Music, Food, and Memory: My Chicken Cacciatore Freakout

Anyone who ever thought that pursuing an English degree was a good idea probably knows the opening setup for Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. If you don’t, it goes like this: Guy in middle age dips a madeleine into lime-flower tea like he did when he was a boy, tastes the soggy cookie, and a whole lost world of dude’s childhood creaks to life like a cardboard castle in a pop-up book.

Every food writer who talks about madeleines refers to the point of this episode, which is that taste has this weird power to reconstitute the past. It’s as if the past were some distillate you just needed to add some taste memory to, like adding water to frozen orange-juice concentrate. But what was missing from Proust’s experience was something other than taste, something else with the power to conjure memory, something we take for granted thanks to earbuds and restaurant playlists that soundtrack more and more of our meals these days. I’m talking, of course, about music.

A lot of people now are trying to make music a more thoughtful part of a meal than putting an iPod playlist of Adele, Nina Simone, and the Smiths on shuffle. Alinea started out soundtrack-free, but that hasn’t stopped Grant Achatz from pondering music—a single note from a cello, say—as just another sense button to click, along with taste and smell. Turntable Kitchen is a website by a San Francisco couple focused on pairing recipes with the right song, something evoking the same mood as the dish (Seamonster’s psychedelic-pop “Normandy Landscape,” for instance, cued up with a recipe for watermelon salad with ricotta salata and sumac that looks pretty good).

Now, whether months or years from now anyone happening on Seamonster will experience a severe Proustian flashback to watermelon salad, and their feelings at the time, remains to be seen. Experience tells us that consciously engineered food and music pairings can’t have the power of random ones, the things your memory has stored up without you even knowing.

This is all a prelude to explain how in high school I got stoned for the first time with Eric Morales, a weird kid who listened to opera and wore chunky black glasses decades before it was cool. And by stoned, I mean really fucking baked. Eric’s mom’s boyfriend had hooked us up with some incredibly strong weed, and after we smoked a sticky chunk in Eric’s room, he put on Verdi’s Rigoletto and leaned back to air-conduct the singers, eyes glazed, totally gone.

Good God: The Rigoletto-Sparafucile duet in Act 1, ending with that cortex-liquifying sustained low-F—opera’s equivalent of the Black Metal scream—actually became the sensation of my feet melting like candle wax into the shag rug. The thing is, Eric’s mom happened to be making chicken cacciatore in the kitchen next door, and the slowed-down satanic gargle extruding from his Radio Shack speakers melded with the aroma of tomato paste and yeasty bouillon cubes, so thick in the clammy air I swore I could taste them.

The reason this came up at all was that just the other day I smelled something randomly on the street, coming from a kitchen apartment on my way home from the office: a sticky, slightly tomato-spicy smell like chicken cacciatore. When I got home, I found a clip of that Sparafucile duet on YouTube and as I listened, the whole thing came rumbling back into existence—the memory of pot-induced panic needling my spine, the clammy feel of simmering food in the air. It was as if my feet felt all spongy again. Amazing.

Now if only Turntable Kitchen or Grant Achatz could do that.

Photo illustration of Marcel Proust by Dennis Cress

John Birdsall is senior editor at CHOW. You can follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW, too, and become a fan on Facebook.