You’re standing before your stovetop, spatula in hand as the oil begins to heat up in your pan, the sun already setting and casting a shadow of the clock tower across from your kitchen window. Your stomach and the burner growl in anticipation as you scroll through your playlists, looking for the perfect song to start your cooking: one hand clutching a bowl of ingredients just inches away, ready to be stir-fried, the other hand hovering above your phone screen, deciding between the melodic gems of Brazilian Samba or Spanish Bolero.
Yes, the dinner playlist — it certainly necessitates such delicate attention. It’s much like the indecisive shower-goer moments before stepping into the heat of the bath, one foot dry, one foot wet, frantically making their mind up on what songs might fill their eight-minute scrub. The dinner playlist (otherwise known as the cooking playlist, or songs to fry to, slice-n-dice tunes, the chef’s curation, a “vin et fromage” soundtrack, if you will) differs from a selection of shower melodies in that it isn’t a simple block of sound to fill a space of time with but rather a deliberate curation of music that builds upon and improves a mood or a feeling.
The division of time in the creation of a dinner vibe, the ambiance and the adherence to an established aesthetic (Italian food necessitates not just pasta but Dean Martin’s “That’s Amore,” of course) all point to an effort to fit pieces together into a feeling. From the taste of cast-iron-crisped rosemary focaccia to the music filling the incursion from start to finish in accordance with a style. As we curate a playlist of all our favorite hits, an image forms of what we want our 7-9 p.m. attempts at the culinary arts to look and feel like. Music is the dancer that accompanies us in our deep-seated need to romanticize, to aestheticize, to create excitement in the mundane.
Cooking, and by extension “dinner,” is a start-to-finish journey, a commitment. First, there’s the careful selection of a recipe from your TikTok recipe favorites or, perhaps, your YouTube channel “Binging with Babish” video bookmarks. Then, you take to purchasing ingredients days in advance from a corner store farmer’s market or the endless aisles of a supermarket. Finally, comes the mental preparation, the actual preparation and the ceremonious start, the waiting, the checking, the re-checking, the plating and then sitting down with the end product: dinner.
What better way to spend time agonizing over the perfect sear on a steak or the rising of a levain bread than with the faithful sounds of the music that has accompanied us in every comfort, discomfort and those moments in between in our lives?
Maybe, you’re listening to the folk of Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” or the soul on Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” on repeat while eating stale crackers and cheese because you’re trying to get closer to home than you’d ever thought possible.
Maybe it’s The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Hendrix, The Velvet Underground, Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Wonder and Elton John — the music your father played set to the ill attempts at cooking he too employed in his dinner nights for you as a kid.
Maybe you instead require the up-beat tunes your mom included alongside her culinary endeavors, with Diana Ross, Janet Jackson, Madonna, Phil Collins and Bowie. Maybe you’re even a culinary prodigy, and Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” plays as you compose your symphony of eclectic plating decisions — complete with an internal monologue worthy of a Chef’s Table voiceover narrating your life’s work.
Or maybe the dinner is instead just a blank canvas for your body’s beat, and to fill that is the dance tunes of House or Techno, pop like Dua Lipa or Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, Rina Sawayama or songwriters with screamable melodies: Rodrigo, Eilish, The Weekend, a music video for whatever recipe pops to mind at 7:45 p.m. Maybe classics like Patti Smith, Elliot Smith, Joni Mitchell and PJ Harvey set the singer-songwriter stage for a night you wish was rainy, ending with a warm pan shakshuka with flatbread.
Whether we like to admit it or not, the music we choose to play says something about ourselves, just as the food we decide to cook does.
In a restaurant, selection is an ill-afforded luxury. Although menu items come aplenty, your options are limited to just that: choices on paper. The food comes cooked by another’s attention, wine or beer poured by somebody else’s steady hand. And the music is carefully curated by the Top 40 hits on Spotify the manager has been getting really into ever since they discovered the term “boomer,” and realized that it can indeed be applied to 32-year-olds. But in our own kitchens and our own dining tables, music is chosen by us, as is the food we decide to serve.
Maybe your soundtrack of choice is none at all. You opt for silence because the auditory pleasures of food cooking mere inches away from your ears is certainly enough to fill the silence of the evening. Some might call you weird, but you know in your heart of hearts the sizzling of onions in a pan preparing for your signature roasted garlic pasta sauce brings just as much joy as the sizzling of Doja Cat on a heartbroken trap beat. The dinnertime playlist is not for you, then. But no matter, because you appreciate the beauty of the mundane, this everyday shakedown of routine into a masterful seduction of flavors and tastes and spices and textures.
Dinner is hard, making it is hard and no matter how hard we try to decorate the time with artsy plating, Instagram-worthy setups and the music we listen to, it does get quite boring. We get restless, tired and exhausted from the whims of our lives.
As mind clutter climbs and the shores of productivity become littered with the unwanted sludge of stressors and deadlines, we become less attentive to the luxury of food and settle for the easy way out: ramen and protein, toaster oven S’more Pop-Tarts, cold soup Cinnamon Toast Crunch, rice and eggs — our tried and trues of the quintessential quick-time dinners. Maybe you can’t even afford the simplicity of cheat dinners and you turn to takeout for an even quicker solution; the pressures of productivity certainly might necessitate it. As stress rises, our attention to food lessens and we are left with a settlement. Dinner playlists then can be a way to reconcile with this defeat, a reconnection to our love for cooking and for food.
The more attention we put into the food we make, the more attention we put into our lives and the everyday. Imagine the “dinner playlist” as a buffer: Curate your aesthetic, curate your life. Instead of making food just for energy or as a job to get out of the way, treating it like a gesture of excitement will make it healthier, taste better and make the overall experience an activity that feels more like a thrilling hobby and a careful attentive project than a slogging chore. And that starts with creating the mood, that feeling, through the curation of music we listen to while we cook.
Instead of music and food filling space and silence, use them to create something, use them to set aside time to thrive, explore and enjoy instead of stressing over food, stressing over silence, stressing over the spaces between moments. Silence is a powerful tool, but music infuses that silence with excitement and romance.
Daily Arts Writer Conor Durkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.