Talking Food and Rock and Roll with Freda Love Smith
Freda Love Smith didn’t exactly set out to write a memoir about food and music, but by the time she’d finished casting about for ingredients for her book in her soul kitchen, she’d cooked up an entertaining set of stories that feature a year of cooking dangerously — she was cooking with her teenage son, after all — and reflections on her days as the drummer and co-founder of the Blake Babies, the Mysteries of Life, and Antenna.
Smith loosely frames her memoir, Red Velvet Underground: A Rock Memoir, with Recipes (Agate), around this year of giving her son, Jonah, cooking lessons. She weaves stories of her years with various bands and reflections on her own coming-of-age into these episodes of teaching her son to cook. Recipes bring almost every chapter to a close, so readers can spend an evening concocting some of Smith’s dishes, maybe with their own children.
About halfway through the book, she comes to grips with her identity in a powerful, slightly humorous passage that plumbs the depths of her struggles to live a twinned life — or any regrets about being able to do so:
I wondered, should I have tried harder to keep that part of me alive? And was it too late? Might I have another chance to be a mother and an artist? That possibility felt far, far away from me then … I hadn’t played a show in years. I was writing a little, but the most creative thing I was doing was teaching my son how to cook. But the act of teaching Jonah how to make macaroni and cheese, and remembering and telling stories of my past, was breathing new life into that neglected corner of my identity. … I remind him that his mom was a drummer in rock bands, and I share with him the power of food and memory. I teach him this: If you want to make a hungry family or a starving rock band sigh with delight … then you can’t go wrong with a rich creamy sauce, a kick of mustard and cayenne, and brown buttery breadcrumbs. If it makes you feel better, serve it with a side of broccoli.
With her tasty licks, she serves up a delicious and fragrant, filling full-course repast.
Smith writes a column on food for Paste, in which she interviews authors about their favorite foods. One column shouts out that Wanda Jackson makes a mean bologna sandwich, and in her most recent column, Paul Burch imagines what Jimmie Rodgers’ perfect meal might be (it involves fresh-killed chickens). She spends her days as a lecturer and undergraduate advisor for the Northwestern University Department of Radio/Television/Film. Last fall, she and her husband Jake released a new Mysteries of Life EP on Bandcamp, and she’s in the midst of a Pledge Music campaign for a new effort from the Blake Babies.
I caught up with Smith one afternoon for a chat about music, food, and her book.
Henry Carrigan: What led you to write this book? Why this book now?
Freda Love Smith: There was this constellation of moments that came together. It started as a project out of the experience of motherly concern. My son, Jonah, was starting college in a year, and I felt like I was sending him unprepared. I wanted to find a way that we could spend time together that wouldn’t feel onerous. He loves to eat and I love to cook, so I thought maybe we could cook together. He loved the idea and was very involved early in the process. I had been casting about for an idea for a book, and I thought, “This is something I could write about; why don’t I write about this?”
So, how does music fit in this book?
Someone asked me why there is no music in this book. In fact, some editors wanted more music in the book. I thought about Jonah as straddling both worlds, and I’ve always tried to reconcile these different facets of my life — my music life and my life as a mother. I had these stereotypical parental thoughts that maybe my cooking with Jonah could connect me back to his age. I could stick with this frame of a year of cooking together, and in the process what happened was that I got pulled back to these other memories. Food was a key component of my life with the Blake Babies — either we didn’t have any, or we were trying to find some, or there were meals that were memorable. Food served as bridge between these moments.
Tell me a little about your process of writing the book.
The lessons came first; the book came after. It wasn’t easy to find a publisher. As I said, some editors wanted more music than food. I did some research and found Agate, this small publisher here in Evanston, and the publisher, Doug Seibold, really believed in the book. The experience, especially of working with this small publisher, hearkened back to my touring days and also to that do-it-yourself experience of being in the band. It feels kind of punk, and I liked it.
How did you come up with the title?
It was a gift from an editor, Rochelle Bourgault, I’d been talking to. I had that eureka moment when I decided that it should be about food and music. I love how this title combines the two, and especially recalls the music of one of my favorite bands. The title is cool and edgy while also pointing to comfort food and nostalgia.
You’ve spent a good part of your life writing songs. What’s the difference, for you, between writing songs and this book?
Before I’d written this book, I had written a number of short stories and songs. The book seemed overwhelming to me at first, so I tried to write a little at a time. Every chapter I wrote was like writing a song, and writing the book was a little like sequencing an album.
What will readers be surprised to learn about you?
If readers aren’t familiar with my background as a musician, they might find out how boring it would be to be a musician. For a musician at my level, it’s more work-a-day, setting up, traveling, tearing down; it can be exhausting and tiresome. It was a job — a creative one — but just a job.
What were the hardest parts of the book for you to write?
The hardest was opening up. I tend to be very private, and I am reluctant to share emotions or personal experiences. It was hard for me to tilt the emotional scale and turn it on myself. I definitely did a lot of rewriting.
The easiest part?
Writing the recipes. There were points in the process where I got to cook and take notes.
What ideas or lessons would you like readers to take from the book?
There are so many food-based projections of domestic perfection these days. I’d like readers to take away that a domestic life doesn’t have to be perfect to be really good. I wanted to be sure to paint a picture of what it really looks like. We were in this crappy kitchen in an okay apartment, but it was still sweet.
What’s next for you?
I want to keep my focus on writing about music and about food. I write a column for Paste called “Dinner and a Disc” where I pair an album with a recipe from a cookbook. I also talk to artists about the food they like. I want to continue to show the deep connections between music and food.