Food and music go together rather nicely. Or as Satchmo would say: “red beans and ricely.”
I bring this up because on Friday, October 3, I’ll be a tasting judge at the Cajun Throwdown at Centro (formerly Alpine Experience – 408 Olympia Ave NE) starting at 7 p.m. during the Olympia Fall Arts Walk.
Rodney O’Neal, barbecue and Southern cook extraordinaire and owner of Barb’s Soul Cuisine, will be challenged by the upstart, usurper Joe Hyer who claims that because he’s visited New Orleans a few times, he can cook like a cajun. We’ll see. (I guess I’ll be the judge of that.) It’s all for a good cause with proceeds from food sales benefiting the charitable organization, Barb O’Neill’s Family and Friends.
While this is mostly an assignment for my taste buds, I have been preparing my ear buds. After all, this is a blog about a show called “Gumbo YaYa.”
Food about music is fairly boundless. Jimmy Buffet’s Cheeseburger in Paradise and the Presidents of the United States’ Peaches, come to mind. But, as usual, I’ll stick to New Orleans music.
The tricky part is what might sound like food isn’t always the case. Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe didn’t take up the name Jelly Roll Morton because of a fondness for sponge cake. The moniker of the piano player who began his career performing in Storyville whorehouses has more do with a woman’s private parts than a pastry. Given that context, I’m leaving his 1923 song, Big Fat Ham, alone.
Similarly, the New Orleans jazz standard “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue” originally recorded by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five likely has nothing to do with ribs. According to Cab Calloway’s Jive Dictionary, “barbecue” was jive for a girlfriend or beauty. I imagine Lil Hardin, the piano playing composer of the song and Armstrong’s wife at the time, was thinking she was the “barbecue” that Pops was strutting with.
Dan Raye, who added lyrics to the music years later, took the song at face value. “And mister waiter if you please, Another rib or two. And I’ll go strut, strut, struttin’, Struttin’ with some barbecue.”
Zydeco King Clifton Chenier was more transparent when he recorded, Hot Tamale Baby. There’s absolutely no reason to believe his song is about a starchy food wrapped in a corn husk.
But a classic Cajun song , “Jambalaya.” is about food, right? Well, true, the singer has to say goodbye to Joe (me oh my oh) so he can go see his girl (ma cher amio). But he also waxes rather poetically about “Jambalaya, and a crawfish pie and file’ gumbo.”
While I doubt Hank Williams ever poled “a pirogue down the bayou,” he did manage to capture a slice of cajun life, albeit a caricature, in this often covered song.
I think Professor Longhair got it right when he sang “Got my red beans cookin” in the aptly named song “Red Beans.” Not much to the lyrics except him cooking red beans–which can take some time to do right. I have to say, though, I’m not sure how pure his intent was when he finished with “I’m gonna have all these women, jumping for joy.”
Not surprisingly, songs about gumbo are my favorite. Gris Gris Gumbo YaYa, the first cut off of Dr. John’s debut album, was partly the inspiration for the name of my radio show. This creole dish is a perfect example of the melange of cultures that come together to form New Orleans cuisine and music. In a pot of gumbo, you’ll find hints of West Africa, France, Spain, the Caribbean, Germany and Choctaw.
My favorite gumbo song is the quirky “Shrimp and Gumbo” by Dave Bartholomew. At the height of his reputation as a talent scout and R&B music producer, Bartholomew cranked out this little mambo ditty, heavy on percussion (thank you Earl Palmer) and a three saxophone melody reminiscent of the theme song of “I Dream of Jeannie.” Recorded in 1955, Shrimp and Gumbo predates the 60’s TV sitcom. The lyrics are rather limited playing off the fun of singing “mambo” and “gumbo” in tandem.
Well, I’ve given you a “taste” of what to expect on my Monday show (Sept. 29), 10 a.m. to noon (PST) on KAOS, 89.3 FM. But for a real taste, stop by Centro next Friday during Arts Walk for the Cajun Throwdown where you just might find jambalaya, a crawfish pie and file’ gumbo.