Les Blank Celebrated the Greatness of American Food
Les Blank, who passed away April 7 at the age of 77, didn’t talk much, but he told us a lot. In a time when American food didn’t get much respect, he showed us what we were missing.
Blank — recently hailed on this site as one of The 60 (Plus) Coolest People in Food and Drink — was probably best known for his film Burden of Dreams, a mad, crazy documentary about the making of another movie, Fitzcarraldo. In one memorable moment, Fitzcarraldo's director, Werner Herzog, looks up at the sky above the Amazon, throws his arms wide, and says, "Even the stars down here look like a mess."
But to food lovers Les Blank was not just a documentarian; he was our documentarian, the man who showed us how great American food could be. In 1971, when he made Spend It All, few people were aware that a vibrant food-first culture was hidden away in the bayous of Louisiana. He made it all seem so appealing that you couldn’t watch the film without wanting to hurry off to Louisiana to get a taste of hot food and spicy zydeco music.
His Always for Pleasure, an ode to New Orleans made in 1978, should be required viewing for everyone who loves Treme; it’s New Orleans before the flood. And every novice cook needs to see what happens when Werner Herzog makes an imprudent bet with Errol Morris. When it’s time to pay up, Alice Waters gets out her pots, Blank turns on the camera, and Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe.
I met Les in the late '70s when he was shooting Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers. I went with him when he visited a famous garlic restaurant in the little mountain town of Truckee, Calif. Bruce Aidells came along, too (before he was the sausage king). This is what I remember: midnight garlic massages, great food, vast amounts of wine, and an absolutely indefatigable Blank who kept rolling film into the wee hours of the morning, afraid he might miss something good.
Les had a quirky eye and a passion for the unusual (he did an entire film on gap-toothed women). He loved music, and he loved to eat. He was also astute enough to understand that American food was quickly changing. One of his earliest films, Chicken Real, is about an industrial chicken processing plant, made in 1970 when most people still thought that chickens scratched around in the dirt of small farms. He knew that what we eat says a lot about us, and we’re extremely lucky that he went out and captured these cultures before it was too late.