Delicious Conversations: A Little Night Music

by Matt on December 15, 2011

This post is part of an ongoing discussion sponsored by San Pellegrino and their “delicious conversations” series as seen through the lens of food. This entry is about two of my favorite things: food and music. Wait, three favorite things if you count Dinner Parties!

Jobim, Getz, Peterson. Those names are equally at home in my kitchen as much as salt, lemons and olive oil. Growing up in a musical household where almost everyone played an instrument meant the sounds and songs from all over the world floated along with the aromas coming from the kitchen. They were symbiotic, forever meant to be enjoyed together in my world.

Fast forward to adulthood. My relationship with food has become my career, but it rarely exists without a soundtrack. If I’m photographing, there’s music. If I’m cooking, there’s music. If I’m writing, there’s music (but very very quietly, I might add). Like so many with a passion for cooking and music, it’s an integral part of my world.

Music playing casually seems to take on a whole new level of importance when we begin to talk about The Dinner Party. The playlist almost becomes a guest, as carefully thought out and planned as the party menu. The right mix can soothe, can excite, and relax and it can certainly annoy (for all the right reasons, but we’ll hear from Marc in a second).  Raucous tunes played over a formal meal might annoy; the same playlist at a David Chang joint might just hit the spot. Context is key.

Realizing I’m not the only one who spends a significant amount of time creating playlists for dinners and parties at home, I turned to the great big world of social media and a few fellow cooks and bloggers to find out what makes their metronome tick when it comes to dinner parties, cooking and music. I just happened to snag a professional music critic and rockabilly musician in the process and their answers illustrate just how thoughtful food and music lovers can be.

My guests included Sarah Kieffer of Threaded Basil and Vanilla Bean Blog, Sabrina Modelle of The Tomato Tart, Marc Schermerhorn of Baketard,  PR Goddess & photographer  Candice Eley and her husband, music critic and writer Jeffrey Terich of Treblezine.com.

I asked Marc  if he has a process for putting together playlists for dinner parties. If you know Marc you know he’s quite “spirited” and his answers didn’t disappoint :) Marc says “For me, it depends on the theme and the guests. At the basic level, if I’m doing some type of regional cuisine, I’ll generally try to play something that goes with it, but without falling into a complete stereotype (like playing mariachi music for a dinner with a mexican menu). iTunes has been great for finding recommendations for pop or jazz singers in different countries or regions with which I have little familiarity. That’s what I do when I’m trying for something elegant. Or on the safe side, I’ll play jazz or blues for a sit down dinner. Other times, I might choose music to torture my guests on purpose; for a friend’s 40th birthday dinner here we played calliope music all night and had a clown theme because she hate clowns. Again, it goes with the audience most of the time.”

See, what did I tell you?

When it comes to putting together playlists, Sabrina not only has a formula but offers a few tips: “ I do marry my music to my dinners and gatherings. I love jazz, and it’s my go-to music. Female vocal jazz like Ella Fitzgerald, Julie London, and Chris Connor makes the perfect backdrop for a fun yet sophisticated evening. I also love the feel of bossa nova for a larger crowd where people might not exactly know each other. A great trick when you want to have music, but not disrupt conversation is to go for something foreign. Bossa nova, vintage and modern French pop, and 60’s Italian tunes all make a great cocktail party.”

I asked her to share a few of her favorite artists as well. “I love Nouvelle Vague when I’m puttering around the kitchen. Melody Gardot is also fabulous for both cooking and entertaining. Julie London, Blossom Dearie, Astrud Gilberto, Stan Getz, Ella Fitzgerald, Eartha Kitt, Chris Connor, June Christy, Dean Martin. My favorite barbeque/outdoor entertaining music comes from a label called Wild Records out of LA- they’re traditional rockabilly with an uninhibited and a sexy edge. I like that in music, in food, and in a party too.”

When it comes to spending time in the kitchen, I asked Candice and Jeffrey how it works out for them. She says that while she doesn’t always listen to music when she cooks, she does love having it on most of the time. “My husband is a really big vinyl buff, and we have a great record player that is just outside of the kitchen entry. I think vinyl is the only way to listen to music while you cook. If I’m baking (it’s my “escape” activity), I’ll put on something kind of lush and thoughtful, like Bat for Lashes or The National. If I’m prepping to have people over, it will probably be something more like Cut Copy to get me psyched and in a good mood. And for whatever reason, old school classics from the late 70s/early 80s like David Bowie or Talking Heads seem to be what I reach for if I’m making dinner for just me and Jeff on a weekend evening.”

And in an answer I can certainly understand, I asked Marc if he listens to music while he cooks. His answer? “Constantly. I get twitchy in a quiet house, much to my partner’s dismay.”

Next I asked my fellow music lovers if they thought food has its own soundtrack. Does jazz equal a free-form recipe, while a well-structured classical tune might represent a difficult pastry? Do they tie certain recipes and certain tunes together?

Sabrina said “Oh definitely.  I am in love with pastry doughs. When I make pie crust, or biscuits, or other things that involve getting all floury, I love to listen to 1950s women rockabilly, country, and blues. I make these things without modern machines, and I always wear an apron. The music completes the 1950s housewife fantasy. I also use music to inspire my cooking. Maria Callas & I hang when I bring home Spanish ingredients. It’s the Bollywood Channel on Pandora when I’m feeling Indian. The relationship is really symbiotic.”

And our resident critic Jeffrey: “ I think food does have its own soundtrack, but it’s open to interpretation depending upon the person listening/dining. I associate punk rock with New York style pizza, for one, but not everyone might see it that way. A steak might go well with standards or jazz. Burgers pretty much go with everything, though I tend to like hip-hop for barbecue fare.

No matter if it’s the Ramones or REO Speedwagon (c’mon you 80s lovers, don’t pretend you don’t sing them at the top of your lungs!), one category reigns supreme when it comes to Dinner Parties: it’s definitely all that jazz. Sarah was speaking my language when she said “I put on a lot of jazz at dinner parties.  Lovely jazz with a little bit of swing like Ella Fitzgerald, Melody Gardot, Miles Davis, Blossom Dearie, Oscar Peterson Trio. This is what I listen to especially when its just me cooking. For dinner parties I like to sneak in some electro jazz and there are some great Brazilian artists that have some good groove like Ceu, Seu Jorge, Bebel Gilberto, and Rosalia de Souza, just to name a few. Other artists with some groove are St. Germain, Koop, Feist, verve remixed series, and Nicola Conte.  And for quieter tunes I have several albums I love like Chet Baker Jazz in Paris, Blossom Dearie Jazz in Paris, Peggy Lee Trav’lin Light,  Nat King Cole The Essentials, and Stacey Kent Raconte-moi. Really quiet is Gonzales Solo Piano.”

Ah, Solo Piano. One of my favorites from Gonzales, Sarah!

And Jeffrey’s thoughts on when things don’t always work?

“Generally speaking, right off the bat, certain genres or styles are probably automatically disqualified just because they don’t lend themselves well to a social gathering. I love ambient/glitch stuff like Fennesz and Tim Hecker, but that’s really something better suited to headphones and solitude. Plus abrasive stuff like Swans that will make your guests uncomfortable, and a lot of metal would be inappropriate. That said, it’s not entirely out of the question… last year we had a housewarming party of sorts and we played some Motorhead, which pleased our guests! Then it comes down to how many guests we’re having over, what kind of meal we’re having, what season it is, etc. A smaller crowd in winter will be more conducive to quieter, low key music, while a summer gathering with more people will be a lot more punk rock. After that I just start dragging in songs to iTunes playlists that I think go well together, that flow and seem to make sense together. It’s really just like making a good mix for someone, and I’ve been doing that since high school, so this just adds an extra element to that.”

I sincerely want to thank my amazing subjects for opening their hearts and heads and answering my questions about music and food. I could talk about this for hours! And thanks to San Pellegrino for inspiring the conversation through their Delicious Moments series! And tell me: what are some of your favorite tunes for dinner parties? I’d love to know!