At an age when, for most, a trip to the bathroom would count as the most strenuous task of the day, ex-pat champion of authentic Mexican cuisine Diana Kennedy is still excitedly on the hunt for that most elusive and unforgettable of tamales recipes.
Something of a national treasure in her adopted country, we first encounter Kennedy – a sprightly 95-year-old during the filming of this documentary – in the middle of her daily morning exercise routine. She then heads off on yet another gastronomic escapade – her small, frail frame dwarfed by the bulky truck she still bombs around Mexico in.
Elizabeth Carroll’s zippy and elegant documentary paints a romanticised portrait of a culinary adventurer, whom it still feels has so much to offer and explore. Truly a force of nature – at one point in the film she’s aptly described as an “Indiana Jones of food” – Kennedy comes across like a particularly intrepid and tenacious granny figure. Having emigrated from the UK almost 70 years back, that plucky British spirit clearly remains, her Transatlantic accent resulting from a prolonged stint living in New York with her late husband in the mid-sixties.
The bountiful pleasures and joy derived from the pursuit of food is undoubtedly Kennedy’s elixir, and it’s endearing to see her playfully busting the chops of Mexican food market stallholders, or her wry/no-bullshit attitude during cookery lessons for prominent US restaurants owners, who have travelled thousands of miles to seek her advice and expertise. To witness someone who has wholeheartedly embraced another culture and turned it into her life’s work is hugely inspirational, and despite Nothing Fancy’s relatively brisk 81 minutes running time, it feels like all the important components of Kennedy’s world and journey are addressed.
The archival footage of a younger Kennedy guesting on a variety of US cookery shows, and her feted appearances on the US food festival circuit, elevate her to almost rock star-like status, which Carroll is more than happy to amusingly embellish. But outside of her foodie pursuits, Kennedy is also a passionate advocate and practitioner of environmental sustainability, and the film’s addressing of this aspect of her life never feels tacked-on or an unnecessary sideways preachy digression.
It’s all part of the package of a person who has dedicated her life to self-betterment through those things which have ignited her interests. Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy is an affectionate and reverential look at a remarkable figure and a testament to her achievements within the Mexican culinary landscape.
Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy is available to watch on digital platforms from 1 May.
Adam Lowes | @adlow76