I Hear America Cooking: Excerpt

“When America got pompous about cuisine and gourmandize, there was always a Huck Finn to tell how ‘Jim he got some corn-dodgers and buttermilk, and pork and cabbage and greens—there ain’t nothing in the world so good when it’s cooked right.’ When Americans went ape over the international cuisine mediated by Craig Claiborne, there was a Russell Baker to outsnob the snobs. ‘Wine being absolutely de rigueur with cheese, I chose a 1974 Muscatel, followed with a maraschino cherry, and afterward cleared my palate with three picked martini olives.’ Or a Calvin Trillin to treat Alice to Frozen Duck a l’Orange Soda Pop in La Maison de la Casa House. Or a Roy Blount, Jr., to praise ‘My Mother’s Macaroni and Cheese’:  ‘I wish that I / Were up to my knees / In my mother’s mac- / Aroni and cheese.’ America’s cooking is parody cooking and it speaks loudest and clearest in street cries, folk rhymes, and the whole subverting voice, rhythm, and structure of American jazz. Europe kept high life high and low life low, but America turned them upside down and messed them musically in a slumgullion of opera, brass bands, minstrel songs, and the drumbeats of Congo Square. Jazz, too, was vernacular rather than regional, and it was not limited to New Orleans or Chicago any more than it was limited to black, Creole, or white. It was a hybrid and a crossbreed, like the food from which performers took their names. ‘Daddy’ Rice sang the songs of ‘Cornmeal.’ ‘Jelly Roll’ Morton (born Ferdinand Joseph La Menthe) was backed by his ‘Red Hot Peppers.’

The paradox of jazz was the paradox of harmony out of anarchy. ‘Everybody go his own way, everybody play for hisself’ means the solo riffs are  now over, now everybody play at once. That, I decided, was the only way to explain the structured chaos of both American cooking and American social structure.”

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