To cook is to immerse yourself in sound.There are the sounds of peeling, slicing, mincing, and chopping; those of bubbling, frying, and baking; blenders and mixers; microwaves and clocks.Those sounds open paths that help us grasp much beyond food.
Do you know the sound of breaking open a crab’s legs to pull the hidden flesh out? It is a crack like no other.
Have you ever broken open a bone, heard it splinter, in order to suck the marrow out from inside?
A commercial kitchen is a wall of sound, like flames rushing up and flattening around the base of a shaking wok, or even jumping inside to sear. Each cook makes their noise, from those who prep—snapping knives against boards, to those who do each task for the menu, the sound as complex as the fancy combinations of adjective rich ingredients and techniques we use to make dish names today.
A home kitchen may be one strain of sound, one process at a time.
Space is often small and timing and skill limited. Still, there are those whose kitchens burst in rhythm and melody, counter to one another, when every burner and the oven are used at the same time.
Sometimes it is monophony, a strand of melody and beat that stands alone, beautiful and strong. Other times it is polyphony, though never really a fugue with a melody that repeats in different pots and different pans while the others play a new one making a chase across the stove.
Often it is polyrhythm, a mix of independent beats and sounds on top of one another creating a bigger and new pattern.
What about a baquette only recently out of an oven, its top crisp and brown, almost burned?
You can slice it with a serrated knife, listening as the edges tear at the crust—gnawing so sweetly—and it rips apart with a shhhurrh. Or you can tear it apart and listen to its crust break and the crumbs fall on your plate. Its snap and crunch turn divine in your mouth when your teeth break it apart right next to your inner ear.
The brown flavor of crust, well-cooked in the oven and dry, falling apart as your teeth grind is a language beyond words. Taste, sound, and feeling—texture combine. A polyphony emerges that is immediate and powerful.
This has intrigued me for a long time, both in the kitchen and in my work as a student of Andean society. Sometimes trying to make many things simultaneously feels either like trying to play all those key boards and pedals on an organ while pulling stops or like playing all the instruments simultaneously in an orchestra.
In the Andes, three, four, and often more bands will play very different music simultaneously during fiestas. You have to hear only your own to guide your steps and not let yourself get confused by others. Yet, in the polyrhythmic polyphony I see a metaphor of society as processes, people coming together, each with different melodies, different rhythms, and different meters. Out of it appears something greater, seldom euphonic and often dissonant though always compelling.
It is like the second measure of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor for organ. You know, right there at the half way point of the measure when that low D opens up. You should hear this note in a big hall with central pipes as tall as giant ponderosas and scaled tubes going down on either side. You should watch to see the doors open above and let the full sound from hidden pipes out.
That low D resonates, as if an entire forest. Its overtones sound a chord, a triad, one note above the other, up into the sky.
And then, like rolling, chaotic thunder on the horizon or that crust breaking in a dissonant crunch on your teeth, Bach throws in a note that makes the rest crumble in dissonance. The crust breaks and breaks in your mouth, before it all comes together in the peace of a D major chord, the fluffy white middle that spreads through your mouth and soothes.
Besides an unspoken metaphor for society, it makes me wonder about food. In Utah, we prefer things in balance and harmony. Monophony suits us on the table and in our society where we set traffic laws to channel and maintain singular order. Even for potlucks, potentially chaotic polyphonous dinners, people here try to establish a logical coherence built around a plan, a monotonic singularity.
The favorite meal of people in Cusco, indeed their festive dish is an assemblage of different ingredients served like a mountain. Each is distinct and not unified. Together in their multiplicity, in the form of a mountain, though, they speak aesthetically of polyphony, of people coming together in, and making a synthesis through, being for each other, though different. They are kind of like the mycelium of fungi and the roots of pines intertwined and feeding each other.
It is even like a musical bow, taut with a string that flings arrows at elands and giraffes and sings each time the arrows release. Sometimes the San place its end against their mouth and strike it making song, a play of notes in sequence vibrating body and air and speaking back to the wind and rain.
The sounds of cooking--spoon stirring the bottom of a pot, or even afterwards, dishes and pots rinsed in running water, or those of chopsticks or silverware on a plate as food is separated and lifted--are primary and yet show us so much about life and its (dis)order. Sound is never completely alone, never completely gone, and never completely harmonious.