by Suresh Subrahmanyan
Trust William Shakespeare to hit the nail on the head. In his celebrated comedy Twelfth Night, Duke Orsino describes music as the ‘food of love’, clearly suggesting music can fan the embers of love into a roaring fire. While the Bard of Avon was talking of love in its purest sense, over the years, modern popular music has pushed the envelope to allow music to encompass sex and brazen lust. Food has been freely employed in suggestive double entendre lyrics, as musicians overtly or covertly use puerile puns that are barely subtle. Try this one for size, a 1969 mega bubble gum hit for The Archies.
Ah, honey, honey
You are my candy girl
And you got me wanting you.
Chances are that anything and everything that can be written or said on the subject of food, eating habits and matters culinary, has been so written or said. The subject probably comes a very close second, and even that is a moot point, to the all time favourite topic of love and romance. I strongly suspect these two subjects will outstrip categories like murder mysteries and science fiction, by some distance. No magazine, newspaper or television channel worth its salt, will be seen without a segment on cooking tips or some celebrity fashion foodie holding forth on what constitutes healthy food, while keeping our insatiable taste buds perennially aroused. It would not be an exaggeration to say that appetizing food and sex appeal have been perfectly paired, lyrically. Whether the end result appeals to the heart and mind, or to the stomach or even baser instincts, differs from song to song.
That said, it was a challenge to divine what would be an appropriate tack to take that could be considered fresh and diverting when it comes to the area of food. Headings such as ‘Delicacies from my grandmother’s kitchen’, ‘Eating habits of the Eskimos’, and ‘Aphrodisiacal properties of tiger claw soup’, have been done to death. So I had to don my thinking cap in order to present food in an original light. The ‘Eureka’ moment was not long in coming.
As an ardent music lover, spanning different genres, it occurred to me that the culinary motif has been stressed often enough in poetry and song, and I therefore decided to excavate precious pieces of music from my memory bank that celebrates the subject of food through the medium of song. I have not attempted to list these in any chronological order. I am putting them down as they come to me, at a gut-feel level. That way, there is a chance of greater spontaneity while achieving, hopefully, a visceral quality. It is entirely possible, depending on the lyrics, that western pop songs would be rubbing shoulders with Tamil and Hindi film songs, or even from the rarefied sphere of Carnatic music. It is not an absolute given, but I am just hedging my bets – a warning shot across the bows, as it were. Caution: not all references to food or related items are necessarily gastronomical in song. You’ll have to allow for some elbow room and not take things too literally. Ergo:
The one thing Don McLean’s 1971 hit American Pie is not about, is pie, American or otherwise. The eight-minute-long ‘Song of the Century’, a rock and roll fantasy, was a classic that fans chose to interpret in their own way, but no one knew for sure. McLean himself, when quizzed, said mysteriously, ‘It means I never have to work again’. Perhaps he was referring to the millions he made out of this one song. The song made cryptic references to the generational changes of the 60s and 70s, and we grew with the opaque lyrics, even if we did not fully comprehend. The tune was catchy, though.
The Rolling Stones, as everyone knows, were the original bad boys of rock and roll, in stark contrast to the well brushed, clean image of their equally famous counterparts, The Beatles. The Stones’ notoriety was well earned, but they went toe to toe with The Beatles in producing one hit record after another. Brown Sugar, which opens their brilliant 1971 album Sticky Fingers, is one such classic example. A combination of sex, drugs and deviancy that had fans stomping and bringing the house down. Here’s a sample.
Gold Coast slave ship bound for cotton fields
Sold in the market down in New Orleans
Scarred old slaver knows he’s doin’ all right
Hear him whip the women just around midnight
Brown Sugar, how come you taste so good
Brown Sugar, just like a young girl should
One of The Beatles’ lesser known songs from their White Album, this jaunty number contains the most delicious lyrics, quite mouth watering in more ways than one.
You know that what you eat you are
But what is sweet now, turns so sour
Creme tangerine and montelimar
A ginger sling with a pineapple heart
A coffee dessert, yes you know it’s good news
But you’ll have to have them all pulled out
After the Savoy truffle
Banana Boat Song
I was introduced to the West Indian genre of Calypso and folk through this memorable song by Jamaican star Harry Belafonte. Sung in that unique Jamaican accent which, over the years, we have grown accustomed to through the gravelly voices of Michael Holding and Ian Bishop during cricket broadcasts. The lilting lyrics and chorus lines will stay with me forever:
Come, Mister tally man, tally me banana
Daylight come and me wan’ go home
Lift six foot, seven foot, eight foot bunch
Daylight come and me wan’ go home
Jambalaya, a tasty dish of rice, meat and vegetables of Spanish and French provenance identified with the state of Louisiana has become, over the decades, the song title of a hugely popular hit for many artists. The legendary Hank Williams wrote this song in 1952, and it has been covered by countless artists over the years, including our very own Usha Uthup. And who can forget this perennially catchy verse from the song?
Jambalaya, and a crawfish pie and a file’ gumbo
‘Cause tonight I’m gonna see my ma chère amie-o
Pick guitar, fill fruit jar and be gay-oh
Son of a gun, we’ll have big fun on the bayou
In this cautionary tale of blossoming love, the song Lemon Tree spoke to many young hearts in the 50s, 60s and beyond. Trini Lopez did a great cover of this song, but my favourite version is by the legendary trio, Peter, Paul and Mary. Here are the seminal lines from that song.
She’d left me for another, it’s a common tale but true
A sadder man but wiser now I sing these words to you
Lemon tree very pretty and the lemon flower is sweet
But the fruit of the poor lemon is impossible to eat.
Food Glorious Food
The opening song from the 1960s West End and Broadway musical (and 1968 film) Oliver! it is sung when the workhouse boys are dreaming and fantasizing about food while going to collect their gruel from the staff of the workhouse. Of course, the entire sequence is quintessentially Dickensian, and the picturisation and music, evocative and very hummable.
Kalyana Samayal Saadham
Famed character actor S.V. Ranga Rao as the likeable rakshasa Ghatothkachan, does a star turn in the highly entertaining 1957 production of multi-lingual film, Maya Bazar, based loosely on a segment of the Mahabharata. The song is set at a feast where a ravenous Ghatothkachan drools over the delicacies of a typical wedding feast, while breaking into boisterous song.
Vegu Poruthamaai Saambaaru
Poori kizhangu paaru,
idhuve enakku joru
(with plenty of raucous ‘hahahahaha’ thrown in).
Sri Rama Padama
Sri Rama Padama is one of the popular and frequently rendered compositions of Tyagaraja in the raga Amritavahini. In keeping with a strange oddity among many of us Tamilians who struggle following the lyrics in Telugu, but still bashed on regardless, we would substitute the actual lyrics with our own words. Thus, Sri Rama Padama, ni kripa chalune became Sri Rama Padama, sakkarai pongal venduma! If we got stuck on lyrics, food always came to the rescue. Sacre bleu!
Khaike paan Benaraswalla
Finally, how can we leave out the Hindi film genre? And who can forget Amitabh Bachchan in Don, with Kishore Kumar providing the playback, literally singing the praises of Benarsi paan with all its heady ingredients. Does paan strictly qualify as food? Well, you chew it and swallow it, don’t you? Even if you spit some of it out. Well then?
One can carry on endlessly in this vein, but the point has been adequately made. Music and food have always gone hand in hand, or rather, hand to mouth. We will leave the final word on food to Franz Kafka who has (what else?) an existential take on the subject. ‘So long as you have food in your mouth, you have solved all questions for the time being’.
Note: Every one of these songs can be accessed on YouTube.