17 June 2022

Cooking Soundtracks: Inspiration, Meditation, or Metaphysical Alignment?

In my life as an educator one of the things I do is teach culinary skills to young people. I am one of the faculty sponsors of our farm to table club. It was, this past school year,  the most popular club on campus.  Everyone is enthusiastic about our weekly Friday meetings.  It would be nice if we could have music playing while we're having our club meeting but, with anywhere from 6 to 24 people running around playing with knives and fire,  I need to be able to communicate clearly and quickly with people, sometimes from across the room, so music playing in the background could have a negative impact on the meeting should an emergency arise. Yes, there is another teacher in the room with me but, again, when we have a lot of students in attendance we both have our hands full making sure nothing or no one gets set on fire and no one has to go see the nurse from the improper use of knives. Nothing like dealing with angry parents, administrators, and school board members for  the  sake of having a musical atmosphere. Thus, we do not have any music playing while we are working. And, really, when I'm demonstrating a particular cutting technique we shouldn't be distracted by music. And, given the variety of students' musical, as well as my own eclectic, musical tastes, I predict that chaos would ensue if I subjected them to my soundtrack while cooking. At the end of this post will be a Spotify link to what I call my cooking soundtrack (yes, one track is a gratuitous insertion of me playing a movement from a concerto by Vivaldi). It continues to grow as I hear things and think that they would be a good fit for the background music. 

In the privacy of my own kitchen, however, I can play my soundtrack as loud as I want and without impunity. 

Here are a couple of pictures from last night's fun. A composed salad with lettuces,  greens, and herbs from our own garden.  The nuts, seeds, olives, and feta cheese did not come from our yard. I believe J. B. de Boismortier and Fleetwood Mac were playing . . . 

Unlike most of my posts where I start talking about some esoteric or arcane musicological or historical performance practice concept, finally connecting it to gastronomy or culinary techniques in the last few paragraphs, this particular post gets right to the point. I know, you are amazed that I'm getting right to the point. What, exactly, is the point?

The Point: Different musics have different effects on different processes, and music often functions as an inspiration, a motivator, and, for certain tasks, a pace setter or mood enhancer. Nothing like roasting, sweating, and peeling chile peppers while listening to "Highway to Hell," or improvising a new recipe while listening to a group improvise on the "Passamezzo moderno."  And who doesn't enjoy mincing garlic, herbs, or chopping onions with a fast moving piece of music from any genre going on in the background. I often listen to things at a loud volume so the last thing the music functions as is background music.  I could go on an extremely long and overly erudite tangent about the history and function of work songs or the relationship between manual labor and music that helps make the work less onerous,  But I won't. I will leave that to the musicologists. And ethnomusicologists. And historians. 

My designated cooking soundtrack is 3.5 hours long, and it would be an epic repast if I were able to  listen to the entire thing while preparing one meal. I have set it to randomize the tracks, but I often just pick a song somewhere in the middle and start there. But most of the time I start at the beginning. The first song is the ubiquitous "Green Onions," by Booker T and the MGs. How could anyone NOT be inspired to dice, chiffonade, or batonnet any vegetable after hearing this? 

[Side bar: I played "Green Onions" as students were leaving class and one student stopped and said to me, "Excuse me sir, but is that what you play when you walk away from a bar fight?" It made me wonder, "What about my appearance would cause the student to think I'm the kind of person who gets into bar fights? I can't even remember when I was last in a bar."]

The songs on the list were not chosen for any particular reason or need to inspire a particular technique or process. They do, however, seem to have a metaphysical alignment with what ever I'm preparing. Every time. Wonder how that happens? 

Here is my Cooking Soundtrack.

20 January 2021

A Song Parody About Barbecue


Think about it, there must be barbecue
Down in the pit or hidden in Cambros above
Without it, life is wasted time
Look inside your fridge, and I'll look inside mine

Things taste so bad everywhere
In this food world, what is fair?
We cook the line and try to see
Brining behind in what could be, oh

Bring me some barbecue
Bring me some barbecue, oh
Bring me some barbecue
Where's that barbecue I keep thinking of?

15 July 2019

A song parody about Mexican food

Born to Eat Tacos

Get your comal runnin'
Make the chile purée
Cookin' for familia
And whoever comes our way
Yeah darlin' go roast poblanos
Take tortillas in a love embrace
Eat all of the things until they
Explode in your face.

I like smoke and charcoal
Barbacoa thunder
Grilling in the wind
And that feeling when I eat another.
Yeah darlin' go roast poblanos
Take tortillas in a love embrace
Eat all of the flan until it
Explodes in your face.

Like a true taqueros child
We were born, born to eat wild
With tamale pie
I never wanna die
Born to eat tacos!
Born to eat tacos!

I remain,


03 June 2019

Making the Cut: Deliberate Practice with Julienne Brunoise, Chiffonade Mirepoix, et al.

This started out as a New Year's resolution and its back story. The New Year is now 5 months old so this is just about the back story and its underlying theme, the relationship between motivation and creativity. In the final 4.5 months of finishing and defending my dissertation I lost 45 pounds by significantly changing my diet and adding resistance training to my existing exercise routine (OK, it was only playing basketball twice a week with 20-somethings). Over the next couple of years 20 more pounds came off and they have not returned. This change took some practice and there were periods of frustration, despair, and whining. The new eating and cooking habits amazingly helped my clarity of thought (no more carbo brain fog; this is not the space to discuss the nutritional and medical research that confirms my impressions), and I had more energy and very little in the way of cravings for items which fall into the realm of dietary folly. And when such gastronomic indiscretion occurred there was no floundering in despair or self-deprecation.

This was not a short-term change. Why did I decide to do this? In my research on
“How to Write Your Dissertation” I came across an online article that began by saying something like “If you can't control what you put in your mouth, how can you expect to write a dissertation?” Or do anything else except get fat and perpetually fatigued? It was not a resolution. It was a determination; a commitment; a mission; an epiphany.  I was tired of underachieving. Yes, I had made commercial recordings, published a few small articles (in peer-reviewed publications), and had been asked to submit a book proposal. And people were still hiring me to play concerts in different places around the country. I have always seen myself as a creative person but have often wondered what motivates me. With this discovery I felt things could be better, more efficient, creative, and enjoyable.

In the past 10 months I have gone from obese to overweight to within normal limits. This happened through mindful eating and an increase in exercise (aerobics added to the weight training). Dietary folly occurs, to be sure, but in controlled and planned circumstances. The overall mindfulness and continued clarity has helped me in my meal planning and preparation and I don't punish myself for the occasional lapse in gastronomic judgment. “OK,” you ask, “but how is this related to music?”

For our purposes here this post is related to musicology and academic writing than the performance of music. I have discussed the benefits of deliberate practice here.This essay is about clearing your mind, removing inadvertent road blocks (the Carbo Brain Fog), and using the same creative, organized, and methodical techniques used in cooking, flute playing, and academic writing as motivation and how to enjoy it in the process. Yes, believe it or not, some professional musicians do not enjoy playing music. Some people do not like cooking dinner every night. For me, the jury is still out on whether or not musicologists actively enjoy writing or is it something they have to do. At this point in my life I do not have to do it. I want to do it. The dissertation was something that I had to do but it was not an onerous task and I received a lot of encouragement in the process. The book proposal was a validating process (when it got accepted for publication) and when I turned in the first complete draft of the manuscript I experienced euphoria (briefly; to be my own buzz kill I am now waiting on the second peer reviewer to send comments to the publisher/editor who will then pass them on to me and then I’ll do what they ask; thus, my excitement was tempered). But, as noted above, I do enjoy the process, especially now that the goal in my revisions is/will be to engage more of a story-telling narrative. To turn my propensity for writing in a mind-numbing laconic style into an interesting, florid, and captivating style, void of clichés, repetitive sentence structure and syntax, run-on sentences, and with little in the way of bovine discharge.

How do you get to this point? In cooking, if you want to eat something other than white rice or pre-packaged microwave meals you need to acquire some knowledge and skills; you need to step outside of your comfort zone (that’s not a cliché, is it?), expand the horizons of your taste buds, and commit to leaving behind the feeling of underachieving. You may not know how to prepare vegetables with the julienne, brunoise, chiffonade, mirepoix, macedoine, jardinière, chiffonade, or concasse cuts, but as you start to immerse yourself in your own inspiration and creativity you will probably want to do more than just pulverize produce with a cleaver. But you need to be motivated.

As with musicological writing the more you do something the better you get. “How do I become a better writer?” “Write more,” “write every day,” and “emulate writers you enjoy reading”. Same with cooking: more; frequently; copy recipes from cookbooks. After chopping a metric ton of onions, there is no way you won’t get better, and, hopefully you’ll be inspired to do more than dice them. The same with writing: If you call yourself a musicologist then you are already an expert in some area of music and music history. As you write about your subject try refining your mirepoix phrase with the writing parallel of the chiffonade. In conversation people are known to say, “Don’t mince words.” Well, sometimes you might have to give more detail than presented with the literary equivalent of a macedoine cut and dissect it into smaller parts, literally mincing your words to give more detail. And the only way to get better at all this is to do it more. Do it often. Do it in imitation of a well-known chef. Cooking, practicing, musicology; what’s the diff?

18 December 2018

Tacos are like ogres: they're complicated (étude or essay: what's the diff?)

UPDATE 28.xii.18: Recipe links added at the end.

Dear Colleague,

It has been too long since we've had a discussion about food and music. The circumstances behind the hiatus are not important; it will suffice to say that I have been thinking about many posts and the connections between food and my own music practice for the past few years. I have recently been contracted to write a monograph on American music history which has helped in rededicating myself to the practice of music, as well as redefine what I want to work on as a scholar-performer. 

In an earlier post about the multi-ethnic identity of tacos I mentioned that a post about tacos would be forthcoming. Consider this that post. After reading Gustavo Arellano's book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, I now have a greater awareness of the backstory behind each and every taco I make or eat. This backstory includes recognizing the difference between Mexican, Tex-Mex, and New Mexican styles of food.

Speaking of awareness, no matter how many times you do something a benefit can be had from revisiting the history and processes that got you to where you are now. I've been making tacos for decades, reading about and cooking Mexican food for the same amount of time, and in the past ten years or so have been seriously working on improving not just my Mexican food chops but my culinary skills in general. Thus, after my cooking of chicken improved immensely after receiving a Craftsy course on cooking chicken from my wife (and believe me, up to that point I had cooked a LOT of chicken), I was excited when she brought home The Best Mexican Recipes: Kitchen Tested Recipes that put the Real Flavors of Mexico within Reach  from America's Test Kitchen. America's Test Kitchen does exactly that: test things in the kitchen until they are as efficient as they can be. Techniques refined, ingredients measured, and temperatures and cooking times confirmed and now laid out in a clean format with a list of ingredients and clear procedures that make each recipe accessible even for the novice home cook. 

So what did I do? Made more Mexican food, used different ingredients for different types of tacos (based, in part, from reading Mr. Arrellano's book which discusses, among many things, regional differences), and expanded my repertoire to include tortas and molletes. For these latter two gustatory pleasures I dragged a cookbook off the shelf that I had not used since the day bought it, Tacos, Tortas, and Tamales: Flavors from the Griddles, Pots, and Streetside Kitchens of Mexico, by Roberto Santibañez. Now, with refined skills and more knowledge, I merely had to look at the dish and the basic ingredients and I could make my own versions of a torta and mollete. And, well, no excursion into the realm of binge-eating Mexican food would be complete, at least for me, without cranking out some enchiladas. Not just any enchiladas. I used my special, private stock of Chimayo chile powder (medium; sun dried) to make the sauce, thus combining Mexican and New Mexican cuisine in one dish. If you say, "So what, they are just chile peppers?" then we have to have a serious conversation about attention to detail, subtle differences in taste, texture, heat, and context.  

Where does music fit in here? If you have been practicing similar exercises for years, or have moved away from technical work and have been just practicing repertoire (even using a deliberate practice), then you could likely benefit from reconsidering the processes and techniques that got you to this point in your musical endeavors. I have reevaluated my deliberate practice techniques, the etudes, caprices, scales, and specific pieces that present particular challenges and have re-engaged myself with particular components that I had set aside or had not played for a while. The musical equivalent of putting something on the top shelf where a step stool or stepladder is required to get the item off the shelf and use in a recipe.

Now that my practice has taken those ingredients off of the top shelf and put them back into the regularly-used items, I am refreshed, reinvigorated, revitalized, and other words that start with "re-" in my playing of music. In the words of the legendary Joe Bob Briggs, "check it out."

I remain, 

UPDATE 28.xii.18
After posting this I received some feedback from friends and family who wanted some of my recipes. I can't do that because I just wing it every time I make tacos. Or enchiladas. Or tortas. Or mollettes. However, here are some links to different types of tacos. Beef, pork, fish, and vegetarian/vegan options. I chose them because of how they look on my computer screen, the pictures, one even has a video, and the apparent ease in following the recipe. Some of them come with back stories, others just talk about how to make tacos. Enjoy!

Carne asada tacos
Fish tacos
Chicken tacos
Salmon tacos
More fish tacos
Carnitas tacos
More carnitas tacos
Vegan mushroom tacos
Mushroom, corn, poblano tacos
More mushroom tacos
And even more mushroom tacos (OK, so I like mushrooms)

11 February 2015

How to Cook A Wolf - Part Deux

Dear Colleague,

The cold weather has finally left us, unlike the rest of the country, Houston is headed into spring.
Although I see in our future some colder temperatures. Ah, but what is cold to southern Texas.

I continue on my mission to work my way slowly through MFK Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf. It really is a delightful book and if you want humor and a touch of sass with your recipes, I recommend. But as my colleague before mentioned to you about less, Fisher touches on that topic over and over again. And it has sunk into my head so deep that I have begun to infuse into my daily life, my house, my writing, practicing.

And speaking of simple, I recently purchased the CD (yes I bought a real CD) Another Day, AnotherTime Celebrating the music of Llewyn Davis. It is a collection of folk songs from as far back as 100 years to just a few years back. Sung by various groups of folk artists, pop stars and the like it is a collection of simple songs. One of my favorites is Auld Triangle. The harmonies linger in the ear and make your head buzz. I share it with you hear, just for fun. 

Okay, back to food.

How to boil water – the fourth chapter in Fisher’s book is all about soup. And it starts with telling you how to boil water. And she says the best water to cook a wolf is from a spring or well.  
She believes you can actually over cook water, over doing it makes it flat, tasteless and my favorite description – exhausted. No one wants tired water it will ruin your cup of tea. And the best way to make your flat water taste good is to add a little bone, carrot, herbs.

As this is a book about conserving time and energy, she says we

do not have the resources to let a pot simmer all day long on the back of the stove. It is a waste of energy. Of course now-a-days, we can simmer all day and think nothing of a gas or electric bill being a little high.

And just a reminder - Soup-pots should be made fresh now and then, like people’s minds at the New Year. (p. 30) So remember that pot sitting on the back of the stove, must be cleaned and started fresh!

The thing about soup is it really is the simplest thing in the world to make, besides toast and butter. Water, vegetables, maybe meat, some salt, herbs, this, that and you’ve got a dinner, lunch or even breakfast if you break an egg in it. A soup can feed many or one -  taste overwhelming to quite bland. I love to put my mind to work, digging out things in the fridge and pantry and throwing them in a pot, stirring it, watching it bubble, tasting, and finessing to match my tastes.

Fisher says to eat to your tastes. I agree. If you don’t like it, then why are you cooking it? Why in the world are you eating it? What good is food if you are not enjoying it? The body knows what it needs and it knows what it likes, put those things in it and I bet your body will be happy and healthy.

I made a version of her recipe for minestrone and this is what she says of the soup:
“Probably the most satisfying soup in the world for people who are hungry, as well as for those who
are tired or worried or cross or in debt or in a moderate amount of pain or in love or in robust health or in any kind of business huggermuggery, is minestrone.” (p. 38)

Here is my version of MFK Fisher’s:
Couple tablespoons of bacon fat (she uses bacon, salt pork or ham); Warmed in a pot - add finely

chopped onion, celery and carrot (she doesn’t add carrot). Cook till soft – add dried parsley, oregano, sweet basil. Add finely chopped tomatoes. (I used tinned ones with a touch of sauce added to them); Add chicken stock and water; (Fisher only uses water); She then says to add five of a choice of onion, potato, garlic, cabbage, carrots, celery, spinach, green beans, etc., etc. I went with carrots, potatoes, onions and celery. I missed a fifth! Bring the entire thing to a boil and cook until veggies
are soft. I cooked my pasta separate. Added it to a bowl and topped with the soup. Served with crusty bread and a white cheddar and glass of red wine. It was fantastic.

I hope, dear friend, you will spend some time soon in your kitchen with a pot of boiling water.

I remain,
The Mad Listmaker

02 February 2015

Les éléments (or, less is more)

Dear Colleague,

As usual, I am always looking for ways in which to streamline processes and achieve maximum benefits or results with minimum effort and material (work lazy, not harder, or something like that). About 15 years ago I came up with an efficient way to practice flute and recorder, wherein I work on fundamentals (tone development and technical exercises without looking at music) for 20 minutes, sight reading for 5 minutes, and work on concert repertoire from 5-10 minutes, for a grand total of approximately 30 minutes per practice session. This may extend to 45 minutes in the month or so before a concert, and in the two weeks prior to the event I do this two to three times per day.

My point (yes, I have one) is that this practice is focused, intense, without distractions, carefully timed, and designed to build stamina, concentration, accuracy, and to gain control of your instrument without any excess physical stress. This method of practice is not without a downside. When preparing for a concert and my wife is in the house and can hear the practice, she has been known to say, “Are you going to practice more than those 3 bars?” or “I guess I’ll have to go to the concert to hear the entire piece in context.“ After doing this for several years I started dumping this efficient practice on to my students. A few years ago one student came to me and gave me a book, Talent is Overrated, by Geoff Colvin, and told me that I should read this book because it validates a lot of what I was asking my students to do. It seems I was asking my students to commit to deliberate practice, or, as pointed out by Colvin and others, practicing the things that are not fun and, for musicians of all types, reaping the benefits of being able to enjoy playing music for fun with, well, more fun. This type of efficiency, essentially the 80/20 rule (briefly mentioned in my post on The Right Tool for the Job), has been further solidified and embedded in my attitude about flute practice and cooking by Tim Ferris in his 4-Hour books (4-Hour Body, 4-Hour Chef; I’ve not read the 4-Hour Work Week).

“Well, yes,” you ask, “how does this help your cooking? Do you practice chopping onions to refine your technique?”

OK . . . no, actually. I have, however, watched some videos of different chefs chopping onions and other edibles and then tried to emulate that in my own cooking. This deliberate practice in cooking manifests itself in the types of dishes I prepare, as well as their frequency, and number. By making the same few dishes several times I learn how to improve my efficiency and rely less on recipes and written procedures and more on my ability to conceive a project, its ingredients, and procedures. Now with a set of ingredients (and over time these same several dishes get their ingredients reduced; if you can make something that is as good or better as the original with fewer ingredients and procedures, why would you do otherwise?) I can essentially create my own recipes. Mark Bittman, in his invaluable How to Cook Everything, states that you should have five dishes that you can create without using a written recipe. For me this number is somewhere between 10-15 meals.

Another beneficial byproduct of this 80/20-deliberate practice-use-less-to-get-more-results is that now I can take a set number of ingredients (between three-five; herbs and spices do not count as ingredients and an herbs and spices essay is forthcoming) and create several different dishes. Think of it as a ground bass with its repeated harmonic pattern and how creative you can be within those guidelines. One of my recent meals contained just two ingredients and required a hands-on time of about 10 minutes and a total cooking time of 60 minutes (grilled salmon and baked spaghetti squash and a light drizzle of truffle honey). And the homemade sauerkraut has two ingredients, shredded cabbage and sea salt (and if herbs and spices do not count, then it has only one). 

Now when I hit my recently reorganized kitchen to make something, I want to spend as little time as possible messing around with stuff and with as few ingredients as possible. And if the unattended cooking time is 20 or more minutes, I can either get in my efficient strength training workout or practice tone development and chromatic scales on the flute. What say you?

Here is a live performance of a group performing a piece with minimal harmonic material (and a lot of words): Conde Claros

I remain,