*This is the first edition of our brand new column “Tasting Notes: Modern Soul Food and Vintage Soul Music Pairings,” by composer, producer, and educator Charles Burchell and chef, writer, and music lover Marwin Brown. We’ll teach you to cook succulent soul food recipes, play classic soul music chord progressions, and break down why they go together. Brought to you by Food Fidelity.
By Charles Burchell & Marwin Brown
Music and food certainly have a lot in common. A good meal and a good song are both physically and emotionally nourishing, to the body and the mind. The craft that goes into creating, constructing, and assembling a delicious meal requires an attention to detail that parallels how a great musical artist or composer combines notes, rhythms, and timbres to create a beautiful song.
Chef Marwin Brown created his Food Fidelity blog as a platform for sharing his best recipes, as well as monthly playlists of songs that inspire them. You and I might not be thinking about the connections between music and food that often, but Brown always is.
So in this fun new series of articles,“Tasting Notes: Modern Soul Food and Vintage Soul Music Pairings,” we’ll be exploring Brown’s recipes, some classic soul music, and talking about how their flavors align with each other. For today’s meal, we’re exploring Fried Catfish with Jollof Spice.
Anyone from the South will understand the reverence that fried catfish holds amongst soul food and seafood lovers alike. As a kid growing up in New Orleans, Fridays were, inarguably, for fish frying. Years later while living in Boston, I actually started a fish fry festival to connect artists of various disciplines and to celebrate my longstanding love of fried catfish.
So it’s only appropriate that we start our collaborative recipe and music pairing series with this dish!
In Southern communities, catfish has always been popular because it’s always been very affordable. Thus, fish fries are very common in places like Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and Georgia — places that have also historically been incubators for blues, jazz, rock, and R&B music, not to mention influential areas for the growth of hip-hop music, which is my own specialty.
Soul food, much like soul music, celebrates African American culture by highlighting the beauty in simplicity. While some may see catfish as a cheap, bottom-feeding fish that isn’t worthy of a spot on gourmet restaurant tables, the African American community thinks otherwise. A fish fry could feed an entire neighborhood of people for next to nothing, and it brings people together to share a communal meal.
Turning now to today’s recipe, Brown’s modern take on this simple dish focuses on generating tons of flavor out of the spices and the batter. Spices give nuance and sophistication to a meal in the same way that chordal accents and harmony add emotional depth to a song.
So with that very thing in mind, stick with us as we explore and unpack the song that inspired this recipe, “Blind Alley” by The Emotions. ~ Charles Burchell.
The Emotions – “Blind Alley”
The Emotions are a vocal group originally from Chicago, perhaps best known for their hits in the ’70s, such as the platinum single, “Best of My Love.”
Harmonically, the song’s intro and interlude sections feature an ascending diatonic progression in the key of F. The diatonic series refers to the chords that exist naturally within a major or minor key. Because this progression is happening at a slow and funky tempo, it doesn’t sound bland at all, but instead firmly grounds us in F major.
Before we move on, if you’re longing to learn just a bit more about how harmony and music theory works to provide underlying emotional backdrops in music, check out Soundfly’s online intro course, Unlocking the Emotional Power of Chords. You can preview a lesson for free, and subscribe here to access all the lessons for only $39.
Intro and Interlude Progression
F major, G minor, A minor, B♭ major, C major, D minor, E diminished, F major
As we get into the core of the song, the main part of the verse is a I-IV vamp between F major and B♭ major. This is a common progression found in gospel music, which makes sense because The Emotions actually started as a gospel group (and so much soul music is rooted in gospel and R&B).
There’s nothing more comforting than that simple, major I-IV progression — and there’s nothing in the chords that rubs us the wrong way, it’s all comforting, head-swaying music that tells the story of a woman who’s happy with the man she’s with. And just like the comforting flavors of fried catfish, or the barbecue parties that elicit such comfort, cooking can be more about the company you’re with than the dish itself.
Back to the music; the chorus moves between A minor to G minor before doing a quick turnaround back to F.
A minor, Gminor (2x), turnaround F major, D minor, G minor, A minor, Bb major, C major, F major, B♭ major over F, F major
After the chorus, the song returns back to the intro progression which now functions as an interlude before landing us back in another verse and chorus. At the end of the song, we’ve got a shout chorus over our classic I-IV progression.
So where does the spiciness come in?
Chef Brown wanted to add a layer of spice into the catfish rub (more on that in the recipe below), because the real spice of the song lives in the bass figure that lifts the harmony up. Simply playing a I-IV progression in F doesn’t automatically get that “soul” feeling, just like grilling catfish or frying it without adding any pizzazz into the seasoning. In “Blind Alley,” the bass line on the verses anchors the harmony, and gives it that melodic lift which propels the groove.
Thanks to innovators like Motown’s James Jamerson, melodic bass lines in soul music helped to establish the genre stylistically from earlier forms like R&B and gospel. This bass line in particular is very diatonic, in the key of F major, but slightly anticipates each bar by having the first note of the next bar arrive on the last eighth note of the previous measure.
In other words, the B♭ of the IV chord is slightly anticipated. When we return to F, the bass line hangs out on concert A, which technically makes the chord a first inversion, which is very typical of gospel music. As the major seventh of B♭ major, the A also makes the melodic line more singable.
With food and music both, it’s important to have good ingredients, but it’s more important to know what to do with them. Brown’s recipe for Fried Catfish with Jollof Spice is below, and you can try it yourself.
If you’d like to check out Brown’s other soul food recipes, head to Food Fidelity.
Fried Catfish with Jollof Spice
- 1 lb catfish
- 1 cup cornmeal
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 1 tsp dried thyme
- 1/2 tbsp garlic powder
- 1 tsp ginger
- 2 tsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp coriander
- 1 tsp nutmeg
- 1 tsp cayenne
- 1 tbsp smoked paprika
- 1/2 tbsp pepper
- 1 tbsp kosher salt
Mix all spices together in a mixing bowl. Add 1/4 of the spice mix to buttermilk and mix well. Add fish to the buttermilk/spice mix. Marinate for at least an hour.
Mix cornmeal plus flour, and half of remaining spice mix and set aside. Preheat fryer with oil to 350 degrees F (or, alternatively, heat oil in a skillet).
Remove fish from buttermilk, then dredge in cornmeal mix. Add to the fryer and cook about 4 minutes. If cooking via skillet it will be about 3 minutes per side.
Remove fish from fryer and let cool/drain on a wire rack, lined baking sheet, or paper towels. Sprinkle remaining spice mix onto the cooked fish. Serve with slaw or fries, and don’t forget your favorite condiment.
Note: As an alternative to buttermilk, use beaten eggs instead.
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