Q&A with Freda Love Smith, author of Red Velvet Underground

In Freda Love Smith’s new book, Red Velvet Underground, the former Blake Babies drummer and indie-rock musician tells the story of how her rock-and-roll past grew into her family- and food-centric present. Loosely framed around cooking lessons she gave her eldest son, Jonah, before he left for college, Smith recalls behind-the-music stories with the likes of Juliana Hatfield, Evan Dando (Lemonheads), Henry Rollins, and more.

Over the course of the book, which includes 45 flexitarian recipes, Smith reveals how food has evolved into an important means for creativity and improvisation in her life. This memoir is an engaging exploration of the ways food and music have informed identity through every stage of one woman’s life.

To celebrate the book’s publication last week, we are sharing a Q&A with the author.

When did you decide to write this book?  

It was an incremental decision, kind of a string of decisive moments. The first moment closely followed my decision to do a year of cooking lessons with my oldest son, Jonah. I was a few months out of finishing my creative writing MA, trying to figure out what to do as a writer. While Jonah and I planned our lessons and made our list of recipes, I thought, hey, I should write about this. The book began as a straightforward document of the lessons, but it quickly began to push against that constraint. I was writing about Jonah’s lifelong love of food and connecting it to his early childhood—when he spent a substantial amount of time on tour with me and my husband, Jake, in our band The Mysteries of Life—and I recalled a time that I observed Jonah, three years old, in preschool. He picked up the toy phone and started talking about strawberries and scrambled eggs—he wanted room service! I felt the book expand out of its framework with that image of my son, who’d moved between worlds, from backstage and sound checks and hotels to a normal domestic life in a small college town, and how I’d moved between those worlds myself, often struggling to reconcile and balance them. As the year of lessons and writing progressed, I couldn’t keep my own stories out of the book. When I’d been Jonah’s age, I had moved to Boston, started the Blake Babies, become vegetarian, and eaten my way across the country. All those stories wanted to interact with my experience as a mother. Once I had the title, the project finally crystallized, and I could clearly see the book I was writing.

Were your experiences with the Blake Babies after your reunion in 1999 (and after the birth of your sons) very different from your initial experiences with the band?

The Blake Babies reunion was mostly a breeze, with none of the intensity, pressure, or struggle that we felt in our earlier years. Not that those early years were all bad. There were plenty of high points, and I’m proud of how hard we worked back then. But the stakes were low for the reunion and we had all significantly mellowed. Recording was fun and easy, and every stop on our brief tour was an opportunity to reconnect with fans and friends. I suspect that I enjoyed it the most. It was a treat for me to play with Juliana and John again, to be able to appreciate them fully for the great musicians that they are, and to revisit my pre-motherhood identity. But I suspect it was also hardest for me. For the first out-of-town show, which was only a weekend-long trip away, I left the still- nursing Henry home with a weary Jake and Jonah and some bottles of milk. Henry was fine. But I was very uncomfortable, pumping every few hours, and when I couldn’t find a place to pump, I had to just do it in the van—modesty was not my primary concern. Poor John and Juliana. I’m not sure I’ve had a more surreal rock moment.

Red Velvet Underground

What are your sons’ favorite recipes to cook? What are your own?

Jonah is a senior in college now; he lives in a house in Chicago with three other guys, and most of them can cook, which makes my heart glad. Last year they prepared an entire Thanksgiving feast: turkey, stuffing, pie, everything. Jonah tells me that his specialty in the house is a kind of open-ended variation on the Pasta Fagioli recipe that I gave him when he was in high school, and that I once asked him to cook for me and Henry when I was solo-parenting and exhausted. Jonah calls his current version simply “Greens/Beans/Pasta/Sauce.” I hope he writes a cookbook of his own someday, one for broke 20-year-old college students.

Henry is sixteen and ferociously independent. Recently, Jake and I were going to be out for the evening, and I asked him what he wanted for dinner. I thought maybe we’d leave him money to order pizza. He asked me to buy him a whole chicken and a couple of potatoes, and he cooked himself a full chicken dinner from scratch, using the same recipe that I’d developed when I taught Jonah years ago.

Baking is my original and abiding pleasure in the kitchen. For me, baking is never about sustenance; I don’t bake because I have to, only because I want to. I’ve baked cookies at a couple of different bakeries over the years, and whipping up a batch is easy, almost automatic for me, and I love how excited it makes everybody. Pie is more of a project, but it is my favorite thing to make. There’s a big margin of error, and I’ve raged over my fair share of failures, but when pie is successful it’s absolutely magical. My favorite baking recipe in the book is the blueberry pie, an adaptation of a recipe from the legendary Grit restaurant in Athens, Georgia. I tell the story in the book about how it brought me to tears when I ate a slice on a Blake Babies tour.

What sorts of things did you learn as a touring musician that you were able to apply to motherhood? Has there been anything you learned from being a mom that you were able to apply to your music?

Touring taught me to function on little sleep, to be adaptable to a constantly shifting reality, and to stretch a measly ten-dollar per diem over two meals. These skills proved valuable in parenting. Motherhood softened my heart, taught me that I’m not the most important person in the world, and made me more attentive and empathic, all beneficial attributes for a musician, I think. Motherhood also got me playing quiet and with brushes so as not to wake the baby!

What are you working on next?

I want to keep exploring my interest in the connections between music and food. I interview musicians about food for Paste, and I plan to develop this into a rockers’ cookbook, with musicians contributing their favorite dishes. My working title is Pasta Makes You Play Intense, which is something that bass player Mike Watt (Minutemen, fIREHOSE), used to say often and with conviction in reference to his preferred pre-gig meal.

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