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The Music of Food

By Suzanne Pollak

The magic that connects music and food is that they exist in the present tense, but the memories can last forever. There are fascinating parallels between cooks and musicians; music and food can both lend to extraordinarily nourishing environments. Creating food and eating it, or making music and listening to it, are the same in that the instant you are experiencing, you are doing. It’s powerful, intense, only happening when it is happening and over when it’s over.

The best experiences in the world come and go like clouds: ethereal, ephemeral, effervescent, ineffable, unpredictable. Music and meals build emotional bonds that cannot be recorded. Nevertheless, those bonds can last forever. The magic radiates outward in many ways; internally into people’s hearts, externally in their behavior.

No one needs to be a professional musician or a top chef to create everlasting experiences for fellow humans. But it is fascinating to hear what professionals say, as they are pros in creating experiences that move people. They think about it day and night.

Here are a few opinions from the experts in music and food.

Musician Eric Dolphy said it best: “When you hear music, after it is over, it’s gone, in the air. You can never capture it again.”

Rob Thomas (Matchbox Twenty) talks about food and music being living, breathing art forms. “I think what makes music and cooking really similar is that you have to learn the basics to be able to do them, like any art form,” he said. “If you are a musician, you have to learn the chords. But the difference between a cook and a chef is someone who takes those same ingredients, makes it their own, and puts their personality into whatever it is. Like I can play one song with three cords, and another musician could play the same three chords, but we’re both going to come up with a different song, in the same way you can give two chefs the same ingredients, and they are each going to come up with a completely different thing. It’s still a living, breathing art form. All the preparation that goes into it and all the plating—it’s one beautiful little piece of art. It’s a beautiful thing that is totally meant to go away, like life. It’s like a metaphor for life.”

I think what makes music and cooking really similar is that you have to learn the basics to be able to do them, like any art form,

John Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls has epiphanies when he makes something out of nothing. He has said, “I think music and cooking both come off the cuff. I find a recipe, or someone will show me how to make something, so I will go and get all the stuff to make the food, and then, of course, I have to tinker around with it. I kind of do the same thing with a song. I’ll just be sitting there playing, and it’s the same way in the kitchen. I’ll be standing in the kitchen—and I always have to listen to Frank Sinatra when I am cooking. I have to! Frank Sinatra is blasting in the kitchen—and I am playing with the food—maybe this will be good, or maybe that will be good. Much like songwriting, nine out of ten times, it’s completely bad. Then I have to get in the car, go back to the grocery store, and start over again. I destroy things constantly in the kitchen.”

John Rzeznik of Goo Goo Dolls in concert at the Roundhouse, London | Photo by Michal Augustini/Shutterstock

We’ve also heard from Grace Potter about what she wants to eat when she is in love. What is the food to feed people’s souls with a form of sustenance and a source of pleasure? “Spaghetti!” Potter says. “All day! It’s a love food. It is the most romantic food in the world because it’s just like twirling things around in your mouth—basically what love is, you know? It’s the most essential food. For me, it’s the tactile experience, like twirling the pasta, or if I am madly in love with someone who doesn’t know how to twirl pasta, watching his clumsy fingers trying to learn how. I love that so much; it’s one of my favorite things. It’s a Lady and the Tramp experience.”

The late Tony Hendra, who played a band manager in the cult classic movie Spinal Tap, knew how to bring a table of people to silence with the first bite of every meal. The food he cooked created that kind of “Aha!” moment. The taste and silence made everyone snap completely into the present together.

Grace Potter also says that the silence during a great meal is like live music. “Being handed something because it is hot and ready changes your conversation. I love it when a table goes silent because the food gets brought to them, and everybody takes a moment to really observe and smell. These are moments in time you have to catch. I think it brings people together. That’s why I love sitting down at the table and making things happen in an organic way, but also in a way where it’s like, ‘Listen, there is a timeline to this entire experience. The food will only be hot for twenty minutes at the most, so let’s share this conversation and put down everything else we are doing and enjoy this.’ It is powerful and very, very much like live music.”

No matter your level of expertise with cooking or musical talents, you are in the business of creating experiences, making lasting memories, and living in the now, whether you know it or not.

Musician and producer Todd Rundgren has an opinion on what comes first, music or food. “At a certain point, creativity is not your principal concern,” he has shared. “Maybe it’s just getting through the day. For me, there is a lot of comfort in making food for others and myself. I find making food completes something basic in me. There is within us the primitive need from when we had to go out and forage or hunt and bring it all back, turn it into something edible, and share it with family and friends. And that is why food predates music.”

No matter your level of expertise with cooking or musical talents, you are in the business of creating experiences, making lasting memories, and living in the now, whether you know it or not. Musicians sometimes say they don’t hear the melody or the rhythm; they hear the work that went into making the final piece of art. We know the hard work that goes into creating ephemeral daily dinners. Recognize the work, but also appreciate the outcome, in the present and later in your memories. All these magical moments add up to a life well lived.

— V —

Suzanne Pollak, a mentor and lecturer in the fields of home, hearth, and hospitality, is the founder and dean of the Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits. She is the coauthor of Entertaining for Dummies, The Pat Conroy Cookbook, and The Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits: A Handbook of Etiquette with Recipes. Born into a diplomatic family, Pollak was raised in Africa, where her parents hosted multiple parties every week. Her South Carolina homes have been featured in the Wall Street Journal Mansion section and Town & Country magazine. Visit CharlestonAcademy.com or contact her at Suzanne@CharlestonAcademy.com to learn more.

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