Brahms and Chicken Curry With a Side of Integrity

I will admit that it has been a bit difficult for me to listen to music or watch pre-COVID performance videos as our absence from the concert hall and theatres graduates to its fifth month of silence. Without any in-person large ensemble musical collaborations being realistically viable in the near future before both the performers and audience members feel safe from spreading or contracting the virus, music has become a double-edged sword of solace and sadness. We all need music in our lives but, for those of us who have dedicated decades of our lives to the physical manifestation of this heavenly gift, every note heard presently is tinged with the disappointment of not knowing when our addiction to musical interaction will once again be appeased. As a result, I am generally loathe to listen to recordings from a time when we took for granted the fact that we would even be able to make music together.

This morning, while driving home from one of the few errands that compel me to leave my shelter-at-home status, the radio came alive with a performance of the second movement of the Symphony No. 2 by Johannes Brahms. I realized that I must have had the radio turned to the classical station because the music had effectively calmed down our new puppy on a recent visit to the veterinarian. Without warning, I was confronted by the glorious soundscape unique to the palette of my favorite composer and was instantly transported to multiple memories of guiding magnificent musicians through the landscape of this masterpiece. The grace, muscularity, poignancy, introspection, repressed emotions and beauty of Brahms’ creativity were coming to life through every dark triplet, instrumental combination and motivic manipulation. Once again, I was reminded of the composer’s genius in that not one of his notes was superfluous; every gesture and nuance was created with purpose and a divine sense of balance.

After dabbing a tissue at my eyes, it occurred to me that the longevity of a creative artist’s output is most often due to that individual’s sense of integrity and devotion to the ingredients. This can be said not only about composers but also chefs, playwrights, authors, painters, sculptors, choreographers, architects and any number of other individuals who seek to render a physical manifestation of their artistic vision.

A couple of weeks back, through my affiliation with the Bangor Symphony Orchestra, I had the opportunity to join my colleagues in bringing a meal to the local homeless shelter. I have brought food and served meals there over the years but I realized that I had not ever really ventured beyond providing the most basic of pasta dishes. This time, though, with a greater understanding of the fact that, as a community, we are all now perilously close to losing everything, it had become that much more important for me to deliver food infused with a healthy dose of personal meaning.

I decided to make Brown Derby Chicken Curry with basmati rice and condiments of chutney, golden raisins, toasted slivered almonds and toasted coconut.

For those not immediately knowledgeable in the history of Hollywood’s golden age, the Brown Derby restaurant was an iconic meeting place for the movers and shakers in the film industry from 1926 to 1985. Press agents, gossip columnists and tourists would regularly gawk at the actors, actresses, directors and producers who would often hold court in the fabled dining booths.

I remember eating there once or twice with my parents, both of whom were intimately involved in the entertainment industry (actress Helen Richman and actor/author/painter Peter Mark Richman). Due to the fact that we all very much enjoyed the restaurant’s menu offerings, my mother made a point of purchasing the Brown Derby Cookbook.

Subsequently, throughout my childhood, my parents would invite their celebrity friends over to the house and my mother would spend the day preparing her specialty meal, the Brown Derby Chicken Curry. Oh, how we all loved the chicken curry! However, my siblings and I would spend the evening peering through the upstairs bannisters as the dinner guests consumed our favorite dish while we waited for the cue to perform as the post-dinner entertainment. Once we had offered up our piano sonata, violin composition and a song or two, we were then allowed to go into the kitchen and heap spoonfuls of the aromatic curry on piles of white rice.

The ritual of making the Brown Derby Chicken Curry for my own family and friends whenever I want to do so has become for me now, as an adult, a means by which I can grasp a few moments of serenity. Preparing and assembling the twenty different ingredients for the dish takes time and forces me to focus on the simple tasks at hand which will result in many smiles around the dinner table. I mention all of this because, while listening to the Brahms symphony and cogitating upon the many different moving parts that weave in and out of aural perception, I drew an immediate parallel to the nuance and importance of one ingredient used in preparing the curry: one bay leaf.

One bay leaf. The recipe calls for one lone bay leaf to be added to the simmering stew of onion, apple, celery, garlic, carrots, butter, tomatoes, chicken stock, flour, peppercorns and curry powder. I have no idea what flavoring the bay leaf really adds to the mix (have any of us actually tasted a bay leaf?) but I would not dare leave it out because it is an integral part of the delicate culinary balance.

Of course, who would really know if I left it out? Well, I know it would haunt me and I like to think that our friends at the shelter would somehow sense the little “extra something” was missing. Taking the easy way out, avoiding inconvenience and bypassing a dedication to detail are all behavioral modes less likely to render a result with depth and meaning. Be it the smallest nuance of a well-placed pizzicato cello note or the inclusion of a bay leaf in a beloved curry recipe, it is through our integrity, consistency and diligence that our actions and creations may have a positive and lasting impact on the receiving audience.

If you haven’t ever heard Brahms’ Symphony No. 2, I suggest you give yourself a gift and spend forty minutes immersed in its sonic splendor and repose. I, myself, now look forward to doing so…with a bit of chutney on the side. By the way, as much as I would like to post the chicken curry recipe here, I believe it may still be under copyright restrictions so feel free to private message me with a sharing request.