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Moodstylin': What to Play for Dinner

CDKitchen Cooking Columnist Josh Gunn
About the author: Josh Gunn
Bachelor chef; southern cooking; mixologist; university professor. Josh's recipes will delight (and sometimes terrify) you.
Bachelors who entertain can trick guests into thinking they are much more sophisticated than they really are by doing little, almost imperceptible things for a meal, cocktail party, pot-luck, and so forth. The trick is to do "little things" that create a certain mood. Impressions are made in and with mood.

Making sure your guests are "in the mood" is something I call "moodstylin'": cheap candles always make an evening gathering intimate (avoid anything too smelly, however); a bouquet of flowers on the dining table impresses guests (it says you've got an inner sensitivity for beauty); and music always sets a tone. The key to good moodstylin' is tone, and although aromas contribute to impressive tones, nothing sets a tone like tunes.

At every gathering for which I am host, I will always be playing music very low in the background. I've actually experimented to see if music really does set tone in imperceptible ways: I played the heavy-metal/industrial band Ministry at a low volume for a dinner party, and I could swear the guests were more aggressive, especially when we broke out the board games! So, the moral here is to select music that will evoke the tone, and therefore the mood, that you want.

Generally, if I know the kind of music my guests listen to, I try to select some of their favorite artists and pair it with artists I think they might also like. If a guest gave you an album, it's always nice to play that when they dine at your house. So, for example, last week I had a friendly date and cooked dinner at my place. I knew that she liked Aimee Mann, since we discussed the topic before, so I created a "playlist" on my computer media program comprised of songs by Aimee Mann and artists with similar sensibilities such as Laura Veirs, Chris Pureka, and M. Ward. My friend asked at one moment for the name of Chris Pureka, because she enjoyed her voice.

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Now, as some of ya'll know, in my day job one of the things I teach and study is popular music, so I know quite a bit about music artists and bands. To fill out this week's advice, I thought I'd pair up some situations and artists that make for good moodstylin':

An intimate dinner party with many guests: This is perhaps the toughest situation, since the larger the number of guests the wider the range of interests. In general, the safest bet for multiple generations is classical music (avoid Wagner; try Mozart or Bach's Brandenburg Concertos), or perhaps even a little "early music" (that is, choral stuff, like the Tallis Scholars). I generally will play "American Standards," old jazz and pop music from Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, Peggy Lee, and Ella Fitzgerald.

Intimate date: Sam Cooke's soulful voice is perhaps my favorite music for an intimate date, followed by Al Green. Soul from the '50s and '60s era communicates a kind of loving intimacy, but not the bump bump of, say, James Brown. You should save the Godfather of Soul for the bedroom, dance floor, or slammin' potluck.

Intimate date with a country boy/girl: Just forget the Gretchen Wilson, friend. Impress your date with your knowledge of Old Tyme and bluegrass! Anything by Gillian Welch is divine (and mostly soft), and any of the more ballad-y albums by Patty Griffin works well too (such as her last album).

Sedate potluck: Try work by Sufjan Stevens; his stuff goes well with just about any covered dish.

Bagin' potluck: James Brown, yo! Smashmouth also seems to put people in a cheerful mood as well, and if grandparents are not coming, you might try some B-52s (my Granny doesn't care much for Kate Pearson's lobster scream).

Dinner with mother: Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond, or Luther Vandross. For serious.

Dinner with the know-it-all music snob hipster: I refer to the guy or gal—usually the friend-of-a-friend you have to suffer through dinner—who is always listening to the latest underground music thing (or reading the very latest high-theory tome of some fashionable French philosopher) and telling you how much you're missing. Well, sock it to them with your love of Indian Classical music and the Dengue Fever! By the latter I don't mean the disease, I mean the band who combines Cambodian pop music with psychedelic rock! It's some of the strangest stuff you've ever heard, and you'll keep the hipster perplexed for hours! (Then, he or she will run out and buy the stuff, in order to remain hip!).

And speaking of the know-it-all hipster at dinner, stay tuned for next week when I discuss dinner conversation etiquette for entertaining bachelors!
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