes down-to-earth cooking, proper preparation of food, and the building up of flavors.
Growing up in England during WWII, Hamilton joined the Women’s Timber Corps at 17. She met her future husband, N.Y. Times correspondent Paul P. Kennedy, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, during a military coup, and moved to Mexico with him in 1957. Mexican cuisine fascinated her, and she traveled all over the country in buses, collecting recipes from rural villages. “It was always to collect recipes,” she says.
She feels it is important to record the rural Mexican cooking being lost to urbanization. Her books’ distinction is that in addition to recipes, she reports on the culture of the different regions she has visited. Not considering herself a writer, she insists on field research that she incorporates into her books, with stories about the food and her travels. Her work has been archived at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She appears in a 26-part series on Mexican food on the Learning Channel. Driving around in her Nissan truck, she calls the food she has found in regional markets “the very center of food.”
Kennedy’s husband’s illness took them to New York, and after his death she began teaching about Mexican food from her Upper West Side apartment. She moved back to Mexico in 1976, and eventually settled in Michoacán, where she built her home, Quinta Diana. There she grows plants she has collected from all over the country.
Her commitment to the environment has led her to grow organic food, to compost, and to avoid pesticides and monoculture at her solar-powered home. “Nothing Fancy” uses archival footage of her life, as well as lively interviews with the subject. In her 50 years of traveling around Mexico, she says, “I’ve cooked my way through my 90s.” Called an ethno-gastronomer, she has documented the country’s native edible plants.
“I’ve had a very funny life,” she says. “I wish my truck could tell some of the experiences we’ve been through.”
Visit the M.V. Film Center’s website, mvfilmsociety.com, to view this documentary, along with a recorded, live Q and A with with Chez Panisse chef Alice Waters, NY Times “City Kitchen” columnist David Tanis, director Elizabeth Carroll, and two-time James Beard semifinalist Gabriela Camara of “A Tale of Two Kitchens.”