For me, one of November’s very few redeeming aspects is Maggot Brain. Each year, at some point between October 25 and November 3, I begin to have a hard time listening to anything else. This always comes out of nowhere. I don’t think I’ve ever had a hankering for it in May. Rumor has it that some people enjoy listening to Christmas music in December; I listen to Maggot Brain in November.
Maggot Brain is Funkadelic’s third studio album, released in 1971. Among fans, there is a certain amount of debate regarding their best album. Many opt for the commercial hit One Nation Under a Groove (1978); others advocate for Standing on the Verge of Getting it On (1974). I am happy to hear both of them at any time, but for me, Maggot Brain takes the cake.
The main reason for this is the title track. There may be other songs in existence that I think are as beautiful, but I can’t think of what they are right now. The song begins with an obtuse spoken introduction:
Mother Earth is pregnant for the third time, for y’all have knocked her up. I have tasted the maggots in the mind of the universe. I was not offended, for I knew I had to rise above it all or drown in my own shit.
Thus begins what is essentially a ten-minute guitar duet. It starts like a lullaby, with a quietly tender arpeggio that continues through to the end. But over the lullaby, one of the best guitar players ever, Eddie Hazel, plays a heart-wrenching wail of a solo. The story is that George Clinton, high on LSD, told Hazel that his (Eddie’s) mom had died just before he recorded it. (She hadn’t.) It’s impossible to know if this is true, because Hazel himself died in 1992 at the age of 42. Two years later, Ween recorded this eulogy for him:
“Maggot Brain” goes so well with a bleak November because it takes on all the tragedy in a world that seems so sad — especially when it gets dark at 4:30 p.m — and makes it beautiful. And the irony is not lost on me: that something so heartbreaking and gorgeous could be signified by two things so texturally disgusting (maggots, brains).
There is much more to Maggot Brain than “Maggot Brain.” After confronting the emotional depths of the human condition, most of the rest of the album is there to say, “But you won’t let it get you down, no, not while there is psychedelic funk music to rock to.” The only song I can’t abide is “Wars of Armageddon,” which features the sounds of people fighting and, the ultimate mellow-harsher, a baby crying.
I’m not going to insult “Maggot Brain” or your ears by providing an Internet link to it here. Pay to download a high-quality MP3 or, better yet, get it on vinyl. (Either way, listen to it on earphones.) Instead, here’s a link to the album’s most feel-good song, “Can You Get to That,” which immediately follows “Maggot Brain.” It’s the ultimate antidote to the existential sorrow inspired by the first — you just try to suppress the urge to sing a long.
Similar to a Maggot Brain listen, I don’t think I’ve ever felt like eating stew in July. It just wouldn’t seem right. (I seem to remember this past July involving lots of salad, My Morning Jacket and R. Kelly.) Recently while at Walgreens, I purchased a copy of Sunset magazine because it purported to contain recipes for beer-laden stews.
It did, but they were all inescapably meaty. This got me thinking about stew’s unnecessary reputation as a meat dish. This is too bad, since we vegetarians and vegans are probably most in need of a hot-and-hearty dish of stew on a cold November night. I set out to prove Sunset wrong. I succeeded in this, but I have to level with you – it involved buying an expensive packet (like, $8) of dried porcini mushrooms. I typically stay away from luxury ingredients, especially when cooking something as humble as stew, but there it is. Still, the strategy worked, and I wound up with really thick and rich grub, which is vegan to boot. (It has beer in it, otherwise it would have been gluten-free too.)
November Stew to Eat While Listening to Maggot Brain
- One-quarter cup of olive oil
- Two large onions, chopped
- One bulb of garlic (dice half the cloves and leave the other half whole)
- One very hot jalapeno pepper, diced
- Ten or so white mushrooms, roughly chopped
- One packet of high-quality dried mushrooms
- Three celery stalks, chopped
- Two carrots, chopped
- Two parsnips, chopped
- One large beet, chopped
- Three medium-size starchy potatoes, chopped
- One 12 oz bottle of ale (I used Jubelale) — porter, amber or brown would all work great
- Some combination of rosemary, sage, thyme and tarragon — as much as half a cup if fresh
- Salt, pepper
Here’s what I did
I had purchased an acorn squash that I had meant to include. I forgot. No biggy, but it would have been a nice addition to all those roots. As usual, I used a slow cooker, but you can use a heavy pot or pressure cooker.
First: Put those expensive dried mushrooms in a glass measuring cup and cover them with two cups of boiling water. Set this aside to steep and rehydrate while the veggies get chopped. Start chopping. A fun thing about stew is that you don’t need to be super careful about making your pieces uniform. I kind of like mine to be haphazard, because it makes it seem more rustic and every bowl will be a little different.
I made this on a weekend, so I had plenty of time to spare for caramelizing. This really helps to create a rich, earthy stock for the stew. The key to this is low and slow — a tiny bit of olive oil and all of the onions go into a heavy pan, with the lid on. Put the heat on low and check back in half an hour. Take the lid off, turn the heat to medium low and cook for another 45 minutes to an hour. So outstanding and easy.
Add the rest of the olive oil, the onions and the diced garlic to a stew pot on medium heat (or a slow cooker on high). When it starts to smell ridiculously good, add the hot peppers, with a sprinkling of salt and pepper. After a few more minutes, add the celery, white mushrooms and potatoes. While that cooks, find the cup of rehydrated mushrooms and mushroom juice; pour that sucker into a blender or food processor with the rest of the garlic, a few tablespoons of salt and I always like to add six or ten whole peppercorns. Puree! There is all of the flavor, right there. Pour it in. When you can smell that this new batch of pureed garlic has begun to cook, add everything else, including the bottle of beer. Add just enough water so that all the chunks are just covered, and simmer on medium for at least an hour, preferably more. A lot of the liquid should evaporate, so check and add more water if you like.
Put Maggot Brain on the turntable, crack open another beer and feel warm. If you’re feeling really domestic, finish it off with some apple pear crumble.