From Diana Kennedy to Alison Roman: When White Women of Privilege Borrow From Ethnic Cuisines
The new doc “Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy” examines its 97-year-old subject’s rise to become a respected expert on traditional Mexican cooking, and why she has earned her status.
Amongst those who know, Diana Kennedy is understood to be the English-speaking world’s authority on traditional Mexican cooking. But not many people—particularly not many people outside of Mexico—know. In the documentary Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy, digitally streamable now and available on demand June 19, director Elizabeth Carroll, a foodie herself, pays close attention to the woman who has for decades evaded celebrity status while carefully and faithfully putting on record what is today one of the most popular cuisines in the world. It’s a film that offers much wisdom to my generation of creative and passionate cooks, pressured by an ever-intensifying late capitalism but guided by a responsibility to make the commitments and do the research necessary to claim a level of authority.
For Kennedy, popularity was never the plan. “After her first book became successful, I’m sure she could have stayed in the U.S. and either opened a restaurant—if that’s something she wanted to do—or [developed] a celebrity chef persona,” Carroll told me. “But that definitely didn’t seem to be as important to her as getting back to Mexico and just being there.”
After her husband died in the late ‘60s, Kennedy built an ecological home in a remote area of Michoacán where she sustainably grows her own food on the land and in a greenhouse in harmony with the environment. She also barrels to local markets in a white Nissan truck—still, in her nineties, on a fiercely independent search for the best of homegrown Mexican cooking.
Kennedy is also a white British woman, and in the food world, where careless and conniving appropriation is rife, the idea that a 97-year-old with a posh accent, who was married to a foreign correspondent for The New York Times whom she met in Haiti during political upheaval, is “the foremost authority on traditional Mexican cooking in the English-speaking world,” brings up an increasingly acknowledged legacy of settler colonialism. Kennedy, who is perhaps the godmother of the slow food tradition in the cookbook world, was never out to build a brand, and Nothing Fancy seeks to honor her idiosyncrasy with a slow yet compact approach. “When I came across Diana, it definitely occurred to me instantly that this is a pretty complex case,” Carroll explained. “She’s not Mexican by any means. She is a British woman. She’s a white woman. And I think that upon first glance, a lot of people—ironically, they’re usually white people in this case—they’ll look at the situation and say, ‘Oh, so a British woman who claims to be the world’s authority on Mexican food. Well, isn’t that just wrong?’ And that’s usually from people who are just hearing about her for the first time, where that conclusion seems obvious. That she’s not allowed to own any part of this cuisine that isn’t technically hers.”
“And in all technicality, I agree with that. But I think that there is a complexity to the way Diana approached Mexico and approached Mexican cuisine—in a way that was deeply reverent and very respectful. She was not looking to exploit Mexican cuisine to make a profit. Her life’s work has been to never misrepresent what she concluded in sort of an academic way was authentic or traditional Mexican cuisines—which to her have a very objective structure and objective origin points.”
Kennedy locates authentic Mexican food in the home-cooking traditions of indigenous and working-class populations in city outskirts and rural areas of Mexico, which is key to her understanding of authenticity. Notably, while some of the film’s few talking heads are white Mexicans (Carroll was conscious of wanting to limit the talking-head portions of the film and instead focus on Kennedy) Kennedy’s teachers were indigenous and mixed working-class Mexicans. And where white anthropologists are criticized for parachuting into communities for a few weeks or months in order to score a degree, Kennedy has made it a goal to dedicate her life’s work to the communities that have given so much to her, through educating the young on sustainable growing practices, supporting local schools and restaurants, and making sure the best recipes never get lost.
In the U.S., where cooks and chefs of all backgrounds are often tempted into a culture of commercialism, including sparkly branding, conspiratorial social media personalities, “quick and easy” recipes, and corporate deals, Kennedy offers an anti-careerist take on food-centered life. But it’s important to look at Kennedy’s own trajectory through a lens that acknowledges the realities of colonialism and systemic racism. With a recent controversy surrounding the very popular cook Alison Roman, who saw her New York Times column suspended after she made what many saw as an insensitive and implicitly racist quip about Marie Kondo and Chrissy Teigen’s merchandising deals, more people are thinking about the question of privilege as it relates to integrity, and the continued colonialism of the cuisine world skews our understanding of what it means to sell out.
Whether you’re Roman or Tiegen, the mechanisms of early-life success in the U.S. require some version of corporatism. Roman may not capitalize off merch, but she has cultivated a relatively lucrative sans-serif Bon Appetit-cool image for herself, not to mention a New York Times salary and byline, while seemingly whipping together recipes that borrow sometimes major and sometimes minor aspects from ethnic cuisines. Whiteness has afforded both Roman and Kennedy better access to stability without signing contracts with Target, but Kennedy’s trajectory is altogether of a different order, which is to say that Roman might have had more room to criticize corporatism in the food world if she were actually forging a path of refusal.
Carroll was interested in Kennedy’s story not as a portal for understanding Mexican cuisine, but as a way to understand Kennedy herself. “It was obviously a very different time when Diana got to Mexico and she was exploring this world that her world, the English-speaking world, didn't have an understanding of the complexity of,” Carroll said. “These dishes and the ingredients and the beauty and the depth and vibrance of all the cuisines of Mexico.” This is true even within Mexico, a multi-racial country where whiteness confers status and indigenous people are often poor or working class. Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy includes archival photos of the researcher, cook, and author with the families she learned from—she dined and lived in their homes for weeks at a time, asked them questions, and made it her life’s work to preserve the tradition of their local dishes in a written form. “Instead of writing a doctoral thesis I was doing it in real time or real life,” Kennedy proclaims.
According to the documentary, her curiosity was not career- or brand-driven, but personal, communal, and passionate. Cook and co-owner of Restaurant Tlamanalli, Abigail Mendoza—an indigenous Mexican woman from Teotitlan del Valle—says in the documentary that Kennedy, who she has known for more than 35 years, “is Mexican,” if not by origin, then in commitment and tradition. Mendoza points out that as an indigenous person, she knows her own tradition and is the authority on that, but “to properly research Mexican food, you have to travel far to get to the depth of it.” Only Kennedy, Mendoza argues, has done that work for the last several decades, to relatively little recognition.
Of course, there’s the question of who has the freedom to leave their families behind and spend their life traveling Mexico and documenting its traditional cuisines to then publish in books for English-speaking audiences. It’s an important question that the food world has to deal with as it begins to pay more attention to systemic forms of oppression that often determine access within the industry. Throughout the documentary, Kennedy seems aware of how unusual her life is for a woman yet typically limitless for a white person of means. She just doesn’t express guilt about it—even in her 90s (she was 91 when the documentary began filming and is 97 now), Kennedy is more interested in the work of traveling, researching, and cooking than of fashioning herself for public consumption. In fact, she really doesn’t care what people think about her in a way that isn’t simply unapologetic posturing, but is embedded in her personality.
“Diana’s just a really fascinating person, in good and bad ways,” Carroll told me. “She can be very not nice and I experienced that many times and it really frustrated me at certain points and confused me. But it also deepened my fascination with her, because she isn’t like other people in that way—she doesn’t mind being rude.” In one compelling yet uncomfortable scene, Kennedy opens her home kitchen to a group of adult learners, including both novices and restaurant owners who want to learn the methods she’s researched. One woman, a home cook, gets the rice wrong and Diana doesn’t hold back her contempt for the dish. But while she’s quite rude, she isn’t cruel—she affords a kind of intensity and attention to people that is fairly rare in a society where platitudes, superficiality, and a careful allegiance to “supporting” everybody reigns supreme. “In [U.S.] culture, we do mind being rude,” Carroll pointed out. “We go out of our way and we’ll do anything that we can to make sure that we don’t come off as rude. And maybe that’s just an American thing. It’s certainly a public-facing thing. When you gain measure of any level of celebrity, one of the goals is not to piss anybody off. Diana clearly doesn’t have a problem pissing people off.”