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Cooking with Dave Brubeck

Dave Brubeck

Photo by Heinrich Klaffs [CC BY-SA 1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

I grew up in a one and a half story detached home in Scarborough. I expect this will become mythic for some of us—home prices being what they are. But once upon a time, many of the people I knew all grew up in a house, and each house had their own unique traditions (that part I hope never changes for families, now or ever). Food and music are often big indicators of the tone where someone grows up, and in our house, the accompaniment to cooking was always Dave Brubeck.

Brubeck is not an obscure artist by any stretch—a number of his songs are known to many, even if they couldn’t put a name to Brubeck himself. As a teenager, I was happy beyond words to note the inclusion of “Take Five” in the movie soundtrack of Pleasantville. Never mind that it’s been used in 50 or so commercials. Jazz aficionados need no introduction to him, and most people have heard his music in a film, on TV, or maybe just standing in line at Starbucks. But to me he belongs in the kitchen, and all the rooms within earshot, like the aroma of a dinner to be served drifting from room to room.

My father, long having held a schedule that permitted him more time at home in the early evening, was chef. I think this suited Mum just fine. She can cook too—much better than she gives herself credit for—but doesn’t revel in it. I’m told Dad learned to cook as a young man living with other young men; someone had to do it. I’m not sure if he did it because he wanted to, had to, was asked to, or simply drew the short straw, but it doesn’t matter. By the time he was cooking for us, he’d warmed to it considerably, and along with any other ingredients, whatever they were that week, there was always the Dave Brubeck Quartet.

Despite what my friends will tell you, I’m not old, so none of my memories can be that old either. Nonetheless when I think of my father cooking, the memories stretch back and outwards, they have a way of becoming just one memory; nothing stands apart from anything else and I can walk from living room to dining room and back again a dozen times and cross many years in the steps between. There is a lasagna baking in the oven while Dad crushes so much fresh garlic for a caesar salad, the dressing takes on a spicy edge, and “Unsquare Dance” plays while I sit on our 70s-era sofa. But then I look again and he is over the stovetop poking a few bratwurst around a frying pan while “The Golden Horn” broods and then suddenly cascades. Paul Desmond’s alto sax pierces the air, potatoes get mashed and there is steam enough that you can’t see out any of the windows. “Strange Meadowlark”, a haunting beauty, decorates the image of our old living room turned dining room, for a Christmas dinner with two new kittens, Fred & Ginger. A Sunday roast complete with Yorkshire puddings (along with the whispered prayers for their successful rise) set to “Thank You” and the creak of our old, dark wood dining chairs. Midnight at New Year’s banging pots and pans then switching back on “In Your Own Sweet Way” to wind down. Irreplaceable warmth.

Minutes pass into years, and without him now, I still play much of the same music he did, because I can’t imagine anything more comforting. Other memories of my father can easily draw me into a melancholy, but not this—the vibrance of this music, its zest and colour are inescapable and fill me with happiness.

I’ve come to understand my father wasn’t happy in all aspects of his life—­mostly the environment at his job was constricted by politics related to working for the city and in a union. He was an uncomplicated person who didn’t care for posturing. At home, and in the kitchen, though, he was at ease and surrounded by family and friends.

I will never meet Dave Brubeck, but I owe him the soundtrack to so much of what I treasured about growing up in the love and character of a good home. If you have some cooking to do, put on J​azz Impressions of Eurasia, Jazz Goes to College, o​r ​Time Out​. And hey, it’s December—he made a great Christmas album, too. Consider throwing it on while you wrap gifts, bake, decorate your tree, or, as tradition would dictate, labour (lovingly) over a hot stove.

About the Author

Andrew Niblo is a technician at the CBC. He is not a very good cook, but knows how to make up for it with wine.

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