Though she’s been dubbed the Julia Child of Mexican cooking, Diana Kennedy prefers you call her its Mick Jagger instead. The title is certainly more fitting: Kennedy, now 94, has a brazen, rocker's edge to her that a comparison to Child doesn't quite capture. She is forthright, fiercely opinionated, and deeply committed to preserving the richness of Mexico’s cuisine. We're talking about a woman who’s thrown Rick Bayless out of cars.
Kennedy is a living institution, and her knowledge of Mexican cuisine is encyclopedic. Now 94, she lives in a solar-powered hut in the mountains of Michoacán, where she’s been since the 1970s. She was born and raised in the United Kingdom, but first came to Mexico City in 1957 with her husband, New York Times correspondent Paul Kennedy, and subsequently became transfixed with Mexican cuisine, examining it with an anthropologist’s eye. This has resulted in a robust body of work (she has nine cookbooks), two James Beard Awards, and honors from both Mexico and Britain’s governments.
Kennedy is the subject of an upcoming documentary, Nothing Fancy: Diana Kennedy, set to be released next year. The film aims to provide a complete and holistic picture of a woman that filmmaker Elizabeth Carroll fears the world will forget as she grows older. Carroll and her crew have been filming Kennedy in Michoacán for four years, and they’re almost finished; they’ve taken to Kickstarter to fund the final stages of production. The campaign ends on October 19, and it’s just over $20,000 into its $45,000 goal.
I spoke to Carroll recently about the genesis of this project and its challenges. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited lightly for clarity.
MAYUKH SEN: You’d been aching to do a film about Diana Kennedy for many years. You met her, pretty fortuitously, at a book signing in 2013. Take me back to that day—what was it like to meet her?
ELIZABETH CARROLL: Oh man. It was pretty unforgettable. I originally wanted to interview Diana for a different project on the role of women in the historical transmission of Mexican food traditions. I never thought she would let me do a film about her. The day before we met, I’d been researching her on the internet for hours; I was desperate to meet her without any idea how I’d have the chance. Eventually, I took a break and went to the bookstore to look for one of her books. I pulled into the parking lot, and the marquee said, “Book Signing with Diana Kennedy—tomorrow.” I literally guffawed. This was way too easy to be normal. Where am I? What is happening? Meeting her physically was probably the easiest part of all of this.
I’d written an email to someone the bookstore called her ‘publicist’ the night I found out about the event, saying I’d be honored to interview Diana for the project I had in mind, for all these reasons. I didn’t get a response. When I got there, Diana and I both walked in at exactly the same time. I was really nervous. (Thankfully, I’d watched interviews with her beforehand to get a feel for her ‘style’—I’m very glad I did that.) I introduced myself right away. She said “Oh, Elizabeth—you’re the woman who wants to do the film about me.” I was like, yes? Yes, I am. This is a good direction. Let’s roll with it. I walked her upstairs. She was deeply offended when asked if she wanted to use the elevator.
MS: What was the difference between the woman you were expecting and the one you met?
EC: She was so much more brazen and energetic than I could’ve possibly expected or prepared myself for. It was clear that she was not an ‘old woman’ on the inside—she hadn’t adopted a persona of oldness at all. She is finally running up against that now, physically, and I know it frustrates her. She blew me away. She was the feminist, rebellious crusader for sustainability, and overtly critical grandmother we all needed. I was entranced.
We just connected on a comfortable level, and agreed to Skype the following week. I got back into my car to go home when it was all over, and I just screamed.
MS: You’ve taken to Kickstarter to put the finishing touches on the film. Talk to me about the process of securing funding for this film, and the difficulties you faced in doing so.
EC: It hasn’t been easy. I think "woman," "first-time filmmaker," and "documentary" aren’t words that immediately open wallets for people. It has to be the right project, and some people have seen that right away with this, but a lot haven't. Things are changing right now for women in film, and people are taking seriously the obvious gap in women-directed and funded projects, which is great. But it’s still hard, no matter what, to get someone to meet your passion and give you their money. It’s a lot to ask. People don’t make documentaries to get rich.
As challenging as it’s been to fund, it’s allowed me to spend a lot more time with Diana, in different locations and at varying points of life-reflection for her over the last few years. We’ve gotten to know each other, and much more trust has formed over time. Had we been funded up front right away, the project would be completely different, and not nearly as personal and intimate as it’s become. So, I’m happy for that.
MS: Some of Kennedy’s critics have questioned her expertise on Mexican cuisine because she’s a foreigner. She often dismisses such criticisms offhand, and her depth of knowledge is hard to contest. The topic of cultural appropriation has become more urgent in recent years, which presents a unique challenge for you as a filmmaker in 2017. How compelled were you to address this—the fact that she is a white, British woman assigned a position of authority on Mexican cuisine—within the documentary, if at all?
EC: It’s an essential topic to address. I’ve probably described Diana Kennedy to over a thousand people at this point, and a solid 25% react with, 'Really? A white lady is the authority on Mexican food? How is that possible?' Which is a completely normal reaction. Why wouldn’t the [so-called] master of Mexican cuisine be Mexican? And if she really is the authority, as people say, did she get there from a position of privilege? I would be asking the same questions, and I suppose I still am.
There are definitely people out there who don’t have any issue making the cuisine of another country 'their own.' I don’t think Diana is re-appropriating at all, starting with the fact that she hasn’t left Mexico. She cites the people in villages all over Mexico from whom she got her original recipes, like a historian—not a Food Network celebrity. She lives a very quiet life in a village, and is extremely respectful to the land and the culture around her. She has fully assimilated to it.
But Diana speaks for herself in the film, and the audience can decide how they feel about the issue. In my opinion, if she were learning everything about Mexican food and then taking it back to her native country and city where people knew very little about it, and putting beet salad with goat cheese on the menu next to papadzules and calling it authentic, then we’d have a problem. I think re-appropriation happens when there’s a disrespect or a disassociation from the roots and origins of something. It’s putting a spin on authentic Mexican food—your own ‘twist’—without your audience having an education about the way it originated, and then applauding you for it. They think what you did is 'real Mexican' because they don’t have the backstory to be able to tell you’ve put that spin on it, and you’re not being upfront about that. There is no one policing the authenticity of Mexican food more than Diana.
MS: Kennedy is a purist, which has sometimes earned her the label of being a persnickety, difficult personality—I think often of her choice words for Maricel Presilla a few years ago. How did making this film give you a better sense of how she has developed this outlook, and the experiences that have shaped her philosophy?
EC: At the end of a long day with Diana, when I’ve felt occasionally offended and emotionally exhausted, I’ve had to remind myself that she has a different outlook on and value system for life than most people. She knows that better than anyone. She’s lived an incredibly unique life rooted in total independence, separating herself from other women from her generation, with a blatant unwillingness to submit to convention. It’s clear that a large part of her values lie in defending her independence, and finding and fighting for the truth. Anything that crosses that line, for her, is automatically worthy of being corrected. She has a very objective view of everything. And that’s just her.
I can’t say I agree with her delivery, most of the time, as it throws a lot of people off. But it’s clear that making other people happy is just not her priority. It’s telling the truth and being herself.
MS: What understanding of Diana Kennedy’s cultural import do you hope viewers take away from this movie that they can't find elsewhere?
EC: It's not necessarily part of her 'cultural' import. It's her personality. She is wildly funny and intelligent, and I think that’s the element most people don’t hear about. She’s incredibly entertaining in person. She’s culturally aware and very well-informed, she reads, she loves the arts, and values the classic enjoyments in life. She sunbathes nude at 94, you know? She doesn’t care. At the end of the day, despite being difficult and critical and all the things she certainly is, Diana has a zest for life that’s so pure. It’s harder to see that in our culture these days. It’s the constant drive to live passionately. I hope that comes through to people who see the film. It will eternally stick with me.
To learn more about Nothing Fancy: Diana Kennedy, head here.