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November 16, 2015

Book Notes - Matthew Gavin Frank "The Mad Feast"

The Mad Feast

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Matthew Gavin Frank once again proves himself one of our finest nonfiction writers with his new collection The Mad Feast, which examines the cultural and historical significance of a signature dish from each U.S. state, each complete with recipe.

Entertainment Weekly wrote of the book:

"Never has a country-spanning food romp felt this subversive. Frank's essays―which dissect signature dishes from all 50 states―are nothing short of brilliant…. [A]n exploration of humanity, life, and tastes, the book is delicious."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Matthew Gavin Frank's Book Notes music playlist for his book The Mad Feast:

"Eat That Chicken" by Charles Mingus
As the book meanders along the back-roads of the American South, the readerly windshield spattered with salmonfly viscera and shards of cicada wing, the region, and its checkered history becomes indistinct, gut-blurry. We can hardly see the road ahead of us through all of that yellow carnage, and time seems to compress, one era overlapping with so many others. Everything, here at once. Through this dirty window, Key Lime Pie confuses itself for Perloo, for Hummingbird Cake, Beaver Tail Stew, for Mud Pie, Peach Pie, Crawfish Étouffée. Somehow, Mingus' tune—both celebration and indictment—is the one that binds these seemingly disparate ingredients together, keeps us from driving off the road into bayou and bog.

"Ripened Peach" by Ethyl Meatplow
Here, in winter, out the window, the roan cows in the dead lucerne fields huddle against each other for warmth, holding their milk. Off shore, the gull with the short attention span dive-bombs the littleneck clam, considers the cherrystone. The temperature falls one degree. There's little sustenance in consideration, it finds. Its beak touches down on ice. Our breath defrosts the windshield. Through the little wet peephole, the entire region appears to be containing its fertility, which swells inside of it, beneath it, lusty for the thaw and its own hatching, leakage. Fish-tailing along the road, this repression is a little creepy, even as it titillates. We hope, once again, that innate sexuality isn't punishable by noose or by pyre, ponder the difference between ripened and ripe. If something has been ripened, we think, that means something else acts on it, does the ripening—with hands, with teeth, with water, with blades. We play in our heads every deliciously sexy/creepy song we can muster as an incantation against all violent backlash that ever followed the uncrossing of the legs of New England.

"Something on Your Mind" by Karen Dalton
We drive over pipes, networks, systems. Rumor has it that there's a subterranean aqueduct that stretches all the way from Manhattan's MacDougal Street to Enid, Oklahoma. New York City's water supply alone, in its long and storied history, has been contaminated by rodents, sewage, industrial waste, petroleum, Diet Mountain Dew bottles, Cheeto bags, Cheerio boxes, Genesee beer cans, rat shit, cat shit, dog shit, our shit, rotting fish, steaks, pork chops, cellophane, guns, fertilizer, pesticides, glue, human bodies, and, according to reports, an "underground oil leak bigger than the Exxon Valdez spill," all coupling into a sludge that environmental scientists have dubbed "black mayonnaise." We depend on this water to boil our bagels and hot dogs and blue crabs, to moisten our cake and chase the saltiness of our cheesesteaks. In Greenwich Village, the club where Karen Dalton used to sing is now NYC INK, a tattoo parlor with a wad of frozen phlegm on the front window. Miraculously, we navigate the traffic. Still, in order to make it to Delaware, our hearts need some kind of calming.

"Put That Skillet Away" by Andre Williams
Carl Sandburg should have warned us: the word Illinois bears the migratory weight of rivers Mississippi, Illinois, Des Plaines, and Chicago, Lake Michigan and the railroads, blues and jazz, John Deere's steel plow and dirty inland creeks carrying green foam, poisonous trout, and cans of Old Milwaukee. Overwhelmed, we are compelled to stomp the gas pedal hard, sigh and soar through stockyards to cornfields. We speed through this place of domesticated wildness, in the middle of the fields, the tassels way above the roofs of our cars, our bearings lost, the crows of Champaign and Chicago, Minneapolis and St. Paul, Detroit, Marquette, Cincinnati and Troy, still alive and feasting together on the kernels. We eat two slices of cold sausage and pepperoni deep-dish while we drive, turn up the volume on the radio and shimmy our shoulders a little against all of this flatness, decay. We think of all the potential lovers we tried to woo in slaughterhouses and Lutheran Church basements, pizza joints, quarry bottoms, chili parlors and auto plants. Hey, hey, we sing along, though we know there are some things we can never shake off—a family, a childhood, a first kiss—no matter how vigorously our shoulder-shimmies; no matter the distance we put between ourselves and old homes, and the terrible things we once did there.

"Dinner For Two" by Deerhoof
So many split apples, the fat tongues of geoduck clams, yellowed land contracts and destiny made manifest speckle this cockeyed Eden of a region, span oceans even, like messages suffocating in a bottle. When we uncork them, they smell briny and the smells get into our hair and clothes as if smoke, and the voices pour from inside, plaintive, entreating, but illegible. We are filled with such longing that we chase these voices to the appendages of our country, to its electrons and crumbs. On the way, we see long-dead runners perfectly preserved in glacial ice, and we see fires that will never be put out. We stain our mouths with ice flavored with cherry syrup and condensed milk, and eat halibut sandwiches; the fish between the bread was once so big the fisherman had to empty his shotgun into it, then reload, then empty it again in order to stop the flapping. Here, we close our eyes and affect a gentling of history, of falling in love over the flickering of a candle on the white linen draped over a street corner table. Fumbling with our forks, we make inadequate stabs at apology, reconciliation. The wind is too weak to snuff the candle, but still, it blows. The distance between us is oceanic, though we never stop puckering our lips, and reaching. The dragonflies are coupling, or warring beneath the orange gas lamps. The ocean, puppet of the cosmos, roars against its will. Affectation, everywhere.

"Oh, Deadly Nightshade!" by New Bloods
We drive through regions known as the Cimarron Strip and No Man's Land, as the radio, at first, drones on about oil dropping to ten bucks a barrel, skyrocketing unemployment, and all manners of starvation. We ate breakfast at a place called The Rodeo, their 4x4x4x4 Special—4 eggs, 4 pancakes, 4 strips of bacon, and 4 slices of barbecued bologna, served, of course, with hash browns and choice of toast (we chose the house-made raisin frybread in spite of the 25-cent upcharge). We spread on our thick layers of chokecherry jam, knowing full well that the early white colonists here incorrectly believed the fruit to be deadly. In 1634, William Wood wrote of chokecherries, "They so furre the mouth that the tongue will cleave to the roof." We imagine pelts in our mouths, so much history clogging our throats, blocking language. Our hearts are heavy with old dust storms, blizzards, tornados. We change the station. That's better. We drive beneath the blood moon and try to stop thinking, and scratch at our scalps. We're getting hungry again. We haven't washed our hair for days.

"Crema Dulce," by Juan Cirerol
We lean forward toward the windshield, then back. Our theory has been confirmed. That smear used to be a mantis. The roads here are so open and straight, and the speeds so high, we sometimes risk the closing of our eyes and the lifting of our hands from the steering wheel. Somehow, we think this openness is to be trusted. We imagine ourselves atop a really fast horse and, as if in meditation, as if staving off an awful crash, we silently recite the names of saddle parts— pommel, swell, gullet, skirt, hobble strap, seat jockey, cantle, front rigging dee. We open our eyes. We call this landscape big, so we don't have to call it barren. We think nothing of our mothers, all of the beautiful food she fed to us when we were young. We remember it all out here as some mixture of sad, sweet cream. Overhead, something that sounds like a plane writes letters in the sky. Overhead, the sky is so big we can't make out the words. This confusion will carry us through another day.

"Si Me Vez," by Davila 666
The chili ristras at the porch posts sway, keep time. The saguaro cacti at the roadside are wilting and housing woodpeckers. Their fruit has rotted and their arms are braised to punish or praise— hands on their hips, hands in the air. Amid them, we remember our first jobs. We remember washing dishes in a fast food chicken shack at age eleven for a megalomaniacal and dyspeptic boss who actually spanked us with wooden spoons if the dishes weren't clean enough. Because we were the youngest members of the crew, we were shunned, invisible, ghosts who scrubbed burnt-on bird fat from silver trays. As the other boys in the kitchen chased each other with knives, predicting the accident that would, by the end of that summer, see the orange linoleum covered in the fry-cook's blood, we stared, sweating, into the gray sinkwater and listened to the music blasting from the turquoise transistor. More than likely, the song was Whitesnake's "Here I Go Again," which seemed ubiquitous that summer, but, oh, if only it had been this song (If you see me, if you see me…) things, we think, could have been so different.

"Everyday People," by Shilpa Ray (with Steven Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra)
Bone-white in the waxing gibbous moon: Collapsed coal mines, shuttered asylums, rats overtaking the peanut fields, locusts in the tobacco. A pyramid of pigs' heads. A skinny monument to a dead racehorse. Shadows, all. Not a human soul in sight. That's it. Enough. We're turning around. Going back a different way than we came.

Matthew Gavin Frank and The Mad Feast links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Booktrib review
Entertainment Weekly review
Kirkus review

Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Pot Farm
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Preparing the Ghost
Omnivoracious interview with the author
River to River interview with the author
Saveur profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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weekly music release lists
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