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February 14, 2014

Book Notes - Michelle Wildgen "Bread and Butter"

Bread and Butter

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Michelle Wildgen crafts an engrossing tale of food, family, and sibling rivalry with in new novel Bread and Butter.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Wildgen dazzles with her prose, which is sprinkled with keen observations and supported by her food-writing knowledge."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In her own words, here is Michelle Wildgen's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, Bread and Butter:


My novel Bread and Butter is a love letter to the restaurant industry I left over a decade ago. I loved the access to a much higher standard of living than I could actually afford, thanks to discounts and industry kindness, and I loved being surrounded by people who, like me, considered it entirely reasonable to drive an hour and a half to try a clam pizza. But I also loved things that were not my usual strong points: the invigorating pressure of a busy night, the pleasure of juggling one too many things at the same time and watching them click into place. Returning to the restaurant world in the research and writing of this book was pure fun—I bugged my friends in the business to find out about permits and build-outs, I finagled my way into a local restaurant's kitchen to observe service. But as I wedged my seven-months-pregnant self beside the ice machine in a sweltering kitchen, I also suspected that perhaps I no longer had the capacity for this work. (The expediter, who kept eyeing me worriedly and offering me glasses of water, seemed to share that conclusion.)

For this playlist I thought less about the writing of this novel than about the living of it—the music that followed me through the nightly restaurant routine for three years from 1997 to 2000. Everyone in a restaurant knows the energizing, hectic feeling of readying for service and the cycles you run through each evening—every night is opening night. Here's a sample playlist of a typical night at L'Etoile.

The Drive There

A good loud workout song gets the blood up, and even a terrible song can do the trick. This is how I preface the admission that "Tubthumping" by Chumbawumba was on the radio a lot at that point, and I never turned it off. Reader, I turned it up. I'm very sorry—sorry it existed, sorry to remind you of it now. But then again, blame the 90s.

During Set-Up

Wilco and Billy Bragg's "California Stars" and "Hesitating Beauty" from Mermaid Avenue Vol. 1
Wilco, "Outtasite (Outta Mind)" from Being There

During set-up people are moving tables around the dining room, checking the silverware for evenness and culling old flowers from the vases while the cooks run back and forth with hotel pans full of chicken and rice and salad and bread for staff meal. The best music for this moment was something gently up-tempo—the kitchen could keep blasting out Fugazi if they wanted to, but those of us who put on our gracious facades had to start easing into them.

Service Begins

There's an art to finding the music to usher you through a meal (my friend Claudia has never lived down the time she put on some David Bowie before dinner. It's hard to express just why this was as wrong as it was.) and the little grace notes in a song that seem perfectly pleasant while you're at home feel horribly outsized on the dining room floor, the same way that maybe-okay orangey-red lipstick is clownish and bloody the moment you step out the door.

Lee Morgan, Cornbread (the album)
From the moment the doors open, all is serene: the servers have put on their ties and lipstick, the cooks are on the line, the bartender's behind the copper bar, and the music is winding around the edges. Too much trumpet can be a little dicey for the dining room—sometimes there'd be a pause during a table-turn before the next rush had hit, and suddenly the notes would feel piercingly vibrant. I love this whole album but the softness of "Ceora," its piano and that swishing percussion, is a sound I remember hearing on the floor a thousand times, especially as we first opened our doors. You can get away with something like "Our Man Higgins" once the rush has hit its stride and conversation simmers, but before the room is full, you have to step softly.

Oliver Nelson, Blues and the Abstract Truth
Same thing: "Stolen Moments" is a perfect beckon-you-in, have-a-bourbon song, but "Hoe-Down" and "Cascades" need to wait till the bar's standing room only. ("Yearnin'" starts off all sweet but then there's a sustained trumpet note about halfway through the song that makes the diners look up from their plates, slightly startled and unsettled, as if an alarm has gone off.)

I probably don't need to say that John Coltrane and Miles Davis were in regular rotation too. They were.

During Service, Part Two

The Afghan Whigs, "Citi Soleil," from 1965
I often needed a second soundtrack in my own head, one that kept me feeling upbeat and happy and ready to run around, and for a long stretch it was this song from 1965. I always sang the same refrain over and over, only when I was back in the kitchen, but even that adds up to a lot of me warbling, "Ohh, child, I'll meet you, child, on the sunny side…" There came a time when I suspected I was crossing the line for the coworkers who had to listen to me, and that time was right about when my colleague said to me, "Jesus Christ, Wildgen, would you change the goddamn channel?"

The End of the Night

Eminem, "The Real Slim Shady" from The Marshall Mathers LP
Wilco, "Dreamer in my Dreams" from Being There

Oh the freedom of the moment when that last table pays their bill and departs: the bright light! The glass of wine! The folding of napkins, the polishing of silverware and crystal! The rap songs! There's something a little prurient about "The Real Slim Shady" filling the dining room that moments before had held the CEO of American Girl and a bunch of heart surgeons and professors, but that doesn't mean it isn't pleasurable. And there was always a ragged, end-of-set kind of joy in hearing "Dreamer in my Dreams" right about this time, too.

The Drive Home

Morphine, "The Night," from The Night
After a shift, I was always certain I'd be awake for hours, but ten minutes later I was home and the adrenaline was already dissipating and I'd have a sense of the body recalibrating its chemistry. There were moments on those drives when melancholy replaced the energy--I'd be driving, listening to this song's mournful saxophone and Mark Sandman's lost, low voice, and for reasons I never could quite discern, my eyes would fill with tears.


Michelle Wildgen and Bread and Butter links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Kirkus review

The Daily Page profile of the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for But Not for Long
Writer Magazine profile of the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

Online "Best of 2013" Book Lists
2013 Year-End Online Music Lists

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists


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