Sunday, September 19, 2010


At the same time I was tending the rats in my father’s lab, I was also church organist in a Southern Baptist church. The organ I played on was one of the first brought on a steamboat up the Missouri from St. Louis. Pipe organs, whatever their size or pedigree, were designed to be earthly manifestations of God’s voice—stern most of the time, especially with the diapasons, which were metal pipes that provided a lot of sound for a little wind, and sometimes loving, such as with the Rohrflöte. Only after the Enlightenment, when the Church (Roman Catholic et al.) began to lose its stranglehold over the consciousness of European Christians, did pipe organ music begin a gradual shift toward a-religious themes. By the late 19th century, pipe organ concerts combined JS Bach’s grandiose poems mirroring St. Augustine’s City of God vs City of Man motif with a more hedonistic tone.

The late 19th and 20th centuries have seen the pipe organ as the “King of Instruments”, pushed past mere imitation of orchestral instruments to the shear joy of bouncing sound off hard surfaces. The most famous of these reflective pieces is of course JSB’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor that the phantom made famous in the sewers of Paris. Once, I played this piece on the pipe organ in Trinity Lutheran Church. On that Sunday, I pulled out all the stops--literally. The result was a ceiling tile relinquishing its celestial mooring and plummeting 30 feet, narrowly missing the bald pate of one of the faithful waiting to shake the pastor’s hand. Metaphysics lost its meta.
Although I didn’t appreciate it at the time, my many hours practicing the piano and organ provided a foundation for a visceral understanding of the parallels between music and food. Music has notes—low notes, high notes, even higher notes. In the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, Bach starts by making a statement on A (an appoggiatura), then descending several octaves to build a D-Minor chord, with every pipe blowing its best to create harmonious but sweet and sour yell, “God is Great!” Or maybe, it was just saying, “This organ is great! You got your money’s worth!” This particular piece of music was not composed to extol God, but to show off the new musical instrument. Bach was a pragmatist über Alles.

While food rarely makes such philosophical claims, it does display the awesome forces of nature, the sophistication of foods available for our amusement and nourishment. For example, take a food equivalent of the Toccata and Fugue. I think Boeuf à la Bourguignonne will do. Classic Bourgeois food: too costly for the peasants, too ordinary for the aristocracy. Yet redolent of flavor, a series of chords separated by runs. In the bass section, the tannins of red wines cause a puckery sensation in the walls of the mouth. Tannins are nature’s insecticides; they complex proteins; no harm to us but end-times for the bugs. Building on the tannins are the woodwinds: the awesome range of fermentation derivatives combined with a choir of metabolic derivatives present both in the peel and in the juice of the grapes.

As the stew simmers, actinomyosin proteins present in the filaments and fibrils of muscle fibers are hydrolyzed by the combination of kinetic energy, heat, and water. Hydrolysis is the cleavage of peptide bonds, the links that hold long chains of amino acids together. The result is a rich soup of amino acids and peptides (short chains of amino acids), creating an umami sensation, Japanese for “delicious”. Umami, the fifth taste, after the four identified by Aristotle in 325 BC, potentiates other flavors in a way reminiscent of the sostenuto pedal on the piano.

The similes and metaphors are there for the grabbing. Black pepper contributes piperine, an irritant that adds dimensionality--like the drone on a bagpipe or the fagotte, a stop known for its raspiness. Piperine and the fagotte are irritants that cut through all the holier-than-thou crap, reminding us of our humanity. In French cuisine, a sauce with lots of piperine or capsaicin (the irritant of chilies) is called Sauce Diable, and the food leaves the human realm and descends to Hades, known for its fiery dishes.

Is there a culinary form of the devil’s tritone? This is the interval between C and F# that was sung in Maria from West Side Story. Maria is arguably the most evil of songs as it extolls human passion and diverts attention from the infinite. The Roman Catholic Church banned the devil’s tritone from all music.

As a belated California resident and a teacher of nutrition students, I can state categorically and without fear of denial or reprisal that mayonnaise is the culinary equivalent of the devil’s tritone. Even though it tastes good and it’s no more caloric than chocolate, mayonnaise stimulates a revulsion among my female students (males don’t live in fear of gaining a pound or two). I have done the experiment many times: making truly excellent fresh mayonnaise in front of the students using with fresh egg, lemon juice, a dash of Tabasco, and good, clean-tasting, organic Canola oil and then passing a bowl around with spoons. More than half the class simply will not touch the stuff; it’s truly evil.

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