Cookin' to the Beat
Photography by Marla Camp

I’m a cook with a dilemma, and it ain’t about my food
My baby’s got me cranky, in a terrible mood
He’s swearin’ that he loves me, but I think it’s my cuisine
He wouldn’t be so ornery if I fed him rice and beans.
—Sweet Potato Jive

The Beat Divas write songs about food—and life—and sing them as they cook, often for a paying audience.

It’s a chilly March evening, but the sold-out Central Market Cooking School classroom is warm and fragrant with the recipes-in-progress, and the mostly middle-aged crowd is entranced.

As the class moves seamlessly from appetizer (spanakopita) to dessert (lemon-strawberry mousse), singer/cooks Mady Kaye, Beth Ullman and Dianne Donovan serve up equal tidbits of cooking advice and confessional along with their music. We learn not just how to cool quinoa, but why some marriages cool off into nothing at all. And somehow it’s all fun and informative and delicious. Not only that, the songs, stories and recipes are all 100 percent original.

“The Beat Divas phenomenon grew out of something called Austin Music on the Menu, a series I started in 2003,” says Central Market’s cooking school director Kelly Ann Hargrove. “A couple of weeks prior to South by Southwest, I decided to invite musicians to hang out in our kitchen, prepare a favorite meal and play an acoustic set. And now we do it throughout the year because they’re just fun.”

Tonight the trio takes turns demonstrating their seasonal menu from behind the counter separating the kitchen from a room packed with long rows of narrow tables where students sit elbow-to-elbow, sipping wine and savoring the food. After each turn in the kitchen, the divas unite in front of the counter singing and swinging—their voices blending in tight, jazzy harmonies.

“We’ve been Divas since 2000, really, and Dianne joined us in 2002,” explains Mady. “She’s the perfect alto complement for Beth and myself—the voice we really needed.” The Divas also have successful solo performing careers and lives steeped in music. Beth and Mady are voice teachers; Dianne has a background in jazz radio and is queen of the classical airwaves at KMFA Radio. They are practiced improvisers, both in and out of their kitchens. But it was their shared passion for cooking that inspired their current foray into the new milieu of singing culinary classes.

Back to class, where the Divas dish their cooking know-how. “Cow’s milk feta is drier than sheep,” says Dianne, as she puts together her spanakopita. She crumbles the cheese into a gooey green mix of spinach, eggs, onions, parsley, dill, mint and spices.

“Sesame oil has a lower heating point than olive oil—be careful when you heat it up,” cautions Mady, as she prepares her delectable gingered haricots verts.

And so on. But the narrative always circles back to the personal.

“The first time I made this,” Beth says, while adding rice noodles to her caramelized-chicken salad with chile-garlic vinaigrette, “my husband said, ‘what’s in this, worms?’”

Of course, he’s now an ex-husband, and the shining inspiration for the song “Sweet Potato Jive,” co-written by Beth and Mady, who also arranged it.

“I thought about that song for a long, long time,” recounts Beth. “I was in the Arboretum Mall parking lot when I came up with the chorus. Then I called up Mady and said, ‘I’ve got the chorus to that song. You wanna help me write the verses?’”

“Then we just hammered it out,” Mady remembers. “That’s a great song. It was a true collaboration.”

The divas are unabashed vamps, but often they come across as wholesome and nostalgic as some of the dishes they cook, a style they credit to the women who raised them.

“My mother always cooked dinner for the whole family,” Mady recalls. “She taught us that food is the most loving way of sharing.” Tonight, she mesmerizes the audience with her song “In My Mother’s House”:

In my mother’s house, the air was cool and sweet
And the kitchen caught the morning sun,
even when it rained
In my mother’s house, life never came undone
And our blessing was the food and love in my mother’s house.

“There’s nothing better than that stained cookbook of your mother’s,” says Beth. And there’s little better than a trio of cooking instructors with the right priorities—Dianne starts each morning with a bite of chocolate and ends each night in bed with a pile of recipe books. Beth balances her scathing critiques of exes with the “deep and soulful” act of baking bread, “one of the most spiritual things I think you can do.”

Consider “Cooking in the Kitchen,” one of Mady’s original tunes, with its joyful Cajun beat. On the surface, it extols romance in the kitchen, but it also captures the cooking chemistry of the Divas:

Cookin’ in the kitchen on a Saturday night
Cookin’ with my baby, everything is just right
Turnin’ up the burner, a-cookin’ it hot
Throw in a little spice better show me what you got
Spoonin’ up love into every bite ‘cause tonight…
We’re cookin’ in the kitchen…

The Beat Divas use approximately the same methods, whether they’re making food or music.

“You’ve got to have the right ingredients, the right voices to make a blend,” says Beth.

“And then, of course, since we keep practicing,” says Dianne, “it gets better each time we do it.”