Every night when my wife and I prepare and then eat dinner, music is playing. This is as intrinsic to our daily routine as the cooking and eating itself. It may be Brazilian samba or American jazz or new age guitar (never rock, seldom classical), but there’s always music.
These days we stream it off the internet through wireless speakers, but we each grew up, a continent and a decade apart, with parents who always played music at dinnertime, on what was called a stereo. (This in itself is worth pondering, that an object took the name of one of its acoustical features, and that the feature became so commonplace that the word has passed out of common usage to a degree that spellcheck, even as I write this, questions it.)
My parents’ stereo (belonging in actuality to my technophile father) lay long as a coffin (so as to separate the left and right channels as far as possible) in our mid-century modern living room, and our dining room was a half floor down in our jaunty suburban split-level rancher, so Dad had to crank up the volume sufficiently for us to hear it as we ate, but not so high as to overwhelm conversation (a rarity at our dinner table, but always theoretically possible). This adjustment might require several trips on his part up and down the stairs to properly calibrate the output. Below the volume dial on the faux-gold control panel of the console were the enticing bass and treble dials, with their gradient stops that clicked so satisfyingly, and the rarely-touched balance dial, any fiddling with which was deemed above we kids’ pay grade.
My parents’ musical taste ran to Broadway theater and torch songs. To this day I can recite the entire libretto of Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot, with Richard Burton and Julie Andrews inquiring rhetorically of one another “What Would the Simple Folk Do?”, and Robert Goulet’s baritone dutifully ticking off the seasons in “If Ever I Would Leave You,” so frequently did we munch our broccoli and pork chops while listening to that score.
My father also had a thing for pretty ladies in evening gowns singing tragic love songs, as his comprehensive collection of Julie London albums attested. My earliest stirrings of what I would later identify as sexual consciousness were aroused by the cover of a Julie London album, the buxom chanteuse swathed forever in my memory in a tight silver gown, reclining languidly over the top of a Steinway, long hair spilling like water across her shoulders. She sang sad classics like “Cry Me a River” in a husky contralto that lent a vaguely libidinous air to many an evening meal in our otherwise prim household.
Dad thought Sinatra and his ilk rather vulgar, no matter how well-packaged the man or the music. Later in his life he discovered jazz, and while he was carefully mainstream about it (Don Shirley and the like), his were the only albums in our household that featured black musicians until I went to college and brought home Jimi Hendrix (hardly dinnertime fare).
Playing music during dinner may have become what we call a generational thing. The ubiquity of smartphones and other portable devices have made music so readily accessible at all times of day that deploying it as an element of romantic dinnertime atmosphere, which is what I think my father was doing night after night, the way one might light a candle on the table or bring home roses to one’s wife, seems redundant and a bit twee.
This is another way of saying that recorded music was in some sense still a luxury back then, for only someone with the wherewithal to buy the albums and the hulking piece of furniture they played on could experience music in the home at dinnertime (unless you were eating in front of the TV, a debauchery that our parents occasionally permitted, but typically only during times of national crisis when show tunes would have been in bad taste).
Christmastime always threatened to infect our stoutly secular playlist with carols and hymns and seasonal treacle by Burl Ives, Lawrence Welk and the dreaded Sinatra, but for the most part my parents held firm to their notion of adult musical dining accompaniment as something you might hear during the vernal equinox in 1959 in a nightclub in Acapulco at midnight.
I still light candles on the table every night, and still put on some music, just to recognize the daily romance of that most human of occasions, but also because I can’t imagine any other way of having dinner. It would be as strange as if we decided to do without cutlery, and just as uncivilized.
And somewhere, after all, my parents are raising their Manhattans to the sound of those three ascending notes at the opening of Camelot, and calling the boys to dinner.