Few people would turn to a cookbook for song lyrics, but then, few people are Leonard Bernstein. In his 1947 song cycle La Bonne Cuisine, the American composer sets morsels of text from a popular French cookbook to chaotic, almost slapstick music. It’s a show-offy joke, a gourmand’s version of singing the phone book.
But when you set anything to music, it comes to life.
In the cycle’s first song, “Plum Pudding,” the singer rattles off ingredients and measurements at breakneck pace: “Now first you take eleven pounds of juicy Concord grapes combined with equal parts of extra fine Tokays.” As in Gilbert and Sullivan’s famous “Major-General’s Song,” the rapid-fire notes evoke a wealth of information without letting the listener catch any details. Skim the whole page first; come back later for the finer points.
But then the singer seems to notice an aside (“Be sure they are juicy!”), and the notes get higher, longer, and louder. It’s as if editorial comments like this, whether scrawled in the margin or hidden in parentheses, are the real core of the recipe. “Be sure they are juicy!” means someone tried this with inadequately juicy grapes and came away disappointed. The next lyrical interruption (“use Spry or use Crisco”) offers further advice from experience, further proof that a real human has made this pudding before.
The second song, “Oxtails,” bookends its culinary instructions with a snobbish taunt: “Are you too proud to serve your friends an oxtail stew? You’re wrong!” The recipe tries to charm the reader out of their sheepishness, assuring them that the dish will turn out “delicious and different and so tempting.” But despite the sophisticated chromatic melody, the instructions themselves are hopelessly vague: “Remove the tails … and prepare them with a sauce.” When the taunt melody returns, its harmonic simplicity is even more striking. Aspiring to haute cuisine without the right background, it seems, is like showing up to composition class with a folk tune.
The third song is a recipe for the Turkish chicken dish tavouk geuenksis. Bernstein pairs its exoticizing admiration (“Tavouk gueunksis, so Oriental!”) with the grace notes, unusual intervals, and driving rhythms that have represented “Turkishness” in music since Mozart. The text suggests slicing “in the Arab manner,” assuming insider knowledge not of real foreign cooking techniques but of whatever the French call “the Arab manner.” Who knows if this dish is any more Turkish than this music?
Bernstein’s fourth and final song, “Rabbit at Top Speed,” depicts a frenzied chef whose hungry guests are arriving any moment. Unlike in “Plum Pudding,” here the editorial comments (like “as fine as possible”) are tossed aside in a quick monotone. There’s no time for details when you’ve got a stew to finish! Time does stop, however, when it’s time to add the wine: the slowest notes in the song accompany the words “rich claret.” Then, with the downward flourish of a satisfied (or relieved?) chef, the food is served.
La Bonne Cuisine isn’t a piece about recipes as much as the people who use them. Recipes are written and passed on through trial and error, kitchen tragedies and supermarket discoveries. They are gateways to elite society, except when they are barriers instead. Unwritten social knowledge, bound to a particular place and time, lies behind their precise measurements and exhaustive ingredient lists. And their most frequent users are frantic home cooks who don’t give a damn how many onions they add but do have time for a swig or two of wine.
Recipes are more than archives of information. They are written fragments of one of our most intimate cultural practices: cooking with and for others. They are, like all good lyrics, pure poetry.
Josh Parks graduated from Calvin in 2018 with majors in English and music, and he has since earned master’s degrees from Western Michigan University and Princeton Theological Seminary. This fall, he’s starting a PhD in religious studies at the University of Virginia (so his plans to be in school forever are working well). When not writing, he can be found learning the alto recorder, watching obscure Disney movies, and making excruciating puns.