Rare is the person who could truthfully claim her life has gone according to plan. But musician and writer Freda Love Smith, author of Red Velvet Underground: A Rock Memoir, with Recipes, says, “I’ve mostly just thought my life has been a lot of chaos and a lot of changes in direction.” Her book deftly stitches together family life, stories from her stints as the drummer in The Blake Babies, Antenna and The Mysteries of Life, and personal food-related memories.
“The process of writing allowed me to see that there was more cohesion and order than I’d thought,” says Smith, who will present her book at Malaprop’s Friday, Jan. 15. “Everybody wants that, whether they’re a rock drummer or a mom or whatever disparate lives they’re trying to make sense of. You want to feel like there’s some order.”
Smith’s resume is varied, including baker and yoga teacher as well as a lecturer at the School of Communications at Northwestern University. She holds an MFA in writing and, though she’d published short stories, knew she wanted to attempt a book. When Smith’s eldest son, Jonah, was in his last year of high school, she decided to give him a series of cooking lessons so he’d be self-sufficient when he left home. Those tutorials sparked the idea for a prose piece, though originally it was much more linear. And, while there was precedent for a memoir with recipes (Elizabeth Bard’s Picnic in Provence, Shoba Narayan’s Monsoon Diary and an entire Goodreads list dedicated to “books shelved as cookbook-memoir”), “the cooking lessons with Jonah linked me to the way food was central to both of our stories,” Smith says.
Much of the chapter “Macaroni and Cheese and Other Road Food” waxes rhapsodic about Athens, Ga., and, specially, that town’s vegetarian restaurant The Grit. While Smith recounts the importance of healthy food while on tour, she also reminisces about staying in the home of Lynda Stipe (sister of R.E.M.’s lead singer) and eating blueberry pie at The Grit that was “not just good, it was perfect.”
In the book, Smith adapts that dessert recipe along with down-home favorites like stir fry, roast chicken, and “Zirque’s split-pea and squash soup,” as prepared by her jazz-musician brother. It turns out that Michael Bonner and his wife, Louise Sharpe, are recent transplants to Asheville. Sharpe is the owner and founder of Lulu’s Chocolate and will be part of Smith’s Malaprop’s event, sharing samples of her chocolate.
Lulu is not the author’s only brush with fame. As a narrator, Smith is down to earth, but Red Velvet Underground has plenty of star-studded moments. The Blake Babies included a young Julianna Hatfield (who offers a glowing endorsement on the book’s jacket) and, briefly, a pre-Lemonheads Evan Dando. But the real VIPs in this memoir are Smith’s sons.
Jonah gave the book his stamp of approval, the writer says, and though now in his 20s, it was strange for him to revisit those cooking lessons from a few years ago. “It was an interesting reminder of how different the passing of time is for someone of his age and someone of my age,” says Smith. One of the important outcomes of the memoir — and she discusses this desire in her writing — is that both boys now cook.
Younger son Henry who, as an eighth-grader, initiated his own cooking lessons, “is at ease in the kitchen in a way that I so enjoy,” says Smith. “He frequently makes meals for himself and every now and then will make something for the whole family.” In the chapter “Let Him Make Cake,” Smith points out that kitchen duties all too often fall to women, even in the most liberated of households. Faced with the example of a friend who always baked her own birthday cake, the writer decided that her sons would know that skill, among others.
That chapter, Smith says, has garnered many comments. “It wasn’t something I wanted to be shrill about, but it was something I wanted to be honest about,” she says. “There’s still progress to be made.”
Outside the kitchen, Smith’s own life has progressed. She’s returned to music as her schedule allows. She and her husband, Jake Smith, regrouped The Mysteries of Life; the band just released the EP Bad Advice on Bandcamp. She’s played with singer-songwriter Robbie Fulks — including a show after Red Velvet Underground was released that included songs about food and onstage cooking. And most recently she performed with an all-woman supergroup (including Tanya Donelly of Throwing Muses).
That Boston-based benefit concert, seemingly custom-made for Smith, is aptly named Hot Stove Cool Music.
WHO Freda Love Smith presents Red Velvet Underground
WHERE Malaprop’s, malaprops.com
WHEN Friday, Jan. 15, 7 p.m. Free