A while back I wrote an essay on food, music, childhood, comfort, memory and the soul. I sent it around to a few places, but, strange to say, there’s not a huge market for essays about Proust, Memphis Minnie, and RZA! Who knew! Well, guess what, today we’re going to have a guest speaker in the form of my own self. Most if it will be after the jump, because the authoress goes on and on and on.
And here’s a short playlist of the songs mentioned.
The Taste of Memory
We all know about Proust’s Madeleine. After a dreary day, the prospect of a depressing morrow left the narrator dispirited, until one bite of Madeleine, dipped in tea, filled him with an overwhelming joy. The taste of the food, and the memory of childhood happiness acted as a powerful tonic. He describes taste and smell as souls, persistent, faithful, bearing the weight of the vast structure of recollection in their tiny, fragile essence. Most adults have probably experienced this – when you’re feeling unwell or depressed, you crave some food you ate when sick as a child. It’s not the food that makes you feel better, it’s the memory of being cared for, of a time when you were not isolated by your maturity, not relied on to make decisions, not expected to take care of yourself and protect others.
To be continued…. (the recipe is after the jump as well, just like it always is!)
Music is the only potion as powerfully transporting as taste and smell. Some songs are associated with periods in your life to such an extent that you can’t listen to them without a resurfacing of all of the pain or pleasure you felt at that time. A few bars of a certain tune can send you back to a time when you felt safe and happy. It can sooth your soul. The intersection of food and music, memory and healing, is a wonderful place, and songs about memories of food are endlessly heartening to me.
The cover shot of Jimmy Smith’s album Home Cookin’ shows him in front Kate’s Home Cooking, the “soul station” restaurant near Harlem’s Apollo Theatre. In the liner notes of the album, we learn that “Jimmy Smith is an ardent admirer of ‘Home-soul’ cooking, especially the brand dispensed by Kate O. Bishop. Home Cookin‘ is a dedication to Kate. This ‘all blues’ date musically approximates the feeling her cuisine imparts. The distance from grits, greens and gravy to swing, sounds and soul is a short one for Jimmy Smith.” I love that! And when you hear the songs, it all makes sense. I didn’t grow up eating collards and grits, but the stirring, soothing sounds of Smith’s Hammond organ rock you back to a time when a meal brought people together from work, or school, or from adventures in backyards and playgrounds. It brought people home.
I can’t listen to too much Memphis Minnie at one time – it puts me in a funny mood. Her voice is so raw and honest that it cuts uncomfortably. But I can read her lyrics like poetry. She’s almost abrasively candid and human, and her images are wild and vivid. In “Dirt Dauber Blues” she seeks the unlikely comfort of tea made from the nest of a dirt dauber wasp, “And out of all that I crave, all that I seen/ I don’t want nothing but that dirt dauber tea / Because when I was young, they built their nest on me / When I was down sick in my bed, blind, couldn’t hardly see/ That dirt dauber flew down in my bed and built his nest on me / That’s why I say, ‘I’m crazy about that dirt dauber tea’” It’s like the memory of a strange dream, and I can’t understand rationally why she wants the tea, but her expectation of the solace it will bring is palpable and familiar.
Mississippi John Hurt’s voice is restorative to me, especially in his later recordings. It’s gentle and soothing, like a spoonful of honey. To hear him sing about the shortening bread he ate as a child is double the comfort. “Put on the skillet/ Slip on the lid/ Mama’s gonna make/ A little short’nin’ bread…/ Three little children/ Lyin’ in bed/ Two were sick/ And the other ‘most dead/ Sent for the doctor/ and the doctor said,/‘Give those children some Short’nin’ bread.” The lilting, sing-song melody is as sweet and welcome as a piece of short’nin bread, which I always imagine looking like the little soul cakes people would give out on all souls’ day, each one sending a soul to heaven.
When Goodie Mob raps about “Soul Food,” they conjure a full and vibrant picture of childhood running into adolescence. It might be different from your own, but you feel like you’ve been there. “Daddy put the hot grits on my chest in the morning/
When I was sick Mary had the hot soup boiling/ Didn’t know why but it felt so good/
… Headed back to the woods/ Now I’m full as tick/ Got some soul on blast in the cassette/ Food for my brain.” You are what you eat, we all know that, but you are what you listen to, as well. The music, the fellowship, and the nurturing each become part of the food that feeds the soul.
RZA’s solo-album alter ego Bobby Digital is not known for his sentimentality. His language is blunt, and his lyrics explore his darker, more violent urges. Which is why the disarmingly sweet song “Grits” throws me for a loop. It’s a loving, unadorned remembrance of a childhood of poverty, when a large family could be fed with a box of grits. “Old Earth in the kitchen, yell ‘it’s time to eat’/ Across the foyer, ya hear the gather of stampeding feet/ One pound box of sugar, and a stick of margarine/ A hot pot of Grits got my family from starvin’/ Loose with the welfare cheese, thick wit’ the gravy/ used to suck it, straight out the bottle as a baby.” It’s a pretty song, and the lyrics are frank and generous and full of small, telling details. He doesn’t give us a saccharine view of growing up poor, but we understand why he’s wistful for that time, however difficult it may have been. He begins to describe the next phase of his life, when kids started hustling, when he learned to want things he couldn’t afford, when he started to feel hopeless about his future, but at the word “grits,” he takes it back to childhood again, “…when we used to build at ghetto big wheels/ with the shoppin’ cart wheels, and wood to nail the seat on/ Girls skippin’ rope in the street/ the Summer heat, left the jelly prints stuck to they feet/ Skelly chief, flippin’ baseball cards for keeps/ Momma said it’s gettin’ late, and it’s time to come eat.”
I’m a mom myself, now, and I love to cook with my boys. I wonder what tastes and smells will bring them back to this time. What songs will they remember fondly? What foods will comfort them when they’re feeling down? Gingerbeer and toast and jam? Some strange dish we invented together when while playing mad scientists in the kitchen? They’re just at the age when they’re starting to roam about the neighborhood, cutting through the alleys, planning adventures, getting into scrapes. I’d love to believe that the sound of my voice calling them into dinner, infused with some mysterious mom-magic, will always sound like home to them.
1 cup flour
1 t salt
1 t baking powder
1 cup ginger beer (+/-)
Mix all the dry ingredients. Whisk in the ginger beer till it’s smooth. Start with less than a cup and add more till you have a consistency like softly whipped cream. Let the batter sit, covered, on the counter for at least half an hour.
1 medium-sized zucchini, roughly grated (about 1 1/2 cups)
4 artichoke hearts (packed in brine) squeezed dry and cut into small strips
1 cup cashews, roughly chopped
1 small piece of bread, ground to crumbs
1/3 cup goat cheese, crumbled
1/2 cup mozzarella, grated
1 T olive oil
1 clove garlic – minced
2 scallions, white parts mostly, chopped quite fine
1/2 t nigella seeds
1/2 t oregano
1/4 t ginger powder (or 1 inch cube fresh, grated or minced)
salt and pepper
small handful fresh basil, cleaned and chopped into ribbons
Olive oil for frying
Squeeze as much moisture as possible out of the zucchini. Warm the olive oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Add the garlic, scallions, fresh ginger, if using, and oregano, and warm till the garlic starts to brown. Then add the nigella seeds, zucchini and artichoke hearts. Cook till the pan is quite dry. Dump into a bowl. Add the cheeses, cashews, salt, ginger powder, if using, bread crumbs, fresh basil, and plenty of pepper. Stir to mix.
In a wok or saucepan, over medium-high heat, warm about 1/3 inch of olive oil. When it’s warm enough to fry a drop of batter, you’re ready!
Form the filling into a small log, about the size and shape of your finger. It will be quite soft. Drop it into the batter. With a couple of spoons, or a spoon and a fork, lift it out and place it into the hot oil. You can spoon some more batter on top if it seems to slide off. Let it cook and brown on the bottom for a few minutes, then turn with a fork and spatula to brown on the other side. Drain on paper towels, and keep warm in a toaster oven till you’re ready to eat.
1 T balsamic
1 T tamari
1 T raw sugar or brown sugar
1/2 t red pepper flakes (or to taste)
1/2 t ginger powder or small piece of fresh ginger, grated or minced
1 T packed fresh basil, cut into small ribbons
Combine everything but the basil in a small saucepan. When the sugar is melted, add about 1/2 cup water, bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer till slightly reduced. five or ten minutes. Pour into a small bowl and stir in the basil.