Monday, March 09, 2009

24 Preludes for a Fugue: The Cook as Composer

Arvo Pärt has the face of a saint. If he were not the great composer he is today, he would be Saint Peter, smiling down from the frescos of Russian Orthodox churches, serene. And in his right hand he would have a paperclip, you know, like a metaphorical key or something.

Arvo Pärt just may be a saint. After all, he has the power to grant the gift of tongues; a hypnotizing parsimony that makes you believe you understand every word he says, even though you speak no Estonian.

Pärt describes his music as tintinnabuli - like the ringing of bells. It is characterized by simple harmonies, often single notes, or triad chords, reminiscent of ringing bells. In an interview in 24 Preludes for a Fugue, Arvo Pärt explains the philosophy behind his piece Für Alina. The introduction is comprised of two simple triads, each neutral, but which together create something more complicated “like two people whose paths seem to cross and then they don’t.”

He says: “I had a need to concentrate on each sound so that every blade of grass would be as important as a flower...a blade of grass has the status of a flower. To see in this tiny phrase, something more than just the black and white key...It’s not the tune that matters so much here. It’s the combination...It makes such a heart-rending union. The soul yearns to sing it endlessly.”

Can the grace and loving simplicity with which Pärt composed Für Alina be brought to my kitchen? Of course! His music shows us that simple need not imply a lack of complexity; accessible is not a synonym for lack of depth. Everything matters! Each ingredient is important; none takes precedence over any other. Every blade of grass has the status of a flower. Timing and rhythm are essential. Mood is important. What you did that day. The music you’re listening to or the TV in the background. The sounds and smells floating in through the window. For the cook is the prism that will create the rainbow on the plates set before those seated round our table.

Kitchen noises make a kind of tintinnabuli. The cook is a composer. There is tempo on the stovetop. Allegrissimo boils. Andante simmers. A percussion section on our cutting boards. Instrumentation in our choice of ingredients.

So, I wonder, what kind of cooks would different composers be?

Mozart writes best-selling cookbooks. He prepares food everyone loves and can even get kids to eat to their vegetables. (In fact, it has recently been shown that kids who eat Mozart are considerably more intelligent than those who don’t.) And he does so with class and grace. He tosses broccoli with butter and fresh lime juice. He glazes carrots and makes sweet tomato jam. Teriyaki salmon and hummus, both made with toasted sesame seeds. He occasionally puts pineapple on pizza. Everyone loves Mozart. We feel at home in his dining room. Every meal we spend at his table we ask ourselves: Who knew genius was so accessible?
John Cage is a vegan chef. His dishes are like a prepared piano, one is never sure what he’s going to get. He serves up chile con carne without the carne (the bulgur wheat gives it texture). He bakes tempeh and molds tofu into bun-sized patties. You'd swear that was chicken in his seitan stir-fries. And his table conversation is impeccable. He radiates a warmth that makes you forgive his playful ernestness. He talks of veganism and organic farming; of a return to the earth and reincarnation. Yet there is always a glint in his eye (was that a wink?) and you often wonder if he's just puttin you on. Sometimes he holds dinner parties in the bedroom, everyone gathered round the bed piled high with plates and glasses. Every person makes a toast, some with tiresome wit, most with passion and life, and the food is served, deconstructed, in the middle of the bed, serving bowls sprawled across the expanse of white sheet. It’s always make-your-own. Sometimes steamed vegetables mixed and piled and drizzled with peanut butter sauce. Or tofu tacos with plenty of toppings. Sundae bars for dessert. There is individual creation and imagination with each bite. The plates are cleared and the wine flows. We all pile into bed, peel off our clothes and make love among the crumbs. Then we go home and we feel different and excited and somehow empty. Because it is hard to love a concept, and sometimes, when you sit down to eat with him, you feel as though that is what is being served.

Miles Davis is the king of improvisation. He has worked with some of the world’s most renowned chefs and it shows. His soufflés rise expertly and his salmon is cooked to perfection. But his real art is that of creating something from what’s there, however frugal the pickings might be. Where another sees an empty pantry, Davis finds magic. He is also the king of recycling. Lunch’s leftovers may appear again at dinner or, even better, at breakfast. But it’s been changed, added to, stripped down, served with something new. He knows that leftovers are not merely re-heating. In fact, Miles never serves the same dish twice, at least not in the same way. And he never disappoints. He moves with such ease and elegance in his domain that he makes it look easy, yet those who truly understand him know that they are witnessing the impossible. With each dish he serves we exchange looks of ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ And we know that its perfection is not meant to be repeated.

Rachmaninoff’s wedding cakes are notorious for their thick layers of buttery icing, the intricacy of the candy roses that adorn them and the sugar high that follows. Though his bakery in Villa Senar is long closed, he still creates elaborate dessert trays for the wedding receptions of Europe’s decaying aristocracy. At its pinnacle his patisserie was reminiscent of Ladurée at Champs-Élysée, down to the chubby cherubs dressed as pastry chefs painted on the ceiling and the matching celadon color on the walls and facade. Everyone remembers his buttery brioche with figs and cherries and lemon-cream tarts topped with rose petals cream puffs; and the dramatically rich éclairs; the cappuccino mouse cake and Chantilly cream horns topped with chocolate lace and burnt sugar. And who can forget the puffs – cream puffs, vanilla puffs, chocolate puffs, cappuccino puffs; the mille-feuilles’ puff pastry with sweet cream and jam, glazed with royal icing or fondant. And, of course, the assortment of petit fours glacés, each adorned with Rococo sugar embellishments. Oh, how we loved the hot chocolate. Yet, something about the pastries always left us hungry for less pomp and more substance.

Pärt will the lead the revolution of simple foods. And I will be there with him. Together we will spread the word. The word being simple, that minimalism is bigger than you think. That fresh, simple ingredients lovingly prepared create a masterpiece of flavor that will leave no one indifferent. We will borrow from Mozart and sway to Miles. People will flock to their farmer’s markets. They will throw out their microwaves. They will invest in a good bottle of olive oil and a quality frying pan and need little else to satiate themselves and their loved ones. They will discover that love is easier to make than Ferran Adriá would have us think.

What kind of composer are you?


Seth said...

Reading this intelligent, beautiful blog just made my evening--just as I'm about to cook too.

I think I'm close to Weezer and the big show-offy gestures of a song like "Say it Ain't So"...

Do you remember our risotto with 100 cloves or garlic?

I've recently started using raw butter, pounds of raw butter.

And by the way: Ferran Adriá can take his foam and shove it up his ass for all I'm concerned. When I think about his cooking I feel depressed, as if I'm not meant to cook at all...

Bocephus said...

I just read this. And I had to read it again. And again!

Maybe I'm just a 'tard, but it's amazing to me how well your descriptions seem to fit the individual composers.


Steve said...

Fantastic piece, Sue.

I think I would be closest to Frank Zappa:

Strange. Eclectic. Very greasey

Bert said...

Lou Reed cooks the best heroin.

Karen said...

This is by far my favorite post on FoodVibe thus far (sorry Seth and Steve)! It is incredibly intelligent and well-written. I keep coming back to read it again and again. Thanks, Suzanne.

And to answer your question, as someone who needs a recipe to follow and is a poor improviser in the kitchen, I'm no composer. In terms of the music composition analogy, I hate to admit it, but I'm more of a cover band.

Mark said...

Like Bo and Karen, I came back to this post several times. The music/composer analogy is elegant. I imagined Bachesque cuisine, ornamented and recursive, and Beethoven, heavy and dark.

I guess most charitably I'm a "minimalist," sort of a culinary Philip Glass, leaning relentlessly on one note all day. Less kindly (and more accurately) I'm just a kitchen dork. But I'm trying. And you inspire me to pick up some new "scales" and learn another "instrument" or two.

Dave said...

I've only recently been introduced to this site, after reading Suzanne's last gregarious paperclip post, and I think you're all wonderful writers - it's a pleasure to read about food in this way, which is really more about reading good writing that happens to do with food.

In the kitchen I think I'm Neil Young. I'll never be Bob Dylan. I'll like working alone for long periods, then I'll suddenly want to collaborate. The meals are good and solid, but I definitely have off nights. Other times I'll run around and thrash a bit. I also have a number of old classics that people always enjoy.

Thanks for posing the question.