Thursday, July 14, 2011
Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers
Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers, the documentarian Les Blank's goofy, eccentric ode to garlic in all its forms, isn't quite an informational piece about garlic, though it does include some history and scientific info about the "stinking rose," nor is it a how-to-cook-with-garlic feature, though there's some of that, too. Instead, it's a loose and appropriately earthy film that takes more of a free-wheeling approach to garlic as a tasty seasoning but also as a symbol for traditional ways of life, as a route into conversations about modern agrarianism and mass farming, and as a way of articulating a certain attitude towards life. That attitude is, of course, one of freedom, self-confidence, a rejection of the "puritanical" American value system. One of the people Blank interviews, the founder of a garlic appreciation society, who wears a floppy hat shaped like a head of garlic, speaks passionately about how garlic represents an enthusiastic embrace of life and a lack of fear about social niceties. Again and again Blank's garlic enthusiast interviewees characterize garlic as rooted in traditional values, as representing the opposite of "civilization." One man speaks of a 17th century food critic who opposed garlic and advocated for bland dishes, and the contempt in his voice is palpable. "Can you imagine eating dinner with that guy?" he asks, his red-rimmed eyes growing shifty and widening in horror.
For his part, Blank remains slightly aloof from the goofier passions of particular interviewees, instead embracing the value of garlic as something wild, untamed, in opposition to the increasing conformity and self-consciousness of modern society. Blank plays back a mouthwash commercial that emphasizes the fear of garlic breath, and several of the garlic lovers in the film have adopted a slogan in response to such campaigns: "fight mouthwash, eat garlic." Garlic represents tradition as opposed to modernity and social niceties, and it's through this theme that Blank touches on the shift in farming from small-level agrarianism to the corporate mega-farms that today dominate vegetable production. The film was made in 1980, and it's somewhat sad to see the various advocates of small, independent farming, still believing that it's possible that the corporate model might not win out.
One farmer who Blank interviews grows only a little garlic and admits that he's not a garlic fanatic, so he seems to be in the film mainly because he's the most eloquent proponent of small-scale independent farming, with everything grown organically without use of pesticides. Today, the idea seems quaint and it probably did then, too, but despite the farmer's relative disinterest in garlic Blank suggests that garlic is the ultimate symbol of this kind of do-it-yourself agrarianism. His many shots of garlic dishes being prepared emphasize the work that goes into preparing garlic: peeling it, separating the cloves from the head and often chopping them or mashing them into tiny bits. This work, this intimate hands-on connection with the stinky, messy food, is part of the pleasure of cooking and eating. Garlic thus becomes a symbol for a larger idea about resisting corporate pre-packaging, resisting the lures of ease and convenience that alienate people from the processes of farming, cooking, and even eating itself. Perhaps to reinforce this point, Blank makes the morbid joke of showing some piglets suckling at their mothers, then shortly after shows the dead pigs being sent to a restaurant and prepared. Many of the dishes being made don't do much if anything to divorce the meat from the animals that produced it: the pigs are cooked whole, as are many fish, their mouths stuffed with whole heads of garlic.
Blank, typically, is just as interested in the folk music that surrounds the food festivals where these garlic-heavy foods are prepared and served. A Spanish man shows how simple sandwiches of garlic and tomatoes nourished poor people during times of strife in his home country, then dances and sings to the accompaniment of vigorous flamenco guitar, snapping his fingers and holding aloft a wreath of garlic. Numerous other folksy bands are represented as well, their music accompanying the many scenes of Blank documenting how a particular garlic dish is prepared. Blank's willingness to divert from the film's primary subject injects his own personality, his own enthusiasm, into the work; he even opens the film with a gap-toothed woman (another of his obsessions) telling a story about how much her mother despised garlic. The woman is Irish-American and suggests that garlic isn't typically an Irish herb, but the rest of the film is pretty inclusive in documenting how different cultures and types of cuisine use garlic: in Italian and Chinese cooking, in pesto sauce, in barbeque, to stuff chicken, to cook fish or squid, or even in some cases on its own, as in the baked whole garlic head that's served at one garlic festival.
The film is often funny, and Blank seldom misses an opportunity to point out an idiosyncratic or silly detail — like all the T-shirt aphorisms about garlic or the stand at one festival selling a "pet garlic" on a leash for some unfathomable reason — but he never seems like he's mocking his subjects. Like his friend and peer Werner Herzog (who appears here speaking about his film Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht, seemingly baffled as to why Blank is asking about garlic) Blank seems to enjoy enthusiasm and passion for their own sakes, and his interest in the ephemera of garlic is contagious. He spends a great deal of time simply admiring the preparation of delicious-looking garlic-heavy dishes, until the distinctive odor of cooking garlic nearly seems to waft out of the screen. But more than that Blank suggests that what we choose to eat, and how we think about food, is a big part of what defines our identity. Thus garlic becomes a symbol for independence, playfulness, love of life, and the earthy hippie values of previous generations, still then just barely hanging on. Blank's film embodies these qualities and celebrates them, finding a great deal of metaphoric complexity in a simple herb.