Magpie MixTape: Food & Music

OK, Food. Music. Food and Music? Or maybe, Music and Food?

Is it just a lemon?

Food and Music are two of my favourite things. Throw in Books and Wine and you have most of my favourite things. Add in France and West Highland White Terriers and the set is probably complete. But for now, let’s just contemplate Music and Food.

Where do we start? I am not talking about food as the fuel of life in this context; rather as a sensual, complex pleasure, a feast for the senses as well as for the body. What better to accompany food than a soundtrack? What do we want to listen to while we eat? We know that music has been associated with food from early times. In early modern Europe, right up until the 18th century, musicians were hired to play music at feasts and banquets, a phenomenon known in German as Tafelmusik. Composers even wrote pieces specifically to be played on such occasions. Telemann’s contribution to the Tafelmusik genre, his Musique de Table of 1733, is one of his most well-known compositions.

Of course music used in such official settings has a much more ancient history. For example, from tomb paintings we know that in the time of the pharoahs, banquets were accompanied by music and dancing, and in Greek and Roman society music also accompanied feasting.

However, I want to look at more recent manifestations of the link between eating and music. Are songs about food just a celebration of culinary joys or is food sometimes a metaphor for other things? When Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant sings;

Your custard pie, yeah, sweet and nice
When you cut it, mama, save me a slice
Your custard pie, I declare, it’s sweet and nice
I like your custard pie

Is he really singing about dessert? Somehow, I suspect not. Similarly, what is so special about Kelis and her “Milkshake” that brings all the boys to the yard? Of course Kelis is a musician who does have a deep and abiding love of cooking and food. She has written a cookery book, appeared on TV food programmes and even attended Cordon Bleu classes. I’m still a bit unsure about her milkshake, though.

Perhaps we are on firmer ground with Hank Williams? His famous song Jambalaya (on the bayou) definitely name checks a lot of Cajun cuisine; Jambalaya, crawfish pie and filé gumbo are all on the menu at the party he attends with his girlfriend Yvonne down on the bayou. The song has been recorded so many times, by so many people that it is rightly a classic. It is a true celebration of the joys of food in a social context. I’ve cooked things that claim to be jambalaya many times, but I’ve never tried to make a crawfish pie, nor a filé gumbo. In fact, I had to look up filé to find out that it is a herb made from sassafras leaves. This appears to be unobtainable in the UK, probably because sassafras contains a substance called safrole, which is carcinogenic.

Filé Powder

Jambalaya is a rice dish, similar to other one-pan dishes such as Spain’s Paella and West African Jollof. It contains andouille, a type of sausage, chicken and prawns plus the Cajun “trinity” of celery, green peppers, and onions, plus other ingredients, which may or may not include tomatoes. After that Louisiana diversion, let us return to food as a euphemism or metaphor, and once more to Robert Plant and this time, lemon squeezing. I suspect that he is on a similar track to that pesky Kelis milkshake here. Lemon squeezing goes as far back in music to Robert Johnson’s Travelling Riverside Blues and probably even further. Sticking with Kelis, her song Biscuits ‘n’ Gravy also uses food, unmentioned in the song, as a metaphor, this time for life, the problems you experience, how you deal with them and, perhaps homely food as a comfort.

Blues, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll have always used food as a symbol for other things. It isn’t too difficult to work out that jelly roll isn’t really a cake, much as Plant’s custard pie isn’t dessert. Little Richard might have been singing a song about the joys of Italian ice cream in Tutti Frutti, but, I doubt it. He didn’t actually write the original song, either. It was composed by a woman called Dorothy LaBostrie, who, interestingly, came from a New Orleans Creole background. The story has it that Little Richard added some far more suggestive lyrics, somewhat in the style of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Relax on a subject also discussed in non-foody ways by Grace Jones in her Pull Up To The Bumper. Of course, to get the song released, the revised lyrics had to be considerably toned down, with all references to “booty” and “greasin’ it” to “make it easy” expunged.So, music and food. A subject that we could explore endlessly, looking for both smut and the joys of cooking and eating too. I think, though, that perhaps we should end on safe territory with mentions of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht, popularly knows as the “Coffee Cantata“, Leonard Bernstein’s 1948 “La Bonne Cuisine” for soprano and orchestra and the L’ode à la Gastronomie composed in 1950 by Jean Françaix with words based on La physiologie du goût by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the noted French epicure and gastronome of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

However, I feel compelled to leave the very last word on the subject of music and food to the Monty Python team and their inimitable Spam Song.

What are your favorite songs about food?

Carole’s Magpie MixTape

Originally from London, Carole now lives in Bristol. ” I’ve spent my life obsessed with music, food and wine. I’ll listen to almost anything, if only to see if I like it, but the things I like, I’ll like forever. I’ll try eating almost anything for the same reason. French cuisine and wine are at the core of what I like to cook, eat and drink. I used to blog recipes all the time, but the fun of it wore off. I still have the blog.

Categories: featured, food, music

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2 replies »

  1. NIce eclectic mix there. Like you, Carole, I love to cook. And I can’t really cook without music. These days it tends to be doom jazz like Bohren and the Club of Gore. I don’t have many favourite songs ABOUT food, but my mixtape would probably include Saturday night fish fry, Green onions, and – as a chocoholic – Savoy Truffle…


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