Anonymous: Edo Lullaby

In 1976, my friend, Thom Klem, turned me onto the Nonesuch record label Explorer series (read how this happened in the story below the video).  Nonesuch specialized in gathering music from all over the globe. They basically invented the World Music genre.  One Nonesuch albums that I almost wore out was “Japan: Traditional vocal and Instrumental Music.” The songs on this album all reminded me of the Japanese samurai films I had watched a couple of years before, when PBS ran about 12 of the classic ones. Scored for five instruments-koto, biwa (a kind of upright guitar), shakuhachi, shamisen (a three string banjo-like instrument) and bells-and voice, these pieces were austere, but hauntingly beautiful and full of passion.

My favorite piece from this album is called, Edo Lullaby. It dates from the time when Tokyo was called Edo (before the 1800s). The piece starts with a mournful flute which instantly evokes for me a scene of a little bamboo pavilion by a lake at sunset. A crane walks at the water’s edge spearing fish in the reddening light. A gust of wind rustles the grove of live bamboo nearby and causes the wind chimes to tinkle. This piece captures so perfectly the quiet and contemplative feeling that nature has always evoked in me.

Download the track from Amazon: Edo Lullaby (shakuhachi, shamisen, biwa, 2 kotos, bells)

Here’s the link to the Nonesuch Reissue

Discovering the World through Food and Music

The Fall of 1976 marked my effort to live out my fantasy big time of the tortured intellectual. I had moved into a broom closet in the basement of a large apartment complex where in exchange for getting the room for free my job was to act as janitor. The superintendent of the place was a middle-aged divorce, who would shuffle out of her apartment after a hard day of drinking herself to death on the sofa watching daytime TV and yell at me for stopping the clothes dryers at night. The dryers sat right next to my sliver of a room, and paying residents would put their gym shoes in at night to dry. I often woke, heart pounding at 2:00 a.m. with the thought that the Seventh Cavalry was bearing down on me. On these little cordial visits, the super would gussy herself up by donning in a threadbare old dressing gown and furry slippers and sexily inserting a half-burned cigarette between her cracked lips. Ah, that was the life. How I kept from turning into a 20th century Raskolnikov, beats me.

Fortunately, I had lots of friends from the French House, and being recently turned 21, I would escape with them to the nearest bar or invite myself over for food and conversation. Not that I was a sponge! My friend Thom Klem lived a few blocks down the street in a quaint little bungalow that had passed from one former French House tenant to another. He shared the house with John McCord, recently returned from France and who had a passion for cooking. I would visit on Saturdays with a bottle of wine and we would sit around reading cookbooks, and they would try to recreate dishes they had eaten while living in France.

As with most crafts, in order to do a really good job you need the right tools. And Thom and John coming from fairly well off families spared little expense in acquiring whatever culinary implement a particular dish required. Luckily for them, a “fancy-assed” gourmet store had opened up in downtown Bloomington, and it was fun to be there whenever one of them brought back some new gadget. They were quite scientific about testing out and verifying which was the best garlic press, say, buying a number and comparing which one applied the most pressure, minced the cloves most thoroughly, and was the easiest to clean. Another time, John came running back with a bag of little pastry utensils-moulds, icing bags, rolling pins, parchment–which he would pull out one at a time, announce its name, and describe its proper usage. At the end he reached in and said: “And I couldn’t resist this! A butter curler!” Used, of course, for peeling off and curling thin slices of butter for garnishing.

My father always had a killer garden and usually put in about one hundred tomato plants. Mom usually canned these, but as the kids grew up and moved away–I was the youngest-there was less need for them. My father hadn’t quite adjusted yet by the time I was in college and one day, my parent visited bearing a bushel basket of tomatoes, and about a half bushel each of green peppers, eggplants, onions and zucchini. Oh and of course garlic, never lacking in a Hungarian’s house.

There was no way I could eat all of these before they would spoil, so I took them down to Thom and John’s house. They took one look at the produce and exclaimed “We’ll make ratatouille!” I had never heard of the dish, which they told me was a wonderful Mediterranean stew made precisely those vegetables. We started by slicing the eggplant and then putting the slices into salt water to draw out the moisture. While these soaked, we boiled a huge pot of water and stuck each tomato with a fork and immersed it in the water for about 30 seconds. That made it very easy to peel each one. The steam rose up and soon the windows were fogged up and the house had that wonderful smell that hits your nose when you bit into a juicy ripe tomato. To avoid bitterness, it is best to remove the seeds from the tomatoes and you do this by slicing them transversally, and then squeezing the seeds out. I protested that we were losing too much of the juice that way, but they assured me that the flesh would be juicy enough. They had fine, razor-sharp Sabatier kitchen knives and pointed out the ebony handles and how perfectly weighted they were.

That Fall, Thom had started indulging his love of what is now called World Music. He would search the “International” bins of record stores and often come home with some new treasure. For a while he was fascinated with Chinese opera, which he had first heard when he had studied in Taiwan. Another time, he bought an album of popular Egyptian orchestral music, which featured the Oud, a stringed, balalaika-type instrument, hammered dulcimers, and violins. We also bought a number of the albums in the Nonesuch explorer series. The classic of this was called the Nonesuch Explorer, which had one or two pieces from the major musical styles this company featured. On this album, which has had a big influence on film makers and musicians over the year (I’ve heard pieces quoted in Fellini Films and Joni Mitchell albums), there were a number of pieces of traditional Japanese music for shakuhachi (the bamboo flute) and Koto (a long zither). When I heard this type of music, I rushed out and bought the two albums that from which these pieces had been culled.

We probably listened to these pieces the day we made the ratatouille, though I am sure we also put on some popular French songs to celebrate the dish we were serving as well. The next step was to dry the slices of eggplant and fry them in olive oil. Leaching the water from them removes the bitterness and also stops them from soaking up gallons of oil, which they would do if you fried them untreated. We next fried the zucchini, which we had also sliced into disks about a half inch thick. Finally, we cored the green peppers and sliced them into circles along with the onions. We were ready to assemble the ingredients for cooking.

In a huge deep cooking pot, we started with a layer of tomatoes, a layer of zucchini, a layer of eggplant, onions, green peppers and a smashed clove or two of garlic. On top of these we put a number of herbes de Provence-basil, thyme, oregano, parsley, and rosemary. My mother had started cooking with herbs over the previous couple of years and I believe most of these came from our garden. It was then time to put down and season another round of layers. By the time we were done the vegetables were right up at the top and the low heat beneath the pot had already started to coax the natural juices out. We topped it up with water, covered it, and then let it stew for about two hours while we got drunk.

How can you describe the taste of a new dish which is a perfect harmony of such strong flavors as tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, parsley, rosemary, and thyme. One bite of ratatouille and I knew that I had to visit the Mediterranean when I went to France the following semester. You could just tastes the sun in this dish and smell the salt breeze of the ocean and smell the lavender and rosemary bushes baking under the cobalt-blue sky.

This song and that dish affect me that way still, some 36 years later.


About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

One Response to Anonymous: Edo Lullaby

  1. Ratatouille will never be the same again! It’s always seemed such an ordinary dish before. I read your post while playing your YouTube link to that extraordinary Edo piece, so now the two will forever be strangely coupled for me!


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