I love music. I avidly listen to a wide variety of music from the close harmonies of Orlando Gibbons to MJQ with the occasional Fall Out Boy hit thrown into the mix. I listen to different types of world music, and even like the modern fusion of electronica and world music found on the Six-Degrees label. I studied classical piano and the related subjects of theory, history and counterpoint for nine years at the local conservatory when I was a kid and usually bring a tape recorder on my travels to record the sounds of the world around me. Curiously, with all of the listening and playing that goes on in my life, I like it to be quiet when I cook.
Part of my quest for quiet is concentration – certainly this is the case when cooking a multi-course meal in which dishes have to hit the table at particular times and in a particular sequence. Part of the need for silence is a certain reverence for the food and the artistic act of shaping a meal into something more than just the sum of its ingredients. But there’s more to it than that. The lack of music playing in the background or sometimes blaring as I’ve encountered in some kitchens doesn’t really bring silence. What it does bring is the ability to listen and perhaps to hear what’s happening on the stove.
As big and somewhat brainy primates we rely on our eyes for most of our sensory input when standing at the stove. How many times have you said or thought, “That looks done.” The second sense that most of us use when cooking is smell. The smell of freshly baked bread or pastry can evoke powerful memories and feelings of well-being in some people. Smell, even more than touch or color helps us tell the difference, for instance, between onions that are caramelizing nicely and ones that might be starting to burn. For the most part, however, sound is a much neglected sense when it comes to the art of the kitchen. We look, we smell, touch and taste, but how often do we listen to the food we are preparing?
Take something as simple as sautéing an egg in butter. As the butter slowly heats, it becomes golden or just a bit brown around the edges as it starts to audibly bubble. The bubbling starts slowly but increases in tempo until it becomes a steady stream of sound when it is ready to be used. A crack of an egg on the side of the pan and a raucous symphony begins when the chilled egg hits the warm butter – that is unless you live near a farm, or have taken the eggs out of the fridge more than an hour ago – then the pan will sing a gentler song as the temperature differential between the egg and the butter decrease. As the temperatures between the two ingredients merge, the sound drops off in both volume and pitch and the egg begins the same slow bubble that the butter went through. As the egg warms, the collagen in it cross-links and becomes denser as the texture firms. As this happens, the pitch starts to rise until the egg is almost hissing as it comes done.
Try it sometime. Either promise yourself to listen as you cook next time, or better yet, listen to someone else cook – preferably with your eyes closed or back turned – and try to predict when something is ready by using mostly the auditory sense. You really can hear when the onions in the wok are done, can’t you?
We listen to each other eat all the time, and the sounds of people enjoying food play a large part in the satisfaction cooks and chefs experience in preparing a meal. We complement each other with kind words and occasionally gush over a dish. Even when trying to be polite, there are the sounds of mastication, and my favorite are the sounds we utter unconsciously when really enjoying something. For lack of a better term – I’ll borrow the phrase used by Gene Wilder in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein – they are the “yummy sounds”. We’ve all heard them and we all make them – those soft, little grunts or sighs of pleasure when eating something delicious that somehow slip past the conscious superego that minds our manners. Yummy sounds make all of the work worthwhile.
If listening to each other eat creates a bond between the cook and the diners or even just between friends enjoying a meal together, does listening to a meal as it is being prepared create special links between the food and the chef? I say yes, and if you doubt that there can be a bond between humans and food, I urge to watch Tampopo again and not grin from ear to ear as master Goro instructs his student Gun how to properly respect the bowl of soup before he tucks in.
Cooking is like playing music – it is a performance art. No matter how hard we try to standardize the preparation of a certain dish, it often does turn out differently from batch to batch or from day to day. This is not only because of the variability of type and amount of ingredients, although substituting sweet parsley with cilantro or rau-ram could really change the fundamental taste of a dish, but it is also because of the mood of the chef and the sometimes tangled relationships that can exist in a family or in a kitchen.
I like to be clear and calm when I start to cook. This gives me space to listen (and see, smell and taste) the food I am preparing – and also allows me to bond with the food and let my skill and enjoyment of food preparation flow into the meal. When I have the space to approach meal preparation that way, it is far more than calories or even a beautiful presentation that I give to those dining with me – it is love. (Words by Laura Kelley; photo of Yin and Yang Eggs © Andreea Székely|Dreamstime.com)