Food

Dinner & a Disc: Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks

“We are idiots, babe. It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.”

Food Features Bob Dylan
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Dinner & a Disc: Bob Dylan's <i>Blood on the Tracks</i>

It was my idea for a series of cheap, stay-at-home dinner parties or dates. Dinner and a Disc, with an appreciative nod to TBS’ Dinner and a Movie, a T.V. show that featured a movie accompanied by instruction in preparing a themed meal. Dinner and a Disc would pair an album with a meal, linked by a theme determined by geography, biography, era, subject, or—as was often in the case of Dinner and a Movie—pun. I knew where I’d begin on the food side of things. This was easy—I’d pull a menu from the cookbook I’ve spent the most time with, the 1975 edition of Joy of Cooking.

My search for the right disc led me to a list of albums that came out in 1975. There are many greats: Tonight’s the Night, Born to Run, Young Americans, Fleetwood Mac, Horses, The Who By Numbers. But one album forcefully jumped out at me, inviting itself to the party: Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. There we go, I thought. That’s it. The pairing of Joy and Blood felt somewhat haphazard at first, but it didn’t take long for the two texts to start conversing like old friends. What did they discuss?

Divorce, mostly.

I emailed my husband, “Want to have a Dylan/divorce dinner party with me on Saturday?”

“Umm,” he replied, “What’s a divorce party?”

“I’ll make chocolate mousse,” I wrote back.

“I’m in.”

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I’ve been poring over the pages of Joy since I was ten years old. It was the first book I cooked from. One night, when my mother worked late, I made dinner for my younger brother and me, following its clear instructions for scrambled eggs. Lo and behold, they turned out as good as any scrambled eggs I’d ever eaten. It was a pivotal moment in my life, the simple discovery that one of the secrets to eating well was having a solid and reliable cookbook.

I’ve been listening to Blood on the Tracks for an equally long time. I was lucky to have grown up in a family of music lovers, and Bob Dylan has been part of my life for all my life. Blood on the Tracks is commonly referred to as Dylan’s divorce album, a personal document on the collapse of his marriage to Sara. The story goes that Dylan released a string of mediocre, critical and commercial disappointments during several years of domestic bliss with Sara and their kids. The songs, arisen from contentment, lost the interest of the baby boomers who had come of age with Dylan in the sixties.

For example, Nashville Skyline (1969)—while by no means a flop—alienated and puzzled most hardcore Dylan fans with its embrace of smooth, commercial-sounding country music. Baby Boomers saw it as schlocky and uninteresting, and they couldn’t relate. What had happened to their Dylan? And Self Portrait (1970)—which was an unmitigated flop—pushed them still further away. It was like Dylan wasn’t even trying to connect. In fact, he later claimed that he was actively disconnecting, tossing his generational crown right out the window.

And then, in January 1975, he released Blood on the Tracks, an album full of songs dripping with sadness, rage, bitterness, and disappointment, and the Boomers came rushing back to him. This album they could relate to, because they were going through the same thing Dylan was singing about. Their marriages were falling apart. The U.S. divorce rate in 1965, when both Bringing it all Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited came out was 25 percent. By the time Nashville Skyline was released, it was somewhere around 30 percent. In 1975, it had jumped to a whopping 48 percent.

In May of that same year, Irma S. Rombauer’s daughter Marion Rombauer Becker came out with a spectacular revision of the cookbook that had first been self-published in 1931 by her mother, a recent widow. Joy of Cooking was already an established and beloved book, but the 1975 edition became an instant classic, the best-selling edition of all time, cherished by cooks for its concise and detailed instructions and exhaustive reference material, such as the “Know Your Ingredients” chapter.

I wonder how many recently divorced dads in the seventies, suddenly on their own and cooking for their kids, turned to its pages to find out how to roast a chicken (page 422) or boil an egg (page 220)? Or how many latchkey kids like me relied on it for a simple scrambled egg dinner or an easy one-egg cake (page 681)?

In “Idiot Wind,” maybe the angriest song on Blood on the Tracks, a song that likens divorce to apocalypse, Dylan concludes almost helplessly, his bile apparently exhausted, with this: “We are idiots, babe. It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.”

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Kramer vs. Kramer is the first movie I remember seeing about divorce. The scenes that are the most burned into my brain involve french toast. The first scene is traumatic: Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman), newly abandoned by his wife and desperate to keep his shit together, tries to make french toast for his young, scared son. He botches it miserably; frantically folding and breaking bread before he explodes in frustration. In a later scene, after a long period of adjustment and transformation, the character makes perfect french toast. The scene is quiet, there is no comment on his cooking skills, but it communicates everything. We can play a little game here, a surrealist game called “The Irrational Expansion” employed by film scholar Robert Ray in his book The Avant-Garde Finds Andy Hardy. The Irrational Expansion invites us to ask irrelevant questions about a movie, suggesting that this can yield more fruitful and interesting discoveries than asking the relevant ones. Let’s play:

Question: How did the Ted Kramer learn how to make french toast?

Answer: Page 636, Joy of Cooking.

I was happy to find myself back in the ample pages of my favorite cookbook, and my dinner party menu came together easily: Chicken Paprika (page 425), Sautéed Mushrooms (page 308), Peas and Carrots (page 315), and the already-promised chocolate mousse. To be more precise, RUM Chocolate Mousse (page 738).

I cooked alone, comfortable in the company of Rombauer, always kind and clear, often clever and charming. Of Peas and Carrots she writes, “Disdainfully dubbed ‘Keys and Parrots’ by a cousin of ours, a devout anti-vegetarian…” Her voice is as distinctive as Dylan’s, and just as familiar to me.

Chicken Paprika was simple: simmer a disjointed chicken in broth with onions and paprika, stir in a little flour and a lot of sour cream at the end. It was gorgeous. To my mind, Paprika is a very seventies spice. It lends an orangey, Kodachrome spectrum hue to food. In Todd Haynes’ experimental biopic, I’m Not There, inspired by Bob Dylan, he relies on different actors to portray different stages of Dylan’s career. He also relies on different color palettes in each stage, and Kodachrome orange is the defining color of the part of the story in which Heath Ledger enacts a fictionalized portrayal of Dylans’ divorce, that is, the Blood on the Tracks years.

We devoured that tender, rich, Kodachrome-orange dish and we devoured the sautéed mushrooms, and peas and carrots. It was an easy meal to eat. While we ate, we listened. Blood on the Tracks has aged well, with a few songs that stand out among Dylan’s best— “Shelter from the Storm, “Tangled up in Blue,” “Buckets of Rain.” We listened critically, curious to notice where our enthusiasm flagged. The album traverses a range of emotions, and somehow seems to hit the hardest when it dwells in its feelings of dislocation, romance and ideals lost. He nails a seventies kind of wistfulness when he sings of friends gone by, “All the people we used to know/they’re an illusion to me now/Some are mathematicians/Some are carpenters’ wives/Don’t know how it all got started/I don’t know what they’re doing with their lives.” It’s less potent when it slips into maudlin despair, and when “If You See Her Say Hello” began we immediately agreed—not one of the strongest songs. And yet, this lyric got us to stop chewing: “Sun down/yellow moon/I replay the past/I know every scene by heart/they all went by so fast.” Wow, we said. It’s like a haiku or something. Dylan channeling Basho. And suddenly the song seemed perfect, just the right amount of pathos.

We moved onto the boozy chocolate mousse for the last couple of songs. The penultimate “Shelter From the Storm” is a slight reprieve from the anguish that has come before. Oh but the fatigue and wistfulness are still there: “Blown out on the trail,” he sings, “If only I could turn back the clock.” And on “Buckets of Rain”, Dylan’s almost final worlds on Blood on the Tracks are, “Life is sad/Life is a bust/All you can do/Is do what you must.” And that’s one of the cheerier songs. It goes down a little easier with a bowl of rum chocolate mousse. Nevertheless, we each poured ourselves a tall Scotch when the record was over and we sat awhile, not saying much.

I thought about my parents’ divorce, about when my father told me they were splitting up and I asked if I could keep my records. I’d seen something on TV about a couple divorcing, arguing about who would keep which records. And at five years old I was already very, very attached to my music. I wonder if my father was disappointed that this was my only response. What had he hoped I’d say?

“What was it like,” I ask my husband of 21 years, who was making great progress on his Scotch, “growing up in a household where your parents stayed together?”

“It was,” he said, “Safe. Stable. Pretty happy.” Wasn’t this what had drawn me to him, this stability and security? Isn’t that what the damaged pieces of me had wanted and needed?

He added, “It was weird too. It was like the sixties never happened in my family.” The seventies paraded on by, the neighbors swapped wives, Dylan lost Sara, and the happy bubble remained intact, producing the most mentally healthy man I’ve ever met.

But what about the rest of us, we the children of the 48 percent, we the children of Blood on the Tracks? Maybe we found our own shelter from the storm, flipping through the pages of Joy of Cooking on a lonely latchkey night, discovering an ally, a mentor, a sense of freedom and accomplishment, and a perfect plate of scrambled eggs.

Freda Love Smith is a drummer and writer whose food memoir, Red Velvet Underground, is forthcoming on Agate. She blogs here. Follow her on Twitter: @fredalovesmith.

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