Yum, Yum, Yum! A Taste of Cajun & Creole Cooking (1990)

YUM, YUM, YUM! (1990)

To view Yum, Yum, Yum! A Taster of Cajun and Creole Cooking click here.

If you’ve never heard me say it before, let me say it here again: Les Blank is my favorite documentarian. I’ve written about him several times in different venues on and offline, as well as on TCM’s main site, where I did an article on this very movie. In that article, I wrote, “There aren’t many documentarians like Les Blank anymore. Maybe there never were. Blank had an uncanny ability, an inexplicable talent one might say, to take normal, ordinary activities, like making dinner, and turn them into fascinating cinema.” Of course, the wonderfully titled Yum, Yum, Yum! A Taster of Cajun and Creole Cooking (1990) is about more than making dinner, it’s about culture and family and how something as simple as a meal can have deep communal roots.

First, a little background. The short documentary that is the focus of this post began it’s life as the extra footage from the feature length documentary that Les Blank released in 1989, J’ai t au bal, which translates to “I went to the ball.” That documentary, also amazing, examines the culture of zydeco music and during its making, there was plenty of cooking too. The subjects of that documentary, primarily Marc and Ann Savoy, and Creole accordionist Queen Ida (Ida Lewis Guillory), enjoyed talking to Blank as much about food and cooking as about their music and so Blank put the footage together into a short film to act as a companion to the longer work. The thing is, in many ways, the shorter film has become my favorite of the two. Maybe I just like eating that much more.

If you’re unfamiliar with Les Blank, and have become accustomed to documentaries only from watching them from the last twenty to thirty years, you should be warned that Les Blank lets his topic do the talking. Ever since the 1980s, with a couple of documentary filmmakers who found success making the story all about themselves, it has become increasingly common for every documentary to be the autobiographical journey of the filmmaker. They usually start things out by explaining a mission they’re on and how their journey had humble beginnings before we are treated (tormented?) to 90 to 120 minutes of self-deprecating jokes, oh-so-clever asides and smug condescension.

Les Blank never played that game and never wanted to. He knew that what he was doing was documenting a subject and that subject was not himself. It was unnecessary to insert himself physically into the film to comment on the action because the film itself was Les Blank’s commentary. Obviously. And yet, here we are, suffering through one narcissistic documentary after another. Les never had much commercial success. Maybe that’s why.

YUM, YUM, YUM! (1990)

What Les Blank does in Yum, Yum, Yum! as he does in his other works, is shoot the action, edit the pieces together and let the action do the explaining. When the film opens, we see Marc Savoy and friends outside, layering a cauldron over heat with one ingredient after another. Fish, spices, tomato sauce and lots of flour. None of it is stirred or mixed. It will cook for hours and the heat and time will do the mixing and blending. I’ve seen it a million times but even now, I find myself entranced as I watch it.

As the short moves on, we begin to realize how deep the cultural roots of their meals run. Both the Savoys and Queen Ida speak of their meals with stories of family, cultural connections and a way of life that can’t be replicated by simply spicing up a meal or blackening the chicken. In fact, Marc Savoy tells a humorous tale of he and his family traveling to Disneyland and going to one of the restaurants in the park. There, on the menu, was Cajun Blackened Fish. Marc decided to ask the waitress what this “Cajun” stuff was all about. She informed him it was a way of cooking food as if that’s all it was, and nothing more. It seems impossible watching the documentary now that she would not recognize his unmistakable accent but the story he was relaying was from the mid-1980s and the Cajun culture was just becoming a marketable quantity in the American business world. In fact, in a funny moment, the Savoys are asked about Paul Prudhomme, just becoming famous as a Cajun chef, and they’ve never heard of him. But back to the meal.

Marc ordered the fish and was curious how well they would do with it. He soon found out. When it came, he couldn’t eat it. “Too bland?” you might be thinking but, actually, just the opposite. It was too blackened, too spicy and far too hot. He asked for it to go, took it back to the hotel room, and cleaned it off so he could eat it. As Marc then explains, Cajuns use spices to bring out flavor, not to make things unbearably hot. Too often, however, people think incredibly hot spices and incredibly powerful hot sauce is the only way to do it right. If you think, he says, that Cajun food is about hot food, you’ve misunderstood the whole thing.

YUM, YUM, YUM! (1990)

But it’s not all food. Despite being an offshoot of a previous documentary on music, he still finds time to show snippets of performances here and there. Queen Ida performs with all the stunning power and command of the stage we witnessed in the full length work, only now we can also hear her talk about her family and what communal meals meant to them. We can hear her explain that it’s not so much about the ingredients for her as the tradition, and passing on the same cultural legacies of Creole heritage down the line.

Yum, Yum, Yum! A Taste of Cajun and Creole Cooking clocks in at just around 31 minutes but it feels like far less. The first time I ever saw it I remember thinking, “No way that was 31 minutes! It just started five minutes ago.” But that’s Les Blank. He films the subject and then presents it to you and you watch. You watch real people doing real things without a narrator or a filmmaker explaining what you’re seeing on the screen. In a way, it’s the most voyeuristic filmmaking there is, and no one did it better than Les Blank.

Greg Ferrara

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