Author: Kuster, Ted

Cooking with Bluegrass

Pretty soon after I started reading the Bluegrass Breakdown regularly, four or five years ago, I noticed that every time I opened up a new issue Iíd flip right to J.D. Rhynesís cooking column, even before the gig listings and the festival lineups. I donít care that much about cooking, but I do like good writing.

One thing about good writing, like good music, is that often turns up when youíre not out looking for it. There are plenty of fine writers in the Breakdown, of course, but you go there to find out about bluegrass music, not to practice literary criticism.

Another thing about good writing is that itís not as easy as it looks. You can transcribe someoneís actual speech and it can read like stilted, over-written hack work. Usually it takes a lot of hard rewriting and re-rewriting to make something read like someone just casually talked it out, like a typical J.D. Rhynes column.
A third thing Iíve learned is that a lot of good writing is not really about what itís officially about, or at least not entirely. Thereís no reliable indicator for when this is true, you just have to sort of pick it up by feel.

Over time I got the sense that there was more going on in these recipe columns than met the eye. I thought about that for a while, and then as an experiment I tried copying out a few of the columns and breaking them out into lines, like on a song sheet.

Sure enough, the words tend to fall naturally into patterns that resemble those of a song lyric. Not all the time, but often enough to notice, you get syllables that scan into a recognizable meter, and very often a hint of rhyme seems to appear.
I havenít asked the author how intentional this is. I suspect, not that much. What it suggests is that this is a guy for whom music and singing are integral to the experience of communicating -- not to mention eating, or even just living. I donít know if he got that way on purpose or it just happened, but either way itís pretty admirable, in my book. I hope someday Iíll learn to live like that too.

Hereís one of the lyrics that emerged, after I massaged the syllables and straightened out the rhyme scheme a little. Itís from the column published in February 2002, about the kind of food you want when itís cold out. In my mind this one has a melody that sounds a little like one of the ďcabin songĒ bluegrass standards.

This is the time of year
With cold weather on the way
When I love to cook up something
They call "comfort food" nowadays

Well Iíve been getting real comfortable
Sittiní down here for dinner
With one of my favorite comfort foods
That mom used to fix every winter

(and thatís a) Big, deep, skillet full of Swiss Steak
And a big bowl of potatoes mashed real nice
Well I will tell you the truth, back when I was a youth
That was my idea of paradise

You take a quarter cup of flour,
One teaspoon of salt
A quarter teaspoon of pepper, all mixed together
Get a pound and a half of round steak,
Cut it up and roll it around
On second thought maybe two pounds would be better

[Three more verses of cooking instructions follow, and then:]

If you like cornbread or biscuits
Just pop them in there too
When the steakís been in there for an hour flat
Put out a salad and some French bread
And a nice glass of red wine
And it donít get no more comfortable than that!

In a column published in July 2003, the author remembers a dessert thatís suited to warm weather. He sneaks in a passing reference to a certain Gershwin song, so the tune thatís in my head for this one has a swingy, minor-ish feel.
Summertime, you try eat on the light side,
Still a nice dessert goes good once or twice a week
I like apple brown betty and the fixiní is easy
as falling off a peeled log over ol' Piney Creek!

Grease up a quart and a half casserole pan
Tear four slices of toast into bite-size bits
Spread them on the bottom of the casserole pan
Cover it with three cups of sliced up granny smiths

A cup of sugar, half white, half brown
Mixed up with cinnamon, a teaspoon or so
Melt a quarter cup of butter and drizzle on top
Put a cover on it and itís ready to go

Turn it up to three hundred fifty for an hour,
stir it up once when half the time is past
Take it out and serve it up warm with whipped cream
Or slathered all up with half a cup of half and half

One of my favorites, published in October 2006, recalls the authorís early love of Mexican cooking. It includes these two verses:

When I was a young boy, growing up in east Stockton,
with some of the very best Mexican food in the state
Henry Perez's mother made the best re-fried bean tacos
that I think have ever been cooked up and put on a plate

I used to set in her kitchen as she made tortillas by hand
I watched as she cooked them over the open flame
When youíve had a tortilla made fresh off the stove with some butter
Nothing will ever again fill you up quite the same

I have no idea whether any of Mr. Rhynesís recipes would actually work for me in real life, and Iím probably not going to find out. Experience has taught me that itís safest for everyone if I stick to toasting bagels.

But Iíd be interested to hear if other people have noticed this property of the J.D. Rhynes columns, and if so, if youíd share what you got out of it. If you havenít, maybe youíd enjoy taking a look at some of those old columns and giving it a try yourself.
Posted:  2/26/2013

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