Reflections on soundtracking the kitchen

Wednesday, December 5, 2018 - 1:40pm

Toro y Moi

Toro y Moi Buy this photo
Carpark

I write this having just signed my lease for the next school year, petrified at the prospect of having to cook for myself EVERY DAY. Call it lazy, characteristic of the weird millennial-Gen Z hybrid I am — I don’t care, I am the leftover queen! When you’re raised by someone with a knack for cooking sans the recipes, you can’t help but feel like a fool every time you enter the kitchen (thanks Mom!). It’s more funny than it is tragic — from making playlists to slicing onions with goggles on, I don’t think any other activity better draws out my creativity. However, I will say that goggle situation was a one-time thing. The true dream team is the union between my cooking and music.

Music is the key spice to all of my recipes. I’m not particularly adroit nor attentive in the kitchen, so I’m certain my music has saved countless baked goods. That being said, my music taste for the moment can get contextual. If I’m cooking at my parents’ home over the holidays, I’m inclined to listen to Arabic music. It transports me back to a Ramadan, my mom pulling rotisserie chicken out of the oven with the cold wafting in from outside the way it did 10 years ago. Arabic music also has a distinct character and range to it, the energies shifting from your characteristic love song to unadulterated, unironic patriotism. There was also a point in the mid to late 00s where every Lebanese song sounded like it came out of a tropey spy movie — this is my most ideal taste. It almost elevates the task of rolling grape leaves when Fares Karam is blaring in the background over a goblet drum.

More often, I have taken to baking with my friend in her apartment on Fridays. I consider myself more of spoon licker in these situations, occasionally cracking the eggs or adding a dash of cinnamon. But I promise this bond is symbiotic. These moments are when I feel most like a DJ, cranking out my very niche taste in rap music as Makenzie works her magic with the oven — we are now both very enamored with Noname’s Room25 and snickerdoodles. Numerous Kendrick Lamar appearances also make their way into this jam session as well — I aggressively advocate for his G.O.A.T status. The idea behind this is for Makenzie to teach me to bake as we exchange music tastes, but it usually ends with us lip syncing to 3OH!3’s “Don’t Trust Me” and realizing what’s in the oven.

I flounder in the summer when it is necessary that I cook on a daily basis. I have my fair share of microwave magic, but I’ll also occasionally turn to sandwiches when I’m feeling particularly innovative. The sweet spot is breakfast foods — it can’t get worse than a burnt first pancake. This is where my cooking music takes a turn for the mundane and unexpected. I’ll find myself restrained enough to listen to full length albums or explore new artists I otherwise wouldn’t feel inclined to. It makes for some uncanny associations I can never seem to rip apart. I refuse to separate the scent of burnt pizza with Tyler the Creator’s Flower Boy.

I wouldn’t say I have any interest in or hopes of becoming a master cook, though I don’t believe that has diminished from my experiences with cooking. Beyond the hilarity I attribute to my innumerable defeats in the kitchen, some of my best ideas for playlists and opportunities to share music root themselves here.

— Diana Yassin

I used to hate cooking, which, in my Persian family where the menu for dinner parties was planned weeks in advance and execution was an all-day affair, was near blasphemy. But I couldn’t deny it — I grew up watching my various aunts, older cousins and two grandmothers bustle around different kitchen backdrops cooking everything from Zereshkt Polo (barberry rice) to Bademjan (eggplant and tomato stew) yet I could never bring myself to recreate these recipes back home. Part of it was intimidation — Iranian dishes are notoriously difficult to make, and, since most recipes are passed down between family members, it’s hard to find the best agreed upon recipe online. Diving into a recipe that calls for an array of herbs, different types of beans and lamb without really understanding how to best cook the beans, sauté the herbs and prepare the lamb is a hassle at best and terrifying at worst. However, most of my hesitation came from the knowledge that I would never be able to recreate the atmosphere I saw surrounding cooking in Iran. There, the kitchen would be packed with different family members, each preparing or helping to prepare a dish. Cooking was an extravagant affair, the clamour of different voices climbing over each other and multiple appliances clanking against pots and pans serving as a constant soundtrack to the whole endeavor. There was no appeal in coming back to my silent kitchen and attempting to make these meals if I knew the most important part of the meal — the company — would be missing.

I cannot tell you what changed this past summer, what shift in mindset caused me to wholeheartedly start to love cooking. Perhaps it was my resolve to leave Persian recipes behind for the time being and turn to more friendly dishes. Perhaps it was my discovery that music could just as easily replace the chatter and the clamour I had grown up with. Or perhaps it was a little bit of both that caused me to dedicate the empty stretches of late afternoon that oftentimes come during summer months to learning and mastering recipes I stumbled upon online. Most importantly, the songs that accompanied my cooking helped make the food more intimately mine, tumbling out of my speakers and providing me the company I needed to enjoy my time alone in the kitchen.

The first recipe I truly mastered, the one that was most integral in changing how I felt about cooking, was the French dish ratatouille. When I first started learning, it was deep in the middle of this past summer, and both Playboi Carti’s Die Lit and Parquet Courts’s Wide Awake had just dropped. Ratatouille is essentially a summer vegetable medley a mix of eggplant, zucchini, tomato and onion. I have memories of walking down to Lucky’s Market to gather the vegetables with songs like “Shoota” or “Mardi Gras Beads” blaring out of my headphones. Unlike most French cooking, ratatouille does not have a set recipe; rather, it differs depending on the cook. The only aspect of ratatouille that is definitive is the detail that makes its flavor so distinctive (and worth the long cooking time): all the vegetables are oven roasted separately, well-bathed in olive oil and then roasted together again in order to revive the flavors. It is a dish that is simultaneously very easy — it’s only roasted vegetables, after all — and very difficult: These roasted vegetables have to be prepared, chopped and seasoned with care in order for the best flavors to come out. I found that playing slower songs — “Nakamarra” by Hiatus Kaiyote and “The Bird” by Anderson .Paak come to mind — when prepping the ingredients helped me achieve the best results. “A bird with a word came to me / The sweetness of a honeycomb tree,” .Paak croons, and it was near impossible to not pause whatever I was cutting at the moment and take a step back, knife held aloft, and assess the scene around me in relation to the smooth groove of the song. Everything was harmonious: The underlying bright jazz instrumental matched the hue of the vegetables spread across the cutting board, the late afternoon breeze entering my sun-drenched apartment was as light as .Paak’s voice. It felt good to be cooking this dish in this moment. It felt right.

The total time to make ratatouille hovers around three to four hours. The majority of this comes from the extensive period you have to let the vegetables bake in the oven. Therefore, for all the time you spend actually cooking ratatouille, you spend even longer waiting for it to be done. To distract myself from opening the oven every five seconds, I usually soundtracked this period with songs that announced themselves with intensity. Vegetables stewed under sprigs of rosemary and thyme. I let Princess Nokia’s “I don’t give a fuck” attitude in “Flava” rattle the walls of my studio. I tried to teach myself to dance to The Pharcyde “Soul Flower” remix (failing miserably). I watched as Young Thug’s “Memo” serenaded the sunset. And finally it was time to eat what I had made.

Kendrick Lamar and De La Soul, Frank Ocean and Toro Y Moi, Mos Def and KAYTRANADA ... most of the music I usually like to listen to in the summer has now inexplicably been tied to cooking ratatouille in my cramped kitchen, excited for whatever the rest of the night had in store for me with warm weather still feeling like it would last forever. I still very much enjoy cooking now. The months have turned icy, but ratatouille, and the music that for a short period of time turned empty space into one filled with life and sound, will always remind me of why I fell in love with the art of cuisine in the first place — music and food blending together to create flavors I never knew existed.   

— Shima Sadaghiyani