Pleasure Principle

For filmmaker Les Blank, food was life

The screen explodes with dazzling images of African-American men and women high-stepping to the sounds of a smokin’ brass band, then cuts to a young man on the sidelines of the parade cooking ribs. The fire and smoke, the juice and sheen of the meat are palpable. You can almost smell and taste that food. This is Always for Pleasure (1978), a movie by the Berkeley, California, filmmaker Les Blank, and watching it, you feel transported to the streets of New Orleans.

For more than 40 years, Blank, who passed away this year in April at the age of 77, was a vital force in American cinema, turning out dozens of documentaries. Many of them centered on the joys of eating and cooking, with subjects ranging from Creole cookery (Yum, Yum, Yum! 1990) to the wanderings of a tea merchant in China (All This in Tea, 2008) to a rollicking garlic festival in Berkeley (Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers, 1980).

I met Les in 2004 when I called him for advice while I was working on a film of my own. We hit it off, and soon established one of the most rewarding friendships of my life—one cemented by a shared love of film and food.

The first time I visited Les at his home in Berkeley, he made squid in its own ink with garlic over rice. We spent the days gorging on boiled crab with Les’s homemade tarragon aïoli, baking enormous batches of granola fortified with bee pollen, and berry picking in the Berkeley hills. One day he stripped a friend’s persimmon tree of all its fruit, which he peeled and hung in the sunny bay windows of his dining room to dry. Four months later, when he visited me on a trip to New York to screen a few of his films, he brought me a bag of those dried persimmons and we savored their concentrated sweetness.

A little more than a month after that visit, Les was diagnosed with bladder cancer, which was declared terminal a few months later. Things got bad fast. He lost weight. His family and friends pulled together to support him in the only way possible: We fed him. Gina Leibrecht, who collaborated with Les on his films, organized friends into a cooking club. I flew out and cooked Indian pakoras. Alice Waters sent Les food from Chez Panisse. These meals sustained Les; he lived much longer than his doctors had predicted.

In Always for Pleasure, one character says over a plate of barbecue, “When you’re dead, you’re done.” But after Les passed away, I turned to his films again and found his exuberant presence in the work he’d left behind. He’s still there, steadying the camera as it dances over attendees at a crawfish boil in Louisiana’s Cajun country in 1972’s Spend it All, or while it lingers on the cooks at Chez Panisse as they stuff suckling pigs with garlic in Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers, from 1980. His films vividly transmit the joy Les found in food, and exhort us all to see the pleasure of cooking for what it is: a lifesustaining and essential human birthright.