Back in the late ‘70s, during select screenings around the country of Always for Pleasure, a documentary about New Orleans music and street celebrations, three figures would creep into the movie theater and begin working their way down and up the aisles. It happened at the same time—roughly 15 minutes into the film, just as a gentleman on-screen began slicing onions and garlic and sliding them, along with ham hocks, into an enormous cauldron of bubbling red beans. Suddenly, a distinctively smoky, garlicky scent would fill the air, as if the projected images were powerful enough to emit a fragrance. Close up, it was possible to see through the flickering light that two people were holding heavy pots of just-cooked red beans while a third was frantically fanning the fumes. Then, as soon as the scene changed, the trespassers would abruptly exit, only to be found once again at the movie’s conclusion, waiting in the lobby to ladle out to the audience a taste of Louisiana-style red beans and rice.
One of the pot holders—the lanky, bearded fellow—was the film’s director, Les Blank, and what the crowd was experiencing was what Blank calls Smellaround, his low-tech version of film gimmicks like the theater-vibrating Sensurround. Instead of terrifying people by shaking the movie hall with waves of intense, high-decibel sound, Blank’s gentle intent was to use scent to help trigger the feelings—hunger, anticipation, excitement—of watching a cook prepare a great meal. It evolved from Blank’s habit of keeping his hands busy by serving gumbo during the Q&A sessions that followed Dry Wood, a movie in which the deliciously spicy Cajun stew makes a scene-stealing appearance. Over the years, Blank turned Smellaround into a precision science. Six whole heads of garlic roasting for a half hour in a portable toaster oven, for example, could perfume an entire auditorium showing his witty, ahead-of-its-time celebration of garlic’s many glories, Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers (1980).
“It’s the smelling that gets your appetite worked up—it adds another dimension,” says Blank, a shy, soft-spoken man who found that Smellaround also helped him achieve his secret wish to be a bells-and-whistles showman. “I always wanted to be a little bit like P. T. Barnum.”
Now 68, Blank has a canon of over 30 films bearing his name as director as well as an unpredictable medley of other credits (he often also shoots, edits, and produces; occasionally, he can be heard asking a question off-camera in his parched Florida twang). Though a couple of films focus solely on food, most peel back the curtain on ethnically specific worlds—the Cajuns of Louisiana, Norteño musicians on the Texas-Mexico border, Polish-American polka enthusiasts—using cuisine as his backstage pass into each community.
Early in his filmmaking career, Blank noticed how the act of cooking worked emotional magic on people unnerved at having a boom microphone and a bulky 16-millimeter Éclair camera trained on them. The minute he asked a subject to show him how to, say, properly boil a peppery batch of crawfish or fire-grill yards of tripe, they would breathe more easily.
“The rhythms of cooking put people into a more natural state than if they’re just sitting there twiddling their fingers,” says Blank. “If they’re cooking, it’s something they’re used to doing, and they do it with ease. Also it’s a good place to start because anybody can talk about food.” After shooting finished, Blank would typically be expected to try some of the lovingly prepared specialties.
“I like to eat,” he says, adding that it was his daredevil palate that led him to sample a thin strip of battered boot leather that chef Alice Waters and German film director Werner Herzog tried to tenderize in duck fat, herbs, Tabasco, and garlic in Blank’s famous 1979 chronicle of Herzog’s making good on a promise made to fellow director Errol Morris in Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. “It tasted like acid and all kinds of bottled toxic stuff they used to tan the leather,” says Blank. “It was hideous. I couldn’t get it down.”
Blank’s mother, Daisy Paul Blank, would have had something to say, no doubt, about her son’s choice of snack food. A devotee of health food pioneer Adelle Davis (Let’s Eat Right to Keep Fit), she raised Blank in Tampa, Florida, on a steady diet of truck-farm vegetables, fruits, and wheat germ. Because his father’s fortunes rose and fell, meat was sometimes a scarce commodity. “Every now and then we’d have a lamb chop,” says Blank, who noticed so little of what his mom did in the kitchen that his first attempt at bachelor meal making—an unseasoned chicken leg in a dry hot skillet—was a disaster. “The skin was burned and it was raw inside,” says Blank. “I couldn’t figure out where I’d gone wrong.”
It was gumbo that got his complete attention. He was in a suburb of Houston one night in 1969 listening to live music at a dance hall that catered to the town’s population of Cajuns who’d migrated from Louisiana to find work on the offshore oil platforms. “Normally, I’m very afraid of people,” says Blank, who overcame his personal hesitation enough to compliment the band’s leader at closing time. “He invited me and my girlfriend home to have a chicken gumbo dinner,” recalls Blank. “He went through every step of making the gumbo, describing what he was doing and why. He did it with a great deal of affection and gusto.”