Why Americans sing about food

Elvis helped cement a lyrical tradition where food stands in for everything from sex to rural nostalgia

Published January 8, 2012 2:00PM (EST)

Elvis Presley once said, “Ambition is a dream with a V-8 engine.” At once a gentleman and a rebel, a down-home boy and a global conquistador, the King, who would have celebrated his 77th birthday on Sunday, was a powerful amalgamation of American obsessions. The King loved fast cars. The King loved rock 'n’ roll. The King loved fried food. And the King knew how to interpret America. Take food, for instance. Elvis was notoriously obsessed with food, and he sang quite a few songs about this favorite topic. But “Crawfish” and “Milk Cow Blues Boogie” say more about our culture than they say about the icon himself. After all, Elvis wasn’t a songwriter: He was drawing from a deep well. American music sizzles with barbecue grease and bubbles like red-eye gravy. Food is a metaphor for all things, from your baby’s biscuits to the King’s caviar.

What does our music say about us? When it comes to food, it says we have dirty minds. For example, Elvis cut “Milk Cow Blues Boogie” in 1955. It was his third record. Several country artists had already recorded the song, which is credited to a bootlegger and bluesman named Kokomo Arnold. “Milk Cow Blues” works perfectly as a blues, country and rock number, which illustrates how much the three types of music have in common when it comes to sentiment:

If you see my milk cow, lord, lord, send her home ...
Since my milk cow left me I’ve been treated wrong ...
I ain’t had no milk and butter since my cow’s been gone ...

The portrayal of women as livestock and sex as butter is pretty typical of the blues tradition, so perhaps it’s not surprising that the lyrics reverberated up through American music over the course of the 20th century: The song has been recorded by everyone from Bob Dylan and the Kinks to Aerosmith, George Strait and Dead Moon.

Elvis funneled the longing, pain, hokey sentimentality and raunchiness of American roots music into the blender of rock 'n’ roll. He was always frank about his influences; in a 1970 interview, he describes his sound: “It’s a combination of country music and gospel and rhythm and blues all combined. That’s really what it was. As a child I was influenced by all of that.”

Although gospel music soars above the earthly pleasures, food has long been the go-to topic for country and blues lyricists who wanted to spice up their tunes. Bluesmen have a particularly bizarre talent for turning legitimate and seemingly innocent cooking references into raunchy odes to doin’ the nasty. In contrast to later pop songs in which candy, sugar and fruit are the primary metaphors for sex, these old blues tunes are rich in culinary detail, which leads to some incongruous imagery. In "Fried Pie Blues," Curley Weaver sings: “My baby baked my first biscuits, she baked them nice and brown. Well, it pleased me so well … she bake 'em with the damper down.” The song encompasses what sounds like a real longing for an actual fried pie, old school cooking strategies that double as sexual metaphors, and steamier sentiments: “My baby she got a mojo; tryin’ to keep it in ...”

Over the past hundred years, blues and jazz singers have appropriated every cut of meat for their bawdy purposes. Fats Waller gets frisky with “The Rump Steak Serenade”: “Big, juicy, nice and tender … the rump steak serenade!” Josh White takes it to the next level with “Pigmeat and Whisky Blues”: “I used to like her love, oh that hard pigmeat can’t be beat.”  Not to be outdone, Memphis Minnie addresses her butcher:

I’m going to tell everybody I’ve got the best butcher man in town
He can slice your ham, he can cut it from the fat on down
He slice my porkchops and he grinds my sausage too …

A verse later she saucily demands: “I’ve got enough butcherin’ for you to do if you promise me you just only hush your mouth.” As Savannah Churchill sang with panache, “If you’re a hep cat, you like your meat fat."

But while food in country music sometimes doubles for sex, it more often represents another American fixation: a longing for lost places. From the first days of the recording industry, record executives and promoters capitalized on town dwellers’ nostalgia for lost rustic roots. Most early country musicians were from the rural South, but it was industry professionals who convinced them to play up their “authenticity” by switching from their Sunday best to hokey down-home outfits: overalls and straw hats for men, gingham dresses for women.

Rootsy names were encouraged, bringing us the Fruit Jar Drinkers, the Possum Hunters and the Skillet Lickers. Naturally, down-home cooking worked its way into the recordings: The Possum Hunters stomped their way through “Ham Beats all Meat," the Coon Creek Girls wanted to know how many biscuits you could eat, and Uncle Dave Macon growled about keeping his skillet good and greasy. If you can think of a fried food, there’s probably a country song about it.

In old country, blues and jazz tunes, down-home food also evokes hard times. Kokomo Arnold’s “Red Beans and Rice” is about being broke in Chicago and wanting to return to Georgia, a place with an abundance of red beans and rice and mercifully few “mean Chicago women." These songs have a certain defiance: The lyrics imply that the hard life may be hard, but there’s a badass glory to it. If you want to summarize the rock 'n’ roll attitude, look no further than Bessie Smith belting Coot Grant’s “Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer”:

I wanna pigfoot and a bottle of beer
Send me 'cause I don't care
Slay me 'cause I don't care
Gimme a reefer and a gang o' gin
Slay me, 'cause I'm in my sin
Slay me 'cause I'm full of gin

Elvis himself was no stranger to hard times. He grew up wearing flour sack shirts, and the family often stretched a pot of beans and corn pone for nights on end. “Poke Salad Annie," a staple of Elvis’s '70s shows, describes a family reduced to eating pokeweed:

Some of you all never been down South too much ...
I'm gonna tell you a little story, so you'll understand where I'm talking about
Down there we have a plant that grows out in the woods and the fields,
and it looks something like a turnip green.
Everybody calls it Polk salad. Now that's Polk salad.
Used to know a girl that lived down there and
she'd go out in the evenings to pick a mess of it ...
Carry it home and cook it for supper, 'cause that's about all they had to eat,
But they did all right.

It’s ironic that Elvis sang this song during the period when he was most removed from his hardscrabble youth: Elvis crooned about poke salad while his belly glittered in jewels and white satin. Yet, the excess of Elvis’ twilight years may well have been a direct result of the poverty of his childhood: Deprivation breeds fascination. You can see it in the King’s infamous fixation on food: Elvis ordered pork chops and gravy at all hours of the night to remind himself both of the comfort of his past (homey Southern favorites) and of his triumph over poverty (his ability to make riches materialize at the snap of his fingers). Oh, and probably also because pork chops are delicious.

As a child of the 1980s, I had an easy time understanding why Michael Jackson was the King of Pop, but I had harder time grasping why Elvis was the King of Rock. Why not Mick or Jimi or Chuck? But as an adult, I get it: In his rise and slow fall, the King mirrored both rock 'n’ roll and America: from sweaty obscurity to rhinestone-studded excess. You don’t have to be a fan of the 12-bar blues to understand: This story speaks to all Americans. Elvis is King in America because he represents our country to a T: a hip young rebel who ended up overindulged, overprescribed, right wing and paranoid. If Elvis had gone broke, it’d be the perfect analogy. But take heart, America. Old Elvis was still kind of awesome. We’re only obsessed with his decline because he was once so damn beautiful. Maybe we see ourselves in that.

Besides, the King may be dead, but rock 'n’ roll lives on. Musicians in the post-Elvis era have continued to make the most of food as a metaphor. In 1977, the Dead Boys stripped culinary sexual innuendo down to a brutal scream:

Look at me that way, bitch
Your face is gonna getta punch
I said I don't need no cook girl
I need lunch!

Southern Culture on the Skids snacked all night on her "eight piece box” of fried chicken, and the Presidents of the United States of America reprised the country music tradition of using food to comment on the superiority of rural life. Other artists have used food to tackle U.S. history head-on: See John Mellencamp’s bizarre decision to write a song about Native American genocide that somehow boils down to deciding between “Hotdogs and Hamburgers.” It doesn’t get much more American than that.

By Felisa Rogers

Felisa Rogers studied history and nonfiction writing at the Evergreen State College and went on to teach writing to kids for five years. She lives in Oregon’s coast range, where she works as a freelance writer and editor.

MORE FROM Felisa Rogers

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Eatymology Food Music