Les Blank and L. John Harris at Pacific Film Archive’s screening of Blank’s 1980 film, “Garlic is as good as ten mothers”
Les Blank and L. John Harris at Pacific Film Archive’s screening of Blank’s 1980 film, “Garlic is as good as ten mothers”

By John Harris

If it’s true that “Garlic is as good as ten mothers,” the title of Les Blank’s 1980 film, my question is: why anyone would want ten mothers? For most people I know, and speaking for myself, one good mother was plenty. Evidently this is not the case with garlic, about which, for its fanatical fans, there is no such thing as too much.

So when Blank’s cinematic homage to never-enough-garlic was screened on a recent Sunday at the Pacific Film Archive as part of a Les Blank retrospective, aging but loyal garlic-heads, including yours truly, showed up to marinate, yet again, in the stinking rose’s aromatic magic.

When my Book of Garlic was published in 1974 under the nom de plume Lloyd J. Harris, it luckily caught Les Blank’s eye (and nostrils). The book, which had been inspired by my brief stint as a waiter at Chez Panisse during its first hectic days in 1971, proclaimed a garlic revolution in America and popularized the ancient Roman word for garlic, “stinking rose.”  

“Provencal Aroma Therapy” (1989) L. John Harris

My “best smeller” in turn inspired Chez Panisse’s first and subsequent Bastille Day garlic festivals in the late 1970s, the mise en scène for much of Blank’s film.

I try to see Blank’s film, which was edited by Maureen Gosling, at least once a year, not because I’m in it, but because so many old friends and partners in crime from those heady days in Berkeley are featured. Watching Blank’s Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers is like watching home movies thick with characters from one’s childhood. And that’s what Berkeley’s pre-organic, pre-sustainable, pre-politicized, garlic-chomping food revolution in the 1970s was for me—my foodie childhood.

The cast of characters in Blank’s film seems endless and represents a veritable Who’s Who of Berkeley’s revolutionary food scene. There is, of course, Alice Waters, a pretty young lady of about 30, cooking at her not even ten-year-old restaurant and talking about the enticing qualities of garlic that whip people into a frenzy at the restaurant’s newly launched annual garlic event.

And then there’s my art school chum, Bob Waks, who joined me at the Cheese Board in 1968 and moved on to Chez Panisse as a cook. He’s making pesto in the film. Pesto! Exotic pesto, by 1970s standards, became one of the preferred vehicles for the raw garlic magic that overcame us in those early days of our collective mania.

And who you may ask is that Spanish gypsy in the film brandishing a braid of garlic and singing and dancing its praises? His name is Anzonini del Puerto and he lived in Berkeley in the late 70s after marrying Cheese Boarder Pat Darrow. Anzonini had come to Berkeley to visit the young fans in the area’s flamenco subculture who had fallen under the spell of his infectious performances while in Andalucia, where they had come to learn the art of flamenco.

Anzonini had been, in addition to a flamenco legend in Spain, a butcher and sausage maker and began making his amazing sausages in Berkeley. One of his acolytes was Bruce Aidells who became Le Poulet’s first chef after I introduced him to Marilyn Rinzler in 1979 during a field trip to meet Julia Child in San Francisco.

Anzonini del Puerto with string of garlic in “Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers”
Anzonini del Puerto with string of garlic in “Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers”

Yes, that’s sausage king Bruce Aidells on screen in his Kensington kitchen, wearing his signature cap, making Anzonini’s andouille recipe. Anzonini’s sausages went on sale at legendary Pig-by-the-Tail, Victoria Wise’s still-missed charcuterie, opened after her days as Chez Panisse’s first cook.

And who is that grizzled old man who pops up in the film wearing a bathrobe and holding up The Book of Garlic? There is no identifying caption as Blank’s camera zooms in on this still photo. Nevertheless, viewers of the film need to know — and I’m here to tell them — that that’s Henry Miller. Yes, the Henry Miller. And why is he holding a copy of my book? Another story within stories too numerous and too convoluted to tell here.

That other older gentleman in the film who presides over Blank’s notorious X-rated aioli massage scene, who is he? He’s none other than the late Robert Charles, a now forgotten hero of pre-revolutionary Bay Area dining. Charles, a chef and restaurateur from the South of France, operated several celebrated Bay Area restaurants in the 1960s and 70s — Charles’ Bistro in San Francisco and Maurice et Charles in Marin.

Then, in the late 1970s, Robert and his wife Amora moved to Truckee where they opened La Vieille Maison. Its theme? Garlic, of course. Charles had merged his native love of garlic with Berkeley’s mushrooming garlic subculture to create the first garlic-themed restaurant in America. On the menu was a dish called “Soupe Lloyd J. Harris,” your basic French onion soup made with garlic instead of onions, and enriched with cream instead of melted cheese.

The film’s aioli massage — where Bruce Aidells rubs garlic mayonnaise on the naked backside of one of Charles’ waitresses — grew out of a pilgrimage made to Truckee in 1979 by Blank, Aidells, myself and Ruth Reichl, who was writing an article on the garlic revolution for New West magazine’s “Food Fever” issue.

But Les Blank’s garlic homage is much more than a Who’s Who of Berkeley and the Bay Area’s opening battles in the food revolution that would sweep across California and America. In a world where everyone today is a documentary filmmaker — with iPhones and digital video cameras recording every detail of our lives — Les Blank’s Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers, and indeed all of his films, reminds us that life is not art. And everything we say and do, captured so easily now by anyone with a digital device, is not a masterpiece.

Art is still what some of us, those with mysterious qualities we call vision and talent, make out of the stories that life presents. Blank has these qualities. He sees things we don’t and shows them to us. And luckily for my generation of food revolutionaries, once upon a time he focused on garlic.

You can order copies of “Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers” online at Les Blank’s Flower Films website. Watch a trailer of the film on YouTube.

L. John Harris is a journalist, artist, filmmaker and author of the recently published graphic memoir, Foodoodles: From the Museum of Culinary History. He is a regular contributor to the online food journal, Zester Daily.

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