SILENCE HAS A NAME - Poetry Chapbook and CD, with Music by Mark Hanley

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Culinary Music and Magic

September 25, 2009

"Jazz is like bananas -- it must be consumed on the spot." Jean-Paul Sartre, "Jazz in America"

There's a story involving Bird, a woman, Miles Davis and fried chicken that is too bawdy even for me to tell, although you can read it, if you like, in a section on Bird in Miles Davis' autobiography. But I'll say this, the tale would surely squash anyone's notion that the experience of delicious food, great musicians, and raunchy sex guarantee a fabulous experience, or always turns out, like a great recipe.

Everything is timing; everything is consideration; everything is taste, and the best artists would tell you so.

There is food and there is music and they can be partners too, just as art and food are -- in the best kitchens. And sometimes, cooks just like cooking to a beat, as if music might be the magical ingredient.

On coastalbeat.com you can find a story about Blues man Sauce Boss, who "plays the guitar and sings the blues and mixes up a 10-gallon pot of Gumbo at the same time." Try that, you dexterous kitchen wonders!

Sauce man's been playing gigs for 20 years in order to sell his own brand of hot sauce. Audiences not only get the Blues, but a bowl of Gumbo loaded with the Sauce Boss' Liquid Summer Hot Sauce -- handed out at the end of the show!

What's the secret of the Sauce Boss' invention? -- Datil peppers, he says, which are in the habanero family and provide a slow burn.

Brilliant food evokes great music, connects to all the arts. Grant Achatz, the young Midwestern culinary genius, who, together with Nick Kokonas, opened Alinea in 2005, says that "a menu should read like sheet music." Grant, an inventor, in the tradition of the Spaniard Ferran Adria (who in fact inspired Achatz' journey into culinary scientific invention), won the Rising Star Chef Award from the James Beard Foundation in 2003, and in 2004, received four stars from the Chicago Tribune, when he was executive chef at Trio, in Evanston, Illinois. He is only 34.

Kokonas, a philosopher/techie/entrepreneur, explained recently in a blog that he and Achatz created Alinea to "touch all the senses —not only taste. The menu is composed like a symphony or a play, provoking diners, challenging them, and making sure they feel... happy, sad, nostalgia, humor... the full range of human emotion." A masterful dish should look like a work of art and evoke it.

(Coincidentally, The New Yorker just published a profile of Achatz in its Sept. 25 issue, available online).

What of the actual music of kitchens, the cooking noise that includes the metallic drumming of pots and pans and chefs' calling and shouting voices? Did composer John Cage ever dream that up for a recording?

I watched impressive footage of a bevy of meticulous cooks in Alinea's kitchen preparing food with the quiet mindfulness of monks creating a sand mandala -- Awe-inspiring, and nothing whatsoever like the Hard Rock insanity described by Bourdain in the typically loud and bawdy kitchens of his experience. If Alinea represents the new kitchen and cuisine of the future, then there is hope for humankind.

Music and art can inspire great food. But so can mindfulness and silence. Frankly, as a foodie, I'll opt for the latter. It's better for your soul and your digestion.

In those typical, rowdy kitchens, each with their own sense of dysfunctionally functional mayhem or order, there are certain chefs that insist on particular music, something to concoct by, and perhaps, keep them from losing their minds.

Bourdain -- who is more than a chef, someone who has traveled the great kitchen of the world trying to gain mastery of the sensual -- lists his own preferences on a Web site. They include hard pumping cuts from Snap -- "The Power"; The Cult -- "She Sells Sanctuary"; The Stooges' "Down On the Street (Take 15)," and slower, sexier numbers for sultry pot stirring, like Ralph Rebel's "Rumble," Bill Wither's "Use Me," and The Stones, "Gimme Shelter."

My personal favorite for cooking -- Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" -- as I think happiness is the best ingredient, perhaps the only guarantee to producing good food.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Kitchen Heart

September 17, 2009

"I've always suspected that for me, the act of cooking and the act of writing are linked, that the desire to cook and the compulsion to write arise out of the same spot in my unconscious, as two different manifestations of the same innate urge." Michael Ruhlman, The Reach of A Chef.

Cooking, sex, writing, art. Cooking, sex, writing, art. It's a mantra, and there's a rhythm and rush when you imagine each of these rituals, connected as they are by heat at the root.

There are certain things I like to do and certain things I feel compelled to do. Cooking mostly falls into the like category, but writing is a passion. There have been stages in my life when I felt so overwrought, so riddled with emotion that I was driven to create art even when I didn't know how to do it, to assemble collages, for example, that included photos I had taken, or to paint with acrylics. Years ago, during a divorce, I did nothing but paint for months. I didn't really know how to paint, but I had to do it. I became riveted by the rituals, the feel and smell of paint, the struggle to make something coherent happen on the canvas. I had to try to be creative in a big way, to make sense out of the craziness within, seeping out of me like questions into the dark. I felt if I didn't, I might go nuts.

Some people create because they must, others just because they are driven. I'm reading The Reach of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman, who knows the culinary trade inside out, having worked in the kitchen and become expert writing about what happens there and around those who are transforming American cuisine. He writes about Tim Ryan, for example, a culinary success story whose accomplishments include opening up the American Bounty Restaurant (one of the first eateries to focus on regional cooking), becoming the youngest president of the American Culinary Federation, acquiring an M.B.A., and a Ph.D. in education. Ruhlman calls him a true chef "at the core."

What exactly does this mean, besides, one suspects, possessing a certain ferocity of character, and determination?

According to Ryan, there are four characteristics that determine greatness in an artist: 1) excellent craftsmanship, 2) innovation, 3) work that is both trendy and valuable, 4) and the capacity to influence others. Who are the great modern chefs that fall into this category? Ruhlman's list includes Paul Prudhomme (of Louisiana fame), America's first celebrity chef; Wolfgang Puck (Spago); Larry Forione, (An American Place); Charlie Trotter of Chicago; Rick Bayless (Frontera Grill); Jean-Georges Vongerichten, whose forte was innovation; Nobu Matsuhisa, the Japanese artist in Manhattan; and Thomas Keller, known for his unique altering of French styles and techniques. Add to this list, Paul Bocuse, dubbed by Ryan "the Elvis Presley of the culinary world."

The American food revolution really began in the 1980s, and it has been greatly aided by television, which has provided an array of stages to help evolve the myth of the chef. What is "a chef," this creature whose reputation, once monk-like, is now anything but, synonymous in some cases with the worst kind of excess. And why are people obsessed with the chef culture?

One reason may be because we all have to eat and most of us do have to cook. And so, when we see someone perform culinary magic, we have enough reference points that we can recognize that this is something we have not only not ever done, but in many cases not even dreamed of doing, and so we determine we must have this thing -- both the ability and object just out of our reach. The chef takes us out of our world, expands the envelope, blows out the horizon. A chef is a leader says Ryan, head of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA).

The kitchen takes you down, down into the ravenous underbelly, into the realms of the unexpected, into the layers of desire. You are encouraged to excavate there for what you want, to wander, to ravage ingredients like treasures, to appease and to please.

I know what I am searching for in all this. It's not the chefs -- their badness, perfection or originality. It's the heart of care I never knew navigating the great kitchens of the world, passing from master hand to master hand, conjuring the current of art, the mysterious magic smoke that drives the writer's hand too.

It isn't that I've gone batty over chefs or even the idea of them. It's just that Bourdain so reminds me of my brother John, the one I lost. He lives like John did, drinking and eating the best, traveling and writing, constantly charming. A companion to all, Bourdain reminds me of him even in the intimate public persona he has evolved.

My brother died in 2000 in Chile of respiratory and pancreatic complications due to alcoholism. He left the U.S. for Chile during the first Gulf War, running from U.S. imperialism, but also toward something purer, better. I believe he was trying to find that part of himself too. He set up a fishing lodge in Patagonia, and took fishermen who came from all over the world, on fresh water trout expeditions, and wrote about his adventures like a modern-day Hemingway. He cooked like a top chef and was a genuine connoisseur of fine wines. He was an adventurer in the truest sense, who would risk his life to help an amigo, and, according to letters received after his death, did, in fact, do this more than once in the wilderness. After his death, the woman he'd lived with, the mother of his two children -- a girl and boy, who were seven and five, respectively, when he died--managed to develop The Heart of Patagonia into a premier resort, one of the best in the country today.

But, and here is a bit BUT, while my brother -- even with his cloak of superman abroad -- tried to be something more than the measure of a man he was raised to be, struggled to be tender with things and to forge real connections to the people and the land he had adopted, what prevails in the chef culture now and has for some time is the "kill, take and feast" macho attitude. It's a world in which primitive man beats out his maleness in the wilds of the kitchen -- "Eat me and my shit, baby!" -- nothing less than that, despite the fact that a few women have succeeded here and there and have stories to tell of matching wits or side-stepping brutalization brilliantly, oh yes, and cooking well.

Bourdain, who epitomizes the celebrity chef-that-no-longer-cooks-just-eats-out-all-over-the-globe, is all about raising his glass to man's dominance in the wild, the uninterrupted conquest, the macho ideal that is the reason people are drawn to this sport (as opposed to culture) of being a chef. It's the blood and guts lure, more killing and bloat than nurturance and tenderness, order and sensitivity -- rest assured. The chef culture, like wrestling, represents primitive man in all his gory glory.

What will happen when the fire in the dimming arena dies and a new, gentler order emerges in the kitchens of the world? I suspect it's starting to happen in the most modern kitchens -- fresh stories, new myths, a kinder direction. It's been a long time comin'.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Deconstructivist Digressions

September 7, 2009

The September 12 Issue, a documentary about the quirky behind the scenes dramas at Vogue magazine, recently inspired me to contemplate not eating for a while and going into old age not wearing make up. Fashion isn't dominated by the young and beautiful, as you might think, but by two canny women, both over 60 -- Anna Wintaur, the elfin Vogue editor that wields such power in the industry (and wears make up), and Grace Covington, a former model who has been Vogue's creative director for years (who does not). Surrounding this mighty, if discordant duo, are a bevy of rakishly thin, high-cheekboned women in their 40s and 50s who, at work at least, sport no make up at all.

When she wears make up, Covington, who is not so thin and in her late 60s, applies only a thin brushstroke of lipstick. She struts about, an unflappable authority herself, her wild red mane somehow reminiscent of a peacock's feathers in full bloom.

Imagine a film focusing on the accomplishments of two women past 60 in their professional prime whose work isn't remotely domestic. Now that is rare, and delicious!

In the world of couture, fashion is food. There are the same obsessions with color, texture and display. You wear what you love instead of eat it.

The Vogue film was very conceptual, very un-sensual. There is a lot of thinness to like here, but sorry, no food. There is one moment in the Vogue film, after a long shoot in Paris involving a tight corseting, when a coquettish model plucks up and ravages a cherry tart that has been sitting in a box; there is a quick pan of an insipid-looking salad on Covington's desk; there are Wintaur's Starbuck's runs -- Wintaur appears to subsist only on coffee. But otherwise, food is malaprop, the forbidden fruit here.

Imagine being a fashionista and a foodie, obsessed by food, but also thinness!

Speaking of those who can make remarkable objects of art, unexpected and delightful -- but in the culinary realm -- let us turn now to the inventive Spaniard Ferrán Adrià, the chef at El Bulli, one of the great eating establishments in the world. Once you have seen an array of his concoctions, anything else will seem ordinary.

Adrià, who is, alas, not thin, but nevertheless great, has expanded the dimensions of culinary possibilities, challenging standard notions of what an edible should look, taste and feel like. For example, he makes espresso foam and meat foam; he makes caviar out of apples. Looks and feels like, but surprise! An artist can create conceptually-- as Adrià does -- or simply let instinct and the senses guide.

As I am now exploring the culinary arts intellectually, I'd like to think that I am becoming more of a conceptualist, but I myself am instinctual at heart. I work best hands-on, just as I think best talking out ideas.

I am fixed still on the idea of making the perfect egg -- as if to learn to make one thing well might open the door to all culinary possibilities. I've been experimenting with folding my scrambled eggs just so, cooking them slowly, perfecting my recipe, Scrambled Eggs Parmesan al Pesto -- scrambled eggs with Parmesan flakes on which at the final moment, you douse a teaspoon of pesto (at room temperature, of course) and sprinkle Spanish paprika.

So much of life is all about food -- whether you are celebrating it or trying to pretend it doesn't exist. Beneath the trappings of style and couture, beneath the flesh, we are all the same, hungry beings trying to stave off the inevitable. We can't. But, in the meantime, let's toast to life, let's live -- a little!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Espresso Breaks

September 3, 2009

At this rapturous time of unemployment, my life is one long blissful espresso break. I have been ravaged by books, and literature is once again seeping into my bones like milk into toast. I am indescribably happy doing virtually nothing but what I want to do. Why doesn't the rest of the world look at not "working" this way? It is best we set down travail, and we will be rid of travails -- we hope!

As my reader or readers know, I have read much Bourdain. His glowing one-liners grace the cover of almost every book related to the culinary arts in the bookstores I frequent. He lauds a waiter's rant, another chef's expose. He is a generous man, there is no question about that. He is also getting tired of his gig, and soon -- although one hopes not -- he will be getting sick from it. "Notes from the Road" in The Nasty Bits details this very well. He is going to have to find some tricks to keep up the pace. Fasting on planes is one. Just drinking water between fetes will certainly help. Dang if the cliche doesn't apply here as well -- There is such a thing as getting too much of a good thing!

I've been balancing the onslaught of my mental palate with some other reading as well that I'd like to pass along. The Devil's Cup - The History of the World According to Coffee by Stewart Lee Allen (also endorsed by The Big B), is a little acerbic for my taste, but has some interesting references and asides, and if you love coffee -- or espresso, as I do -- it's a must read. Did you know, for example, that historian Jules Michelet attributes the birth of civilization in the West to espresso? Drink enough of the brew and you may also long to travel to Jiga-Jiga on the Ethiopian-Somali border to drink Kati (or Kotea), a potent concoction made of roasted coffee leaves.

Body of Work -- Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab by Christine Montross is an illuminating, truly poetic account of a soon-to-be doctor's relationship to the human body, the patients on whom she operates and the corpses she dissects. The book is full of important questions and provocative insights, some of which are not without humor or irony. The following is an example: "I tell her two things, both truths, the first comfortably removed and political. I tell her that I learned that hysterectomies remove most or all the lubricating capacities of the vagina and that some result in vaginal shortening. I tell her that the hysterectomy is the most commonly performed surgical procedure in America, and we lurch into a long lighthearted discussion about how if the most common surgical procedure was one that resulted in erectile dysfunction and penile shortening, there would certainly be a great bloom of innovation to find alternatives."

Another fabulous read, melding art and science, favorite interests, is Proust Was A Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer, who writes for The New Yorker and is an editor for Seed magazine. Among the subjects Lehrer explores are Walt Whitman, Marcel Proust, Paul Cezanne and Virginia Woolf. He examines Proust's moments bienheurreux (fortunate moments), which are described as epiphanies experienced when recollection seems like an apparition. Cezanne investigated how the "moment is more than its light." And Woolf, at the age of 40, wrote in her journal that she was "beginning to learn the mechanism of my own brain." Lucky woman, she, if that was indeed true.

I read both to escape and be inspired. The best literature helps me find ways to leave my body and my mind so that I can return to them refreshed and renewed. And so I navigate from the mental/sensual to the metaphysical, knowing as I do that the mind (just like the body) can suffer from ingesting "too much of a good thing!"