New Orleans Style!
By Kathy Taylor Ancar
As I recognize the opening bars of Stevie Wonder’s That Girl, I hurriedly rinse my seasoning-coated hands, turn up the volume on the portable radio sitting on the kitchen counter, and resume chopping. Only now, I’m doing so to the beat of the song, and singing along. My onion-induced tears are pleasantly replaced by an ever-widening smile as I am overcome with a wave of nostalgia as I am quickly transported back some 30+ years in time to my first memory of preparing Sunday dinner. You see, while most of you were carefully following the instructions on recipe cards and in cookbooks, I learned how to cook to music.
As the song plays, I revisit the sights, sounds and smells of my grandmother’s kitchen so many Sunday mornings ago.
Up bright and early, preparing breakfast before church, she’d awaken us with the smells of fresh brewed [and very strong] Louisiana coffee, as well as the unmistakable cracking and popping sounds of bacon and eggs frying. But, it was after church that the kitchen really came alive.
Once she took off her church clothes, Mamee’ put on what I refer to as “the Sunday morning cooking music.” In my grandmother’s kitchen, in perfect harmony with the rhythmic sounds of seasonings being chopped and pots being stirred, were Ray Charles’ Country and Western and Englebert Humperdink’s Last Waltz.
To this day, the sound of Ray Charles’s Georgia on My Mind makes me hungry for roast, rice and gravy, peas, hot buttered dinner rolls and potato salad! (no matter what you cooked for Sunday dinner in my family, there was the ever-present potato salad – you’ll soon see what I’m talking about.)
On the other side of town, while frying chicken and chopping seasoning for her dirty rice and potato salad, my mom would put a stack of 45’s on the turntable and cook to the sounds of Sam Cook, James Brown, Bobby Blue Bland, Johnny Adams and Etta James. Because she was a lover of just about all music, as my three brothers and I got older, my mother allowed us to incorporate our music. And so dinner in the late sixties and early seventies was prepared to the sounds of Archie Bell and the Drells, The Jackson Five, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye and The Temptations – in addition to her old favorites
Over at my nanny’s house, while it was okay to prepare the okra gumbo, fried chicken, stuffed eggplant and potato salad to the sounds of Santana and Sly and the Family Stone, once dinner was on the table, it was time for Nancy Wilson, Johnny Mathis and Dionne Warwick! One Sunday, in our haste to sit down to dinner, we neglected to change the music. Uncle Cal, after a few bites said, “Hey! No wonder I’m eating so fast! Get that music off – now!” We laughed when we realized that we were all chewing to the beat of Sly’s Dance to the Music.
And then there was Aunt Velma, who not only played music while she cooked, but was known to lower the fire under the pots of crab stew, court bouillon, (pronounced coo-be-yon) or potatoes (for the ever-present potato salad) to give you a little cha-cha-cha or two-step lesson when certain dance tunes came on!
When I first got married, I cooked to Bob Marley, Steely Dan, Aretha and the Commodores. When my sons were teenagers, although I tried to teach them to cook to the smooth sounds of Aaron Neville and Luther Vandross, every now and then they’d slip a little rap in on me.
But that’s okay. You see, the music doesn’t matter. Not really. What matters is laughing, talking, dancing and cooking together. What matters is carrying on the tradition and sharing with your kids the music and recipes of your youth.
I remember one Sunday morning when my boys were just entering their teens and had requested meatballs and spaghetti for dinner. I assigned them their usual tasks “Blaine – chop the seasonings…Devon – let’s start rolling the meatballs…” and we began cooking – in complete silence! No talking, no laughter – just the very non-melodious banging of pots and pans.
After what seemed like an eternity Devon suddenly said, “Hey! Where’s the music!?” Then Blaine came alive. “Mom! You’ve gotta hear this CD – I know you don’t particularly care for rap, but I think you’ll like the beat on this song…”
As we continued preparing dinner to the beats of some guy named B.G., the kitchen suddenly came alive as the smells of simmering seasonings and sauce harmonized with laughter, dancing [actually, they were laughing at me trying to do their dances] and the now rhythmic rattling of pots and pans.
Yeah, son, you’re right. Mom definitely likes the beat of this one!
To this day I do not own a recipe book. Everything I cook is by sight and smell. Although I can’t give you the precise measurements on any ingredient that goes into a dish I prepare, I can probably tell you what music was playing when my sons and I perfected the recipe, as they too have mastered the art of cookin’ to the beat!
On a recent visit, my heart was full with love and pride as I observed my oldest son sit his 2-year-old daughter on the kitchen counter to “help” her Daddy prepare her lunch. As he moved around the kitchen singing Disney tunes and playing with her, it felt good to see that this tradition, like our special recipes, will be passed on to the next generation!