I just participated in a delightful round table at my alma mater NYU. The question came up about how food relates to various other areas of study which led to my promising to post the introduction I wrote to the Philharmonic Cookbook by June Lebell, who had been a host on WQXR, the classical radio music station for many years and also a former classmate at The High School of Music and Art, and still a dear friend.Here it is now:
I was born with music in my ears, in my heart, and in my soul. I am sure this is because my mother, who as a young girl studied with Nadia Reisenberg, played womb concerts (the ultimate chamber music) on the piano when she was pregnant with me. She was convinced that even though I had not yet been born, I would still hear something, if only vibrations, and would grow up familiar with and open to music--one of life's greatest joys. Her theory apparently worked, because as soon as I could walk I approached the piano and picked out tunes by ear.
If I had been offered the choice of any talent in the world (if I couldn't have been Mozart) it would have been to have a glorious voice and be an opera singer. But since I did not have even a passable singing voice, my instrument became the violin.
One summer, when I was at music camp near Tanglewood, studying with the second violinist of the Boston Symphony orchestra, my great uncle, who had engineered this arrangement, came to visit me and posed the dreaded question: "exactly what kind of talent do you possess; concert or drawing room?" The only possible answer was the disappointing truth: neither. As it turned out, despite the fact that I graduated from Carnegie Hall (the High School of Music and Art held all its graduations there) I was an extremely mediocre violin player who preferred listening to performing; but then, the music world does need some appreciative listeners. Our family had its share of them. Legend has it that my great aunt Beck was so moved by a concert at Lewisohn stadium she got up in the middle and started to dance, explaining afterwards that she couldn't help herself. My mother's theory was that since she had grown up in Russia she had the passionate Russian soul. We also had two bonafide performers: Aunt Beck's husband, appropriately named Fiddler and Uncle Tibor (Kozma), who conducted at the Met under Rudolph Bing and then went on to become head of the music department at the University of Indiana. It is thanks to him that my first "grownup" birthday party, when I was twelve, was at a Met production of the Fledermaus. The kids were all very bored (including me--the Fledermaus has never been one of my favorites), but their parents were quite impressed. And it was never really a surprise to run into one of the great aunts during intermission at the opera.
This generation had my cousin Andrew Schenck (pronounced Skenk), also a gifted conductor, and perhaps the next generation will have my little nephew Alexander who, when he first started to sing had that surprised look, bordering on awe, which clearly said: can these bell like sounds be coming from me?
Ravi Shankar once said that for him music is the bridge between the personal and the infinite. It is my feeling that all acts of creativity, approached with the same reverence of total devotion, offer that possibility. Somehow, though, music soars above all others. My soul has been transported by a bite of still warm from the oven Chocolate Domingo Cake, but no food has given me the total corporal and spiritual orgasm music is capable of inspiring.
My mother, whose profession was dentistry, held dear a theory that senses located in the region of the head are the most exquisite and also the ones most intimately connected. As a "food person," I see more and more how true this is. Taste, smell, vision, and hearing have a profound effect on each other's perception. As a very young child, I would not let my mother play the song Ramona because it reminded me of chocolate pudding (which I detested). I suppose I must have experienced it as equally thick and sodden with sentimentality.
The connection between food and music is found even in the words used to describe them. In the food industry, the most common word used to analyze flavor is note. Texture is another word food and music have in common. One of my favorite musical memories is of the time I met Isaac Stern at a party celebrating the birth of Jenifer Lang's book Tastings. I had provided the Chocolate Oblivion Cake that was featured in the book. When George Lang introduced me to Isaac Stern, he rose up, took my hand, and bowed deeply from the waist saying: "Your cake was like velvet." My response: "That is the very word I used to describe your playing the first time I heard you play the Tchaikovsky violin concerto when I was sixteen!" (If any breath had been left I would have added that it was at Tanglewood.)
When June LeBell and I were classmates at Music and Art, what seems like only a few years ago, it seemed inevitable that her future would be in music. My fate was far less certain. When we met again, it was when I came to WQXR to advertise my cooking school on the radio. I brought with me my then favorite cake: Grand Marnier et Chocolat. I must admit, I felt that I was entering into a musical temple with something, though quite delicious, perhaps not quite worthy. But June did not seem at all surprised or condescending regarding my transition from violin to cake. In fact, to my relief, it seemed that as far as she was concerned, I was still in the "arts." Several years later, when she started "The Kitchen Classics," featuring recipes accompanied by "appropriate" music, I became a frequent guest on the show, which gave us a chance to renew our friendship--often on the air. In fact, we had so much fun catching up and reminiscing, we often forgot that we were on the air! The best part was that we share a similar sense of humor, which is most likely to happen between people whose frame of reference is so similar. Often we felt like we would make a great vaudeville team. I would read my favorite buttermilk cake recipe, to which June would play a recording of what she referred to (with a gleam in her eye) as "Madama Buttermilk"! We laughed almost the whole show through and got lots of delightful "feedback" from the audience. When June told me about her plans for this book, it seemed like the perfect joyful extension of her show.
The book turned out to be so multi dimensional and entertaining, it's difficult to do full justice to its depth and breadth.
On a personal note, it's great fun for me to find old childhood friends, now famous musicians, between these covers: the guy who teased me at Music camp (Paul Dunkel), the high-school friend who accompanied me home after ice-skating in Central Park, walking his bike alongside (Stephen Kates), the tall dark and brilliant harpsichordist who dated my cousin and whose father was my English teacher (Kenneth Cooper).
The humor, intelligence, generosity, and charm June possesses make this book unique. She serves up each "personality" in the most personal of all possible ways: in his or her own voice. These delightful anecdotes, peppered throughout the book, have as their counterpoint favorite recipes contributed by each performer. We know their music but now we know another side of them, and they become friends.
And as the proverbial icing on the cake, this book is graced with the incomparable caricatures of our beloved Hirschfeld.
It is a great honor to participate in the 150th celebration of the Philharmonic by being a part of this special book. For me, it is a deeply sentimental and personal book and I think in its own way it will be for everyone who reads it and, most of all, for anyone who cooks from it.