Freda Love Smith (drummer for Blake Babies, Antenna and The Mysteries of Life), just published her memoir/cookbook. Titled Red Velvet Underground, the book skillfully interweaves Love Smith’s original recipes with anecdotes about her musical life and her parenting and family experiences; it is emotionally affecting, thoughtful and warm, an efficient tome that never feels too precious.
Love Smith is also a food columnist for Paste, where she’s honed her ideas about the commonalities of music and food and how they can compliment and clash with one another; she also teaches at Northwestern University in the School of Communications.
We chatted a bit about unconventional lives, food as cultural currency, and sustenance through the winter months, and Love Smith was kind enough to share with us her vegetarian biscuits and gravy recipe, a fantastic comfort welcome at and beyond most holiday gatherings.
You’ve designed a class about food and cultural communication – how food ties us to one another, and that’s a theme that comes up so often in the book. What do you find are the most essential functions of food in American culture?
If we asked my students, most of them would say that the essential functions are ritual and communal; they connect with their friends over late-night pizza, with their families over the same Thanksgiving meal year after year. The athletes in the class wouldn’t disagree with this, but for them the essential functions are more practical. They obsess over nutrition, energy, health, and performance (and are encouraged to do so). I am interested in all of these functions, but the one I come back to in my thinking and teaching is the function of food to establish and communicate identity, both positively and negatively—you are what you eat, and you are what you don’t eat (meat, gluten, fast food, etc.)
Do you feel that those functions of food are similar to the functions of music – I’m thinking here of communities, of the ability to bond with strangers and share communal spaces, having emotional experiences alongside one another – or that they are too different from one another?
I do think there are strong parallels in all these ways that you mention, and also to my point above about identity, taste in food and taste in music are similarly potent markers of self. If you know that Olive Garden is my favorite restaurant you can draw some conclusions about who I am (or if my favorite restaurant is Frontera Grill, or a restaurant in Brooklyn that seats four and you’ve never heard of…). Likewise you could hazard a decent guess as to what I’m like if I tell you my favorite band is The Kinks (or Motley Crue, or The Dead Kennedys). One of my students in the food class pointed out that these subjects are safe “getting to know you” territory, that when you meet a new potential friend or love interest you might ask where they like to eat and what kind of music they’re into, and although it seems casual and not particularly personal the answers can be immediately revealing and give you a read on your compatibility with that person. It’s weird how much class plays into all this too, even more than age or geography. When I was in high school in southern Indiana, it was mostly the kids of academics who were into punk and gravitated towards less mainstream food and vegetarianism, and mostly the kids of blue collar workers who were into metal or country music and hamburgers.
Other than the Mysteries of Life, are you working on any other musical projects at the moment?
The Mysteries of Life is my steadiest musical project at the moment—we just released an EP on Bandcamp and we have had gigs in Chicago and Indianapolis in the past year. I’ve also played a couple of shows with Robbie Fulks in the past year, which is a complete delight because not only is he insanely talented, he’s also up for anything. At one gig we played mostly Blake Babies songs and he sang Juliana Hatfield’s parts. At another we played mostly songs about food and cooked food on stage. In January I am playing at the Hot Stove/Cool Music benefit in Boston, and for that show I’ll be in a band of eight women, including Tanya Donelly and Kelly Hogan. We’re going to cover a handful of women-in-rock tunes; I can’t wait! I dream of putting together an all-woman country band in Chicago, someday I’ll make that dream come true!
Your memoir spoke a lot to me as someone with a really unconventional life path. Is there any advice you’d give someone like me – and like you – who didn’t necessarily take a straight line from high school to college to a career? (I find that experiences like ours are special and breed a particular kind of strength, but that can be hard to explain to others.)
It’s reassuring to me to be reminded that I’m not the only one who didn’t take that straight line! My life does look chaotic when I step back and observe the trajectory, but I’m grateful for each interesting chapter and for the way that my adventures and mistakes have shaped me–and especially for the feeling of opportunity and expansiveness my unorthodox choices have left me with. Because I didn’t lock myself into a narrow path, I feel freer to change direction, to reinvent certain pieces of my life if they’re not working for me. My main advice to people like us is to not buy into the tyranny of ageism. Its easy to assume it’s too late to do something because of age. Of course there is such a thing as too late, but usually that kind of thinking is specious. I remember assuming, at sixteen, that I was too old to take singing lessons. Can you imagine!? Unfortunately, that reasoning stopped me from taking up singing, but fortunately I didn’t allow such assumptions to stop me from going to grad school in my forties. I was the oldest student in my cohort, but so what?
What dish would you be most excited to find on your host’s table as a member of a touring band?
When I’m on tour I crave simple, clean food, because that’s the hardest thing to find. I would swoon over a beautiful bowl full of steamed vegetables!
With Thanksgiving just past, and the December holidays in full swing, was there a dish you’ve made recently that you were particularly excited about? Anything new you’ve tried?
I have only been cooking Thanksgiving dinner for a few years, ever since we declared it a no-travelling holiday. I think it gets a little better each year. This year, I brought a lot of chili peppers into the meal, which was fun and delicious. The tastiest dish I made was roasted butternut squash glazed with a syrupy reduction of red wine vinegar, honey, and dried chilis.
As we’re about to enter a tough Midwest winter – what kinds of food – and music – are comforting you and keeping you warm right now? Any major recommendations?
I survive winter thanks to hot cups of tea, big pots of soup, quality whiskey, and stacks of books. One of the best ways to stay warm and happy on dark nights is to play drums. Hit hard, keep moving! Or you could bake bread, jump on the bed, dance to good music. You gotta generate your own warmth, somehow.
Here’s Freda’s Vegetarian Biscuits and Gravy recipe:
Vegetarian Biscuits and Gravy
For the Biscuits:
2 cups self-rising flour
1⁄2 cup shortening or 1 stick unsalted butter
2⁄3 cup buttermilk plus 1–2 tablespoons, if needed
For the Gravy:
2 cups milk or unsweetened soy milk 1 cup water
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon dried sage
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
Big pinch ground white pepper
Pinch cayenne pepper, optional
3 tablespoons olive oil
14-ounce package vegetarian ground sausage, chopped into small bite-sized pieces
1⁄3 cup all-purpose flour
To Make the Biscuits:
Preheat the oven to 425°F.
In a large bowl, work the shortening into the flour with your fingers or a fork, quickly and lightly. The mixture should have the consistency of coarse meal. (You can also pulse in a food processor a few times, then transfer to a large bowl.)
Stir in the buttermilk until the dough comes together. Add a little more buttermilk if you need it.
Turn the dough out onto a floured surface, fold and knead briefly, and press into a 1⁄2-inch-thick rectangle. It can be a little thicker.
Using a biscuit cutter, cut rounds. Place the rounds on an un-greased baking sheet, with the edges just touching. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until golden brown.
To Make the Gravy:
In a medium bowl, whisk together the milk or soymilk with 1 cup of water and the soy sauce, sage, thyme, salt, pepper, and cayenne pepper, if using. Set aside.
In a deep, wide skillet over medium heat, warm the olive oil. Add the sausage and brown, stirring, for 5 minutes. Add the flour, reduce the heat to medium-low, and stir for 2 to 3 minutes.
Gradually whisk in the milk mixture, then whisk more to fully combine. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly, then reduce heat to low and cook for 15 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning as needed.