Review: Red Velvet Underground

Screen Shot 2015-12-31 at 2.27.45 PMMy Saturday night plans don’t often include a cookbook store and ham and cheese croissants (amazing, provided by Bertrand Alépée from The Tempered Room), but that’s exactly where I found myself earlier this month, preparing to meet Freda Love Smith. The (still) drummer, feminist and mother made her only Canadian stop at Eat your Words, a quaint little cookbook shop tucked into Annette Street to promote her first book, Red Velvet Underground.

Smith introduces the book as a “very straightforward documenting of a year of cooking lessons” that evolved into the part cookbook, part memoir and overall fluid read that I easily made through in a couple of evenings. Each chapter is divided by a food focus much like a cookbook, but each section is grounded firmly in a moment of family evolution, like her son’s hungover baking lesson on his first visit back from university. In her discussion of the book in the compact space of Eat Your Words, Smith described that “memories just infiltrated” her documenting of the cooking lessons pretty naturally.

She comes off as pretty natural herself, even though I’m more than a little intimidated by this women who spent time with the Pixies and Henry Rollins while on tour with the The Blake Babies in the 80s. I’m not sure if I’m rock and roll enough to meet her that evening, but since the setting was much more Martha Stewart than Misfits, I figured I could just blend in with the canning jars and bamboo cutting boards and I’d be just fine. That is until I realize that the night’s discussion leader of sorts would be Canadian rock alumnus Dave Bidini, then I couldn’t find a jar big enough to hide behind. Besides Smith’s own impressive resume, Bidini adds a whole new level of rocker/author prestige to the evening.

As they discuss the value of deliberate and accidental metaphors throughout the book, one line of Smith’s strikes a chord with me when she talks about the “parallels between the world of music and the world of food”. It’s all about the timing, both in drumming and in the kitchen, where you have to know when to start something and stop something else so that you don’t end up off tempo with brown, mushy asparagus or crunchy rice. That awareness of timing is evident in her narrative as she weaves stories of life on tour, becoming a mother and her own continuing journey through the practicality of helping her son navigate early vegetarianism “without eating like an anorexic girl.” While Smith and her family eat more or less vegetarian, the book takes a soft approach to mostly vegetarian dishes, while including a a recipe for a great roasted chicken. I asked Smith how she felt about people’s preoccupation with diet labels, and she admits that:

“When I was strictly vegetarian or vegan, I enjoyed the clarity and definition that came with these labels, while simultaneously feeling overly restricted or confined by them. It was a struggle, sometimes. I have nothing but respect for vegetarianism and veganism, there are so many good reasons to favor a plant-based diet, but narrow rhetoric can be off-putting, and strict rules might make healthy dietary changes feel remote and inaccessible to some people.”

The evening moves pretty quickly, and while I manage to work up the nerve to ask about the details of the naming of The Blake Babies (you’ll have to read the book to find out, but it involved a real life meeting with Allen Ginsberg, which is so awesome) our in person conversation is unfortunately cut short. In some online conversation we had the following day, we dug a little deeper into some questions that come from a full reading of the book, like how this idea of being a woman, a mom and a rock drummer creates a lot of doubt and uncertainty:

“My hunch is that yes, it’s more relevant for women and mothers than men and fathers. I have probably suffered more intense doubts as a woman in rock than I would have as a man in rock. This is partly attributable to the fact that I play a male-dominated instrument in a male-dominated industry. Throughout my on again/off again career, I’ve come to terms with my limitations as a drummer and developed my strengths, but in the place of old doubts, new ones have crept up, ones that seem decidedly gendered as well: Am I a bad mom for leaving my kids to go on tour? Is it undignified for a forty-eight year old woman to play rock drums?”

I’m going to go ahead and say it’s completely dignified, totally bad-ass in fact. Whatever dignified really means these days is up for debate, but her book and her story is a respectful and honest narrative of her rock life as it was in the heyday of The Blake Babies, through to the more modern struggles of being a grown up rocker and getting a teenager out of bed in the morning to make scones with his mother.

Recipes of Note:

Blueberry Pie, adapted from the The Grit Restaurant Cookbook
Condo Pad Black Bean Soup
Spinach and Brazil Nut Pesto
and, if you just happen to have the ingredients lying around, Garlic Placenta

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