How This 1980 Film Is the Forerunner to the Modern-Day Food Documentary

November 10, 2016

This weekend, the Metrograph theater in New York City’s Lower East Side will be screening "Food-on-Film: A Weekend with Alton Brown," featuring six of Food52 friend Alton Brown’s favorite food films. They’re all classics, and readily available. We’ll be running short essays throughout the week on each one. Check out the previous entries here.

Documentarian Les Blank’s Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers (1980) begins with a woman singing, and she's unfortunately rather bad at it. Wearing a yellow t-shirt emblazoned with the words “GILROY GARLIC FESTIVAL,” she seems to be trying her best Mary Hopkins impression, warbling with the misguided confidence of a high school theater kid no one has the heart to tell is actually untalented. “Garlic is the spice of life,“ she declares, and it sounds like something of a mission statement delivered by an alien. She repeats herself. "Garlic is the spice of life, the spice of life, the spice of life!"

Photo by Metrograph

As evinced by this film, garlic was, circa 1980, a uniquely polarizing vegetable: “It’s something you either like or you don’t," one garlic disciple suggests midway through the film. "You react to it in some way.” Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers is, as Alton Brown writes, a forerunner to the contemporary rubric of the "food documentary" as we know it today, even if it doesn't carry the cachet of a Jiro Dreams of Sushi that may invite instant name recognition. Perhaps this owes itself to the fact that, as Brown observes, the film is "both quaint and quixotic" in feel, an apt descriptor that acknowledges the precision of Blank's work here. Blank works off the assumption that garlic is terribly divisive, and his aesthetic is befittingly fanciful and kooky as he surveys the people who will die for garlic they love it so much.

Photo by Metrograph

The film orbits around pockets of Northern California, from the aforementioned Gilroy to Berkeley, which one man calls "the garlic center of production and the greatest growing region in the world." One woman monologues about how much her mom, from Ireland, used to hate garlic; Blank also speaks to German director Werner Herzog, who supposes that the world has often perceived of garlic as repellent due to its fixture in vampire mythology. (Herzog had just filmed his adaptation of Nosferatu the year earlier.) Another man, owner of a BBQ joint, claims that the garlic possesses a medicinal balm that is often ignored, leading to a life free of high blood pressure or medical problems. Blank profiles an aging Spaniard who details that, in 1939, people had nothing to eat in the twilight of the Spanish Civil War but garlic and tomatoes.

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The foundation for this film rests on the premise that loving garlic was, for a time, disgraced and stigmatized in the American popular imagination. But a confluence of factors—a wave of immigrants who brought garlic from their ancestral homelands to the States, a rising interest in herbalism and Mediterranean cooking, a pining for the rhythms of "old ways" and "ancient times"—has led to a cultist resurgence in faith in this vegetable.

Over time, as Blank introduces us to the acolytes of this bulbous plant, we come around to it, understanding the charge it carries for these people; some appear as clear misfits, while others seem capable of assimilating into normative human society. Yet he treats them with non-judgmental clear eyes—an observant undercurrent that would mark his entire output. Though Blank would be best known for his documentaries about such blues musicians as Lightnin' Hopkins, as well as 1980's bizarre Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (which Metrograph will be screening just before Garlic, as something of a companion piece), Garlic is one of the early triumphs in Blank's storied career of over two dozen films. (He died in 2013 at the age of 77.) The film ends, too, with a woman serenading garlic. She's much better than the first woman we heard. Soon enough, she's joined by a harmonious chorus of women singing the paean of garlic—“if you’ve got arthritis, TB, or the flu, you’ll say peel me a garlic clove please,” they intone—and you’ll sing along, too.

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Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.