When I initially imagined Arcade Kitchen, I had illusions of grandeur and high-minded ideals about the site. It would be more than recipes and restaurant reviews! It would be more, man.
I would get right to the soul of cooking, food and travel (you know, having a fancy-pants writing degree and all). I would reveal insights so profound that Anthony Bourdain himself would take time away from submitting punks in his jiu jitsu classes and globetrotting to fly to St. Louis and sing my praises.
Somehow, it never occurred to me that others, people who have been traveling and eating and cooking significantly longer than I, might have the very same insights. I was brought down to earth when I started reading Ed Lee’s cookbook Smoke & Pickles.
I had conceptualized a piece about the role sound plays in the kitchen. It wasn’t written, though—just a rough sketch in my mind. Toward the end the cookbook, there’s a chapter titled “Buttermilk & Karaoke.”
Guess what it’s about?
DING! DING! DING!
That’s right, Ed had decided to write (rather successfully) about the same thing I had been thinking about. It’s somewhat embarrassing to admit that I was discouraged by this development, despite enjoying his thoughts on the matter.
I reconsidered it, though. To come to the same conclusion—separately, no less—as someone you admire is pretty amazing. I don’t know if I can express it quite as well as Ed, but I’ll damn well try.
Everyone is familiar with the roles that taste, smell and sight play in cooking. The taste of a perfectly seasoned sauce. The smell of a freshly torn basil leaf. The striking hue of a garden-fresh tomato or a jalapeño.
Chefs and amateur cooks alike know that these elements are integral in the kitchen. The role of sound might be less intuitive, though. It’s important in a more nebulous way.
There are sounds I’ve come to recognize, connect with and love in the kitchen. They instantly bring me a sense of home. They’re simple signals that put me at ease. They bring a certain rhythm and character to a home. But they also foreshadow what’s to be: a unique human institution that symbolizes charity and love.
There may be no better sound in the world than bacon sizzling in a skillet. It smells incredible, but it wouldn’t be the same without the POP of a hot pan spitting angrily on the burner. And that’s just the start! The first bite—that crunch—is so satisfying it’s borderline pornographic.
There’s also something magical about the sound of a sharp knife steadily hitting a cutting board. The cadence of it and the sound (tck, tck, tck, tck…) is immensely gratifying. It’s like the rhythm section of kitchen, keeping the beat. Steady. Solid.
It’s not to be outdone by the sound of a knife on honing steel—tnnnng, schnnng, tnnnng, schnnng. It’s not so much rewarding (although it is that, too) as it’s theatrical.
But, there’s more to cooking than the ambient sounds of the kitchen.
Most people who are into food also happen to be into music, including me. That’s no accident. They’re both creative endeavors that require a certain amount of practice, intuition and improvisation.
That’s why a soundtrack almost always accompanies my work in the kitchen. It just makes sense. In a way, you’re jamming along with the music, except your instrument is a knife. I mean, trimming vegetables isn’t as exciting as a guitar solo, but let’s see Slash prepare a fucking ratatouille.
The albums always vary, but it’s the energy that’s important—creative and sonic interplay. Black Francis screams “DEBASER!” I shake a pan; the range rattles just a little. J Mascis’ guitar meanders. Garlic crunches, splitting under the flat edge of my knife. Mike Kinsalla drones earnestly. I add wine to the hot pan. It hisses in protest.
As the record spins, sounds from outside seep into the kitchen. The external world affects the atmosphere, too. Sounds from outside my apartment—the metrolink humming and rattling along the tracks, a distant siren, a loudmouth on the street below—remind me my city is full of life. In a city, there is always something.
The needle stops, and I wash my hands so I can flip the record. Then I smile and get back to it.
I am home.