Bet you never knew black-eye peas were brought to the American South by Sephardic Jewish immigrants who settled in Georgia and were accustomed to serving the dish for Rosh Hashanah. (Yes, Wikipedia and I have been playing footsie under the dining table again.) I guess this makes them “soul food” in more ways than one.
These black-eye peas are about to become a side dish in a nice Southern fish fry, and in keeping with the soul food theme, we’re going to take a listen to some of the projects co-written or produced by Tennessee’s Sal Oliveri, whose background runs heavily toward Christian pop. Let’s start with his MySpace Music page.
Okay, let’s start with some sausage. Black-eye peas are traditionally prepared with ham hocks–or bacon, if you’re feeling wimpy–but I’m clearly not feeling wimpy if I’m pulling out habanero-and-green-chile sausage. I’m feeling like someone who was lassoed by the nice taste-testing ladies at the supermarket. Also, I’m in the mood to give a Southwestern twist to the meal, being both Southwestern and slightly twisted.
While one chopped sausage and a little chopped onion are taking their turn at browning, I’ll confess that overtly Christian music is outside my usual listening habits, my spirituality being more covert. However, I’m listening here for clues about Oliveri’s slant as a songwriter and producer. While I believe his discussion of how he provides the environment to realize the artist’s vision, even the most flexible and facilitative person comes with a specific skill set and an individual ear.
Peas, sausage, and onion are snuggled into a pot with a cup of water and half a cup of chicken broth. They’ll be busy for the next 45 minutes.
By now you’ve had a chance to get to “You Will Never Change,” which in the secular world would be an imprecation hurled between dishes but in the Christian music world is praise to an unfailingly loving God. (And now I’m thinking praise for one’s partner’s lasting qualities might not be a bad thing, as well as easier on the china.) It’s an excellent moment to toss preconceptions about syrupy “church” music, as this has a serrated metal edge with strong guitar and almost metronomic percussion.
Metal edges were also implicated by the scissors used to cut up mixed dried fruit. I’d been reading about Tennessee Stack Cake, which puts a filling made from dried apples between layers of spice cake, and I wanted to construct a more savory dinner version. Advance planning calls for simmering the fruit with mixed apple pie spices and the remains of a bottle of cheap chardonnay, aiming for a mushy-chunky texture.
Let’s skip ahead to “I Come Running,” which is pure pop with a strong sense of urgency conveyed by a surprisingly low-key beat. Particularly interesting is the two-part structure of the chorus, with the emphatic “I come running to you” followed by the gentler “there my soul finds rest” segment. Indeed, this song doesn’t seem to match the typical verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-BIG CHORUS pattern. It’s structurally much more complex, which is what contributes to its forward motion.
Nothing contributes to making raw baking ingredients anything other than yucky-looking. These are the makings of cornmeal pancakes: 1/2 cup flour, 1/2 cup cornmeal, 1/2 T baking powder, a pinch of salt, 1 cup milk, and an egg. They will be stacked with the fruit filling.
While mixing this, let’s move on to one of the artists Oliveri mentions, Karla Bolanos. She also specializes in overtly Christian music… and “Elements of Love,” the first cut on her MySpace player, is R&B. It’s downright slinky. (It also has a rhyme scheme so complex and elegant that it hearkens either to hip-hop or to Gilbert & Sullivan, but I don’t know whom to credit with that. I think credit goes to Bolanos, as this is consistent across her songs.)
The pancakes are just a bit larger than silver-dollar size, as big pancakes are “country,” but tiny pancakes are “chi-chi.”
“Mercy Saw” demonstrates that Bolanos can handle a big, anthemic song. The interesting aspect is that even with “big” orchestration, there’s a clarity and distinctness to the overall sound, so that Bolanos’ voice is not lost in the noise. Indeed, although I don’t have the ear to name individual instruments in the mix, I’m getting a sense with Oliveri’s productions that each instrument can be heard distinctly.
But wait–I promised to fry some fish, just for the halibut. These filets were dredged in flour and chopped pecans before being tossed in the pan. Why pecans? Pecans are Southern. (And if you think there aren’t peaches in the fruit mix, which is simmering merrily, think again.)
Fish fries fast, leaving time for just one more song. Let’s try Calvin Nowell‘s “Mercy’s On Its Way,” inspired by Mercy Ships, which floats medical help to underserved countries.
While more ballad-like, this one also has an R&B feel. And once again, I’m hearing distinctness of instrumentation, regular percussion, a complex build toward the finale, vocals that float above the accompaniment, and a bit of tinkling around with piano and some sort of stringed instrument both to set the mood at the beginning and build momentum near the end.
Perhaps the reason I enjoy the little piano ornaments (and guitar ornaments in the more pop-like songs) is that I seem to garnish everything (except wages). Those are kalamata olives in a quick lemon pan-sauce on the fish, as I didn’t feel like buying capers in order to watch them not get used; and I couldn’t resist adding some mixed salad greens to the black-eye peas, stirring them in just enough to wilt them.
Like the music I was listening to, the meal turned out to be a medley of distinct flavors that nonetheless work well together. The fishes turned out better than the loaves, though it’s the black-eye peas that I reheated for breakfast.