I’ve always thought I lived a pretty normal life. Mom was a stay-at-home (until the last kid of four went to school all day), and after school I used to try to help in the kitchen (mainly), or run the vacuum or transfer the wash from the big round barrel washing portion to the attached spin dryer. That whizzing sound was unforgettable.
But I remember other sounds from the kitchen. So often it was my mother singing along with the hit parade, Disney, show songs, or, especially, a Kate Smith-sung ballad delivered at “high noon in New York.”
In our house the kitchen radio was turned on all day, but us kids were warned to ferme la bouche (a.k.a. shuddup!) when my Mom’s serious soap operas aired or Saturday’s Metropolitan grand opera was on. She was mad for Portia Faces Life, and I learned that it ran from 1940 to 1952 (thanks to a great listing online using “Soap Operas on Radio” or words like those. This is fun if you are a nostalgic senior—like me).
Those were the golden years of radio drama, and I’m old enough to remember some of the tear-jerkers.
But I digress! Mom always claimed that listening to something (except for our whines) made the chores easier to execute. And that included the prep work for our main meal—dinner at six—when dad got home from the office. We’d sit at the table (chrome-trimmed, with a red Formica top) and savored the aromas, along with my mother’s pretty voice, perhaps singing the Rinso white song…
What’s Playing in the Kitchen?
Last month I came across an interview with Chef Jesse Sandler in the Wall Street Journal. He boasted, “I’m always listening to music in the kitchen.” But his music is a far cry from the organ themes for the 40s soaps. The chef explained: “I love Pearl Jam…am a Tool fan, a big Bob Dylan fan…(and) Nirvana and classic rock.” And I loved his final thought: “I’m using my hands in the kitchen. Putting something together…and it feels right.”
I thought I’d do a little interviewing of my own, mixing creative home cooks and some of the professional chefs that I know. I wondered what they listen to, or if they do, as they prep and assemble lunch or dinner.
An hour after I got this wacky idea I was sitting in a room at the hospital undergoing a routine test administered by two technicians. “What do you listen to when you cook?” They simultaneously declared, “I don’t cook.” “I microwave,” added one. So the sound she hears is the “bing” of the bell that says, “I’m micro-cooked.”
My friend Betty puts together her family meals just as the five o’clock news comes on her kitchen radio. So she chops to mostly depressing sagas all around us. This is not for me.
Probably the busiest and certainly most famous chef I know, Rick Rodgers, gave me a wonderful line. He listens to Satellite radio in his New Jersey test kitchen, and turns the dial to Motown. Why, I asked? And he countered with, “It’s the energy of the music. That keeps me moving, and their familiarity is comforting and not distracting.” Go to his Web site and you’ll marvel at the quantity of books he has produced. And that doesn’t include the ghostwritten stuff.
Another friend doesn’t cook; his partner does that, but he makes what he calls his “magic spaghetti sauce.” He says, “I always listen to the classic 70s.” He has about 200 on his iPod. “The success of the sauce depends on how loud I play the music!” he adds. Thank goodness their home is on large acreage.
Dave Siskin, a local media personality, wrote me: “When I prepare my special concoctions it’s more seasonal, so certain types of seasonal music may be listened to. However, in general I’ll turn to old standards either with vocal or instrumental, and I usually sing along if I can remember the words.” He sums up his philosophy thusly: “The world without music would B-flat.” (Only he has the “flat” symbol on his keyboard.)
I loved Chef Michael Lanahan’s answer to my query. He presides at The Cellar in Corning and, well, let me let him tell you: “I listen to a wide array of music when I’m cooking. Sometimes it’s my ‘yoga music,’ such as Deva Primal, Krishna Das, or some random chanting. [It might be] classic Frank Sinatra or Louis Prima or more modern jazzy, like Esperanza Spaulding, or a l’il more funky with Jamiroquai.
“But if it’s the thick of service at the restaurant, I need something that moves and has flow. This ranges from Frank Black and the Pixies to groovy DJ Chinese Man. Regardless, there is always something adding mood to the food man.”
So Much to Chop, So Little Time
Years ago when I was young and lithe (OK, it was many years ago) I would invite several friends for dinner after work. I was testing recipes but I never got to the store for ingredients much before five. What to do? There were big onions to cut, skins of tomatoes to remove, potatoes to peel—the usual. I’d go to my faithful record player, select Gaîté Parisienne from the rack of LPs, and chop away to the can-can. Super-Speedy, they’d call me.
Another friend has PBS-FM on all day, and she needs quiet. So she cooks in a hushed atmosphere… the better to hear the water boiling and the sizzle of something in a sauté pan.
Good home cook Denis isn’t fussy: “I listen to jazz, classical, and the oldies, depending on my mood—not on the kind of food I’m cooking. What an eclectic taste I have in music.”
My friend Mary Anne takes an “appropriate” approach when selecting music to accompany her food prep. “If it is for a more formal meal with the fancy china and silver, I put on something like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. That sets my mood. Anticipating a more casual, fun evening, I opt for maybe the Jersey Boys cast album with shades of Franki Valli.” (It’s all played through the computer at her house.)
Back to the Pros
Chef Blake is a purist. He has to concentrate when he cooks because he may be concocting recipes for clients such as Campbell’s. He alternates his knife with a pen to record changes to recipes. So the only sounds in his spacious test kitchen are the whoosh of the big Viking range or the rat-a-tat-tat as a shallot or onion falls into little pieces. However, if it is Christmas time he puts on seasonal music while he makes great piles of delicious Christmas cookies for friends.
Another buddy, Brooklyn cookbook writer Phillip, told me: “I used to listen to rock. Now it’s too much trouble finding the station.” That’s Gotham for you.
I got a kick out of another terrific chef whose specialty is Chinese cooking. When I asked him about music to mince by, he said, “I like to listen to kitchen talk. I don’t watch, I listen.” (His huge TV is in an adjacent family room.) Then he added, “But once in a while on the Food Network, if I am lucky, we get the beautiful Giada di Laurentis. Then I stop and watch.”
Area chefs have their own favorites at the restaurant and at home. Take Executive Chef Garrett Saunders of the Blue Pointe Grille at the Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel. In the Pointe’s kitchen (en pointe??), the staff listens to alternative rock thanks to a Sirius hookup.
Garrett learned to cook at his mother’s knee, and that meant listening to country western music, as he says it, “in the kitchen with Willie Nelson.” I was delighted to hear that nowadays he sings as he cooks. Why? Because I do, too. You should hear my sing-alongs with Pavarotti when I am making an Italian dish.
On second thought, maybe not.
He’s Made a Little List
Who better to go to for advice on music than my old friend Bill Dollard, who is the music critic for the paper up in Hanover, New Hampshire. This is great—and you read it in Mountain Home!
By the by, Bill is also a superb cook. First he lists the chore, then his suggested music:
Heavy chopping, as with a cleaver—Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring or Verdi’s “Anvil Chorus” from Il Trovatore.
For hand whipping—Mozart’s “Overture” to The Marriage of Figaro.
For frosting a cake—Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony—the principal movement of the first movement. (It may be the Unfinished Symphony, but do finish the cake.)
For gently folding things into a mixture—the principal theme from Von Suppe’s “Light Cavalry Overture” would be ideal.
For a respite between chores—the “Larghetto” from Handel’s Concerto Grosso No. 12, Opus 6, No. 6.
I hope one of my friends will give me some ideas for the rock or golden oldie or country genres. Why not send me your suggestions, c/o Mountain Home?
And happy cooking and listening!