Someone's in the Kitchen With Genius
“ A Virginia hillbilly like myself can meet a Swede right off the streets of Stockholm and form a mutual bond over Ikea meatballs and Bobo Stenson. ”
When I am holed up in the 'Dome living the life of a nearly complete recluse (I do occasionally venture out to earn a living, and to buy beer and groceries and then more beer), one of my favorite pastimes is cooking. I first began learning to cook at the age of five, almost forty years ago (by my watch), and have even worked in several restaurants that no longer exist through no fault of mine. I find cooking as pleasurable and relaxing pursuit as any hobby, with the added benefit of producing something legitimately useful at the end. Unlike those guys who paint period appropriate uniforms onto pewter toy soldiers.
My Appalachian heritage has given me a deep appreciation for food. In Southern culture, particularly mountain culture, food is the currency of emotion. Happy occasions and sad occasions are both celebrated with food (the way to tell the difference is that a sad occasion will generally merit a ham, while a happy occasion usually includes cake). And a full pantry is a more respected sign of prosperity than a new car or a fancy house. I will occasionally stand in front of my enviably-stocked larder and take in the sheer majesty of my hoard of canned food that would make a survivalist recommend an intervention. And, in rare moments of clarity, I look at my irrational collection of various condiments and think, "Holy Lord, why do I have all this barbecue sauce?"
Fortunately, I find myself at one of the rare moments in my life when my own personal interests happen to coincide with the currently popular. Food, and cooking, are all the rage right now. People who formerly refused to purchase certain types of Hamburger Helper because you had to mix up the sauce thing separately and that was just too complicated are now discussing the relative merits of Berkshire versus Tamworth pork like they can tell the difference between either one of them and whatever was on sale at Kroger. Television food personalities are now more recognizable than most TV actors, and arguably more entertaining.
It is said that cooking is an art, baking is a science. This is probably why I am a better cook than a baker. I learned to cook from my mother, who was famous for adding a pinch of this and a handful of that, rarely measuring anything. I learned to experiment, improvise, substitute and generally wing it. I eyeball measurements, I season by smell and taste, I rely on experience to dictate cooking times and temperatures. These are things that can all be fatal errors in baking. I approach cooking the same way I approach jazz, with liberal amounts of improvisation and copious amounts of alcohol.
Jazz and food actually share several commonalities. Jazz came from the South, which also produced the lion's share of America's greatest foods. Southerners were eating barbecue and fried chicken while Yankees were still boiling the hell out of everything and feeding lobsters to prisoners. We were listening to Joe King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton while our Northern kin were still enjoying folk songs about corn. The same mixture of European, African, and Caribbean influences that created jazz also made Cajun and Creole cuisine. The same ingenuity that took the blues and melded it with other music from around the world to make jazz came from the same resourcefulness that took the tough parts of the pig and made tender, succulent barbecue. And the same Southern marketing genius that sold the multi-ethnic musical creation of a subjugated people to America's largest and most sophisticated metropolitan areas is the same one that is now retailing 30¢ worth of collard greens to hipsters for $12.95.
Jazz and food also share the ability to bring together people of different cultures. A Virginia hillbilly like myself can meet a Swede right off the streets of Stockholm and form a mutual bond over Ikea meatballs and Bobo Stenson. A Dinka from South Sudan and I could find instant common ground over the complex polyrhythms of Our Music and a good cheeseburger because who doesn't love a good cheeseburger? And though I may not be able to speak whatever jibber jabber language French people speak, we can still bond over pungent, runny cheeses and Stephane Grappelli.
Jazz and food are both at their best when made with emotion. I'll take a pizza from a dive-y little Mom and Pop joint where they put their heart into every order over a pie-a-minute chain joint where every pizza looks just like the one on the picture above the work table. I'll take Thelonious Monk's splay-fingered dissonant chords over any classically trained yet soulless display of technique. And I'd take any one of them over "Hawaiian" pizza, which is a godless chimera that has no place among civilized human beings.
I could go on and on about the similarities between Jazz and food, and I will if I have to; I'm not what you'd call a proud man. But I think you get the point by now and if you don't, go get a cheeseburger, put on some Bobo Stenson and you'll be right up to speed.
Having already compared the individual components of Jazz to those of a burrito (see my previous article, How to Listen to Jazz, or wait for the film version in theaters this summer, starring Sofia Vergara as Salsa), I won't submit you to another rehashing of a theme just for the sake of keeping my hand in the game. Nor will I clog up the Interwebs with yet another reposting of Miles Davis's chili recipe or Dean Martin's recipe for burgers. Instead, I thought it might be fun to associate some of my favorite Jazz artists with the influence they have on my cooking. For example, Louis Armstrong may invite a "special recipe brownies" reference for those in the know, but Pops always puts me more in the mind of red beans and rice, that staple of his hometown. And "Struttin' With Some Barbecue" makes me want some barbecue, which is a whole 'nother article entirely.
John Coltrane: Trane puts me in the mind of something smooth and rich, yet well-spiced and constantly surprising. Indian food does the trick. A nice mild Korma for his more accessible and melodic works (Blue Train), a complex Jalfrezi for his more challenging works (A Love Supreme).
Miles Davis: The Prince of Darkness makes me want something dark, obviously, but complex. A Mexican mole poblano sauce served over a grilled turkey breast does the trick. Pairs well with Sketches of Spain and a pint or twelve of Negra Modelo.
Cecil Taylor: A combination of things that shouldn't work together, but somehow does. Think chicken and waffles, or bacon milkshakes (which I personally don't care for, but I didn't like Cell Walk for Celeste either). Put on Unit Structures, pour on the maple syrup and hot sauce, and dig.
Donny McCaslin: Something new(er) and fresh. Roasted brussel sprouts with pancetta and shallots. Goes with my favorite, The Way Through.
Duke Ellington: Something classic that has stood the test of time, yet always new and and surprising. Something that seems easier than it turns out to be, but worth the effort. I go with Beef Wellington, and not just because it rhymes and sets me up for a ridiculously easy Duke of Wellington joke that doesn't seem so easy now that I've forgotten what it was. Anything by the Duke works (Ellington, not the other one), but I like Ellington at Newport 1956.
These are just a few ideas, and are wholly subjective. If listening to Marcus Miller puts you in the mood for seared ahi tuna served on a bed of Fruity Pebbles, then have at it. If Jacqui Sutton gives you a taste for Texas-style brisket on New York rye, then you, sir or ma'am, are a friend of mine. And if listening to Boney James makes you want to go to Subway for their $5 footlong sub of the month, then this entire article has been wasted on you.
Till next time, kids, exit to your right and enjoy the rest of AAJ.