Food, Beer and a Music Podium

So I started thinking about food.

No, not like that!

Err, okay…pretty much exactly like that, but I plead hunger and impatience for my lunch to come.

Well, it’s a bit more than that, actually.  I started thinking about food a few days ago, mainly because I was cooking…and because I love to cook.  I love the process of taking a pile of disparate ingredients and turning them into something greater than the sum of the parts.  It is actually one of the more satisfying things to me, to be honest.  Strangely — for a guy as given to impulse, randomness and flights of fancy as me — that process of turning chaos into order is pretty damned relaxing.

But just as much as the process do I enjoy what food means.  Look, when I get together with friends, we inevitably end up in the kitchen.  We inevitably end up sharing booze and food and good times.  Even at “work”, when I get together with others involved in the beer world, we inevitably end up back in the brewhouse, still sharing booze and food and good times.

So where am I going with this?  No, that’s not me projecting your response to the opening above, it is me legitimately asking myself that question…

When it comes to food, I love it.  No, really, there is nothing I won’t try.  I love it all. I’ve had some of the most refined, perfect food you can imagine, from Kyoto to New York to Nice.  I’ve also had street food.  In the back alleys of Mexico City; in the streets of Marrakech; in those neighborhoods in Naples you aren’t supposed to go…

And in every bite there has lived that one thing so impossible to define, but so crucial to life: culture.  The culture and life and heartbeat of those who gave birth to that food, both the individuals and their people as a whole.  The food that sticks with me — and the food I like most to eat — is, by the way, the street food.  The peasant food.  The food that make families brag about still using great-grandma’s recipe.

I once spent several hundred dollars on a formal 30-course kaiseki dinner in Kyoto.  I loved the meal, but if you pressed me, I could only really describe one or two dishes.  Do you know what I remember more from that trip?  The grilled chicken cartilage* I had at a tiny Shinjuku izikaya.

*Yes, it really is a thing.  I won’t explain in the interests of saving space and word-count, but buy me a beer sometime and ask about it.  I can go on for hours about some of the weird shit I’ve had in my life.  Just don’t ask about the sheep’s eyeball — I didn’t enjoy that one.

I thought about this as I was cooking dirty rice, by the way.  More peasant food.  Food that started as a way to extract all the flavor possible from leftovers and off-cuts and what was left after the rich had their pick.  It was James Michener who introduced me to this reality.  I don’t know if you have ever read any Michener, but one of the things he excelled at was connecting his readers to the cultures he was trying to explore.  One of the ways he did that was through their food; more importantly, through the historical nexus between food and culture.

In the US that nexus is one of class, yes, but also of race.  Steaks and roasts we all know.  They were — and still are, to an extent — the food of the wealthy.  Then you have the foods for the rest of us, for those at the bottom.  The fish stews and pies for the New England fishermen.  Gumbo and jumbalaya for the French Acadians (yup, that’s where “cajun” comes from) transplanted to far off Louisiana.  For the slaves and former slaves there were wild greens (collard, mustard, etc…), catfish and leftover/unwanted cuts of pork and beef…all those things that lie now at the very heart of American barbecue.  As a matter of fact, I just paid $25 for a meal that once was given to slaves because the master couldn’t be bothered to supply anything better.  Hell, lobster was once so despised that is was used only to feed prisoners…

That is how food both reflects and embodies culture.  That is how food defines who we are as a people…and, just as much, who we once were.  That is a key part of the magic of it all.

As a writer, I sometimes get chastised for using food and booze too much.  I use them, however, to reflect my characters.  To reflect who they are, and who they aren’t.  I use them, often, to create situations where the food — and the atmosphere around it — defines the cultures and backgrounds of the characters in ways that would otherwise take hundreds and hundreds of words.

I am, at heart, a peasant.  I would rather have real coq au vin in a tiny country village than the best dishes from the fine dining places in Paris.  I would rather, as a writer, use a hundred words of my characters’ thoughts and reactions about food and everything surrounding it as a mirror for the real world than five thousand words of exposition.

One of my disappointments with George RR Martin, by the way, wasn’t that he talked too much about food, it was that he didn’t use food enough to truly comment on the lives and circumstances of the different strata of the society he created in GOT…

{Musical Notes — this started as something very different.  It started as a desire to find a good, old school song to use.  That desire morphed into finding those anthems that are truly evocative of an era.  Then, me being me (and beer being beer), everything morphed again into finding those songs that we don’t even have to actually hear anymore; into those songs from which we need only an exposure of a second or two to remember, and to feel.  I had to limit things to the last fifty-ish years, if only to keep the number of songs manageable.  As a further note, these are all songs I love…and all songs that bring their own memories for me.

Gold Medal: perhaps the most instantly evocative of these songs, for far more than one generation.  Don’t cheat, don’t look ahead.  Just listen.  It won’t take more than one second if you are anything at all like me…

Silver Medal: a better song than the first, it does not have the instant cross-generational impact of the “winner”.  It is to me one of the best songs ever recorded…

Bronze Medal:  This song is my generation.  It should probably take the Silver, to be honest, but the second place song is just a better song by a better creator…

Honorable Mention: I couldn’t help myself, this song had to make the list.  It had to make the list because, not long ago, I was walking to my own locker room at a hockey tournament, only to hear a bunch of middle school players belting out this song in the next room.  That is cross-generational appeal…and a song you will instantly recognize…

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