On the Resurrection of a Home
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Cooking in a Dead Man’s Kitchen
Whether its Max Roach keeping 4/4 time on his drums to “Cherokee,” or Django Reinhardt picking the strings of his gypsy guitar to the melody of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” you know when you’re listening to the truly cosmopolitan sounds of Jazz. Some say Jazz is dead. I don’t agree. Jazz is a way of living and permeates life as a style. A good cook understands this. They understand that to make food with soul, the cook has to dance and swing; to improvise with what they’ve got, with the conditions they’ve been given, despite any tricks, talents, or tools they may bring. Cooking is Jazz incarnate.
All cooks have their kitchen. It doesn’t matter how big it is. It doesn’t matter how many burners the stove has, or even if it has an oven. You can cook a gourmet meal with nothing but a camping stove, a second-hand frying pan, and a good piece of bacon. But the logic of that arrangement is yours, and as a result you control the conditions of your success. The location of the hood switch, what kinds of ladles are available, even the height of the counter are all essential to making one’s own flavors. I used to say that what made a cook’s food the cook’s was the taste of their sweat getting into the roux. Now I think it’s just as much the flavor of a thousand meals, soaked into the cutting board, coating the bottom of the sliced onions that sting at your eyes, that scent and mould the flavor of the soup too. It’s all part of the logic that gives the ineffable flavor of THAT cook’s cooking. If you want ONLY YOUR flavors, then don’t you ever cook in a dead man’s kitchen.
Dead men do more than don’t talk: they downright confound you in a foreign tongue. What you thought you understood, what you think you know about cooking, goes right out the window along with the smoke from burning something on their stove. Don’t you ever cook in a dead man’s kitchen; that is unless you want to play Jazz. See, Jazz says “Hey, here’s a standard. I know it. You know it. Hell, the audience knows it too, but you play the erhu and I play the trombone, and somehow we got to figure out how to play the ‘Dead Man Blues’ together.” So you swing. You improvise. You collaborate. You make something new that is greater than yourself and that is beyond what you would ever do on your own. That’s if your host is still alive and you can jam in the kitchen with them. But a dead man’s kitchen is something else. See, that’s where the spirit of the player -his logic- gets passed on for a new generation to play. Did the Preservation Hall Jazz Band stop playing when Allan Jaffe passed? No. Did their music suddenly become bad? Hell no. Did the music grow, and evolve, and bring other new and younger players in to keep the music alive? Yes. And thank god it did, because lord knows we all love the honey-sweet sound that drips from the bottom of their bells when they play “Clarinet Marmalade”. You can cook with a dead man when you jam with his protégé, the offspring of his genius, in the logic of his kitchen. And when you do, it’s like rolling back the rock off the tomb, coaxing spring into bloom. Now you’re cooking.
If you’re any good, your kitchen will become a stage: your guests will gather to chat, to cheer, to request, to suggest, and to watch your frenzied energy transform into roasted, caramelized, and harmonized dishes. Their jokes and stories will season the pots, and together you will have composed a meal with soul.
And if you’re technique is honest, and true, and good, your guests will place in their mouth something that will nourish their bodies and spirits, and you will have brought that dead man and his home back to life. The silence of eating a good meal will be followed by the laughter it inspires. The warmth of the meal, and the community it has created, will de-ice the blood of the home that had gone cold with its master’s passing. No, don’t you ever cook in a dead man’s kitchen, unless, of course, you want to be the guest that brings his song back to life; even if it’s played in a slightly different tune.