Good taste, comfort, ease, luxury — the qualities that characterize gracious living. To live graciously is to be certain of the correctness of one’s aesthetics, and to construct one’s domestic environment in such a way that those aesthetics are expressed fully and in harmony. It is a life which is built around an artifice so excellently constructed that the artifice is preferable to reality, but still aware of itself as an artifice. It is, as Oscar Wilde was brilliantly aware, essentially life as performance. I would also hazard to guess that a gracious life is a life that is in some way incompatible with standing in front of a great big honking backyard crematorium in your undershirt with your pleated pants pulled up to your nipples.
This is the central contradiction of Music for Gracious LIving: Barbecue, one of a series of five albums put out by Columbia in 1955, all featuring the mood music song stylings of Peter Barclay and his Orchestra. The albums smooth, easy listening arrangements are accompanied by expansive liner notes with tips on gracious living and helpfully included recipes. In short, your complete guide to gracious living pressed into convenient vinyl.
The mood music genre was at its height in the 1950s, with activity-specific albums helpfully identified as Music for something or other filling record store shelves. I will freely admit that I’m a huge fan of mood music. I’ve been rescuing these LPs out of thrift store bins for decades. The guys down at our local record store (and the greatest record store in Houston) Heights Vinyl know to pull aside for me anything which comes through the door with an absolutely absurd cover photograph wrapped around string-heavy arrangements of popular songs. Look, there’s a genuine tradition of music which you’re supposed to not entirely listen to. Most of Mozart’s work was meant to be not entirely listened to, but to serve as something for Vienna’s potentates and their mistresses to parade around to. Mood music fills a space with an aesthetic cushion. It’s a genre that many of today’s restaurants should happily re-embrace. Sandwiches and death metal don’t mix.
Which brings me back to living as performance. Gracious living and barbecue don’t mix because they are essentially two different types of performance. Graciousness is the performance of social elegance. Slapping meat on a burning grill is a performance of hyper-masculinity. Both are legitimate forms of performance, but there’s only a very limited space where they intersect. And when they butt up against each other in an inappropriate way, the picture that comes together is often baffling in the incongruity of its mixes signals. Case in point — the album cover of Music for Gracious Living: Barbecue.
A family gathers at the edge of a dark forest. The master of the entire situation seems to be the elderly gentleman with the ambitiously escalated pants. He’s joined by his pearl-clad wife and a younger gentleman wearing what appears to be a casually smart three-quarter sleeve kimono tucked into his grey flannel pants. For some reason, there are seven coffee cups but only four people. No one seems to notice that the dog is fake. The elderly man’s stern grimace seems to command fear. These people all seem to share some horrid, dark secret. Perhaps they are cannibals.
That’s the strange thing about the ideas that the suburban ideal of gracious living that Music for Gracious Living: Barbecue and its ilk tend to promote. So much of the performance of gracious living is in having life appear effortless. So much of the performance of the hyper-masculine ideal of suburban living is in being self-sufficient.
One type of performance is based around creating the illusion of lack of effort, the other around creating the illusion of effort. When these two aesthetics intersect, for some reason we immediately jump into some very bizarre mental spaces, where the illusion of suburban ease is instinctively assumed to be covering the most obscene depravities imaginable. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at the cover to another album in the series and let your mind wander.
You should be ashamed of yourself.
Anyway, while you’re wallowing in that, here’s a recipe from the liner notes of Music for Gracious Living: Barbecue. Enjoy.
Easy-does-it Punch: A twist of the can-opener and it’s almost ready! One six-ounce can frozen lemon concentrate, one twelve-ounce can (one-and-a-half cups) apricot nectar, one twelve-ounce can unsweetened pineapple juice, one-and-a-half cups water. Combine all ingredients and chill. Pour over ice cubes or crushed ice to serve. Garnish with fresh mint, if desired. Makes six to eight servings.