Editor’s note: We’re thrilled for the release of Paste contributor Freda Love Smith’s new memoir, which brings together her background as a musician (she’s the founding drummer of the band the Blake Babies) and her passion for cooking, which she shares with her teenage son in a series of cooking lessons. And yes, her book includes recipes. But we really can’t do Freda justice in a blurb, so you’re better off reading this excerpt from Red Velvet Underground.
When my oldest son Jonah was seventeen, he and I embarked on a series of cooking lessons, covering the basics. I wanted to send him out into the world knowing how to make a good stir-fry and roast a chicken. When Jonah left home after that year, loaves of bread molded in the kitchen, apples softened and rotted, lettuce wilted, cheese dried up. For thirteen years we’d been feeding two boys, and for the past few years hungry Jonah had consumed at least half the food in the house. After a while, we learned to buy less.
Jonah’s first weeks away were emotional for me, but I had a welcome distraction: my younger son Henry insisted that now it was his turn to learn how to cook. My plan had always been to give Henry the same deal as Jonah, and repeat the cooking lessons during his final year of high school. Henry was only in eighth grade. But Henry did not want to wait.
Henry had never wanted to wait for anything. His impatience had something to do with having a brother almost five years his senior. Jonah hadn’t had a big brother to emulate and never displayed this kind of impatience. Here’s my most vivid Baby Jonah memory: at six months old, he sat Buddha-like in front of a big, sturdy Richard Scarry book, open before him on the floor. He carefully turned a page and leaned forward to examine the pictures of Lowly Worm and friends, his eyes moving methodically across the pages. After a moment, he leaned back up and turned the page again, pinching gingerly with his chubby yet graceful fingers. I could have more kids, I thought. If this is what it’s like. I could have a few more.
Let’s just say I never had that thought with Henry. From his intense, lightning-quick homebirth, he was entirely unlike his mellow big brother. We woke Jonah in the middle of the night so he could watch Henry enter the world. The midwife made notes of Jonah’s observations. Of his red-faced, howling little sibling Jonah said, proudly, “Hey, he’s already talking! He’s saying ‘wow, wow, wow, wow!’” Jonah had other classic comments: “Mom’s vagina is messy, but the placenta looks really cool.” My friend Jennifer, in attendance to help me during and after the birth, cooked that “cool” placenta for me. She sautéed the placenta in olive oil and garlic and it was perfect. I devoured it. (I guess it only tasted good to me—my husband Jake stopped after one bite). I liked the idea of eating my placenta. I’d read a few radical articles about the health benefits, and they pointed out that all other mammals do it, so why not me? Maybe I also thought it would be fun to tell people that I ate my placenta and observe their shocked reactions (this has, in fact, been fun). But it also really hit the spot.
Henry’s birth scene depicts our family in a nutshell, and it’s a portrait I’m admittedly fond of: four-year old Jonah, awake in the middle of the night and, entirely unperturbed, makes astute comments about his screaming, blood-and-shit covered newborn brother Henry, while Jake hovers around sweet and concerned, and I chow down on some garlic placenta.
Once his eyes opened enough to look out into the world, and the screaming slowed down a bit, Henry intently watched Jonah run and play, day after day, frustrated at his own immobility. At the improbable age of five months, Henry hauled his blobby body onto hands and knees and crawled. Even worse, he stood up at nine months and walked, drunken-sailoring after his big brother and into every sharp corner and hard surface in the world. He would catch up, if it killed him. Imagine his poor mother. And especially his poor worrywart father.
Henry’s early years had a different feel from Jonah’s babyhood, more stable in some ways, less so in others. Our circumstances were ostensibly wilder when Jonah was little—Jake and I were full-time musicians, touring frequently with our band the Mysteries of Life, with Jonah along for the ride. Still, he had both parents close at hand most of the time, and when I wasn’t actually on stage performing he was usually strapped to my body or attached to my breast. By the time Henry was born, Jake was in graduate school, while I was still working occasionally as a drummer. I was heading out of town regularly on short tours starting when Henry was around two, leaving Jake with first-grade Jonah and toddling Henry. This was new territory for Jake, and he took his responsibility seriously. The experience amplified his protective urges, and tension developed as I settled into a more relaxed role, the in-and-out-the-door parent, the classic “fun dad” role.
Sometimes it was a matter of navigating minor incidents, but some situations were a big deal. One summer our family took a trip to Scotland and spent a few days on the Isle of Mull, a beautiful island in the Inner Hebrides. Eight-year-old Henry was an early bird, always up with or before the sun. So it was no surprise when he asked if we could wake up at six to explore the island, every day, just the two of us, while Jake and Jonah slept in. Henry was a handful at eight. He pushed against every boundary and protested every restriction. He seemed always to be asking questions: “Can I climb that (lion statue, rusty fence, pile of bricks)? Can I go into that (condemned building, mossy pond, head shop)? Can I try this (horseback riding, decrepit rollercoaster, triple hot-fudge sundae)?” And in general we spouted a litany of “No, no, no.” It was exhausting.
I agreed to Henry’s request. The early morning walks seemed like an easy way to ease some of the tension, an opportunity to let him run a little wild lest he explode in frustration. It felt good to say “yes” for once.
Mull was amazing in the morning. We poked around the quaint seaside village of Tobermory, along the docks and by the fishing boats. We walked up a long stretch of old stone stairs, up into the residential part of the village, down leafy streets, past cottages and gardens. Eventually we found ourselves on the single road that traversed the whole island, lined with shale cliffs, steep and crumbly. Uh-oh. “Hey,” said Henry, eyeing those cliffs. “Can I climb that?” The no rose within me, but I slammed on my internal pause button. I wanted to say yes to him. But. I looked at the cliff in question. How high was it? There appeared to be plenty of secure handholds and footholds. It actually looked very climbable. It wasn’t as crumbly as some of the other pieces of cliff we’d passed. But it was steep. It was dangerous, definitely. Was it too dangerous? “Please,” said Henry. He was strong, coordinated, and still had some softness, some baby fat to cushion a fall. And I’d be there, I could spot him, help him right away if anything happened. I should say no, I thought.
“OK,” I said. “Be so careful.”
“I can?” said Henry in disbelief “Really?”
“Yes,” I said. And I could feel the disappointment of a thousand no’s evaporate.
Henry climbed, slowly, steadily. Before long, he was way, way up there. I kept my eyes stuck on him as he worked his way down, until he was standing in front of me, out of breath, his big blue eyes even wider than usual. “That,” he said, “was the best thing I’ve ever done. Ever.”
I still don’t know if I made the right call that day on Mull. If Henry had slipped, if he had fallen, he could have broken a bone or worse. But I’ll never forget those looks he gave me. I could see that space, freedom, and trust were gold to little Henry, and that he would always be impatient for more of all three.
Henry was not only impatient—he was resolute. One night, a couple of years after the Scotland climb, our family went out to dinner and missed the bus back home. It was chilly and damp, and the next bus wasn’t due for an hour. The only place open nearby was McDonald’s. We’ve never been a fast food kind of family, and Henry in particular was staunchly anti-Mickey D’s. They destroyed rain forests to raise cattle, they employed cruel methods of meat production, and their food was gross and unhealthy. He was a passionate vegetarian at the time. I knew all of this, but I suggested that we take refuge in McDonald’s while we waited for the bus. Under the circumstances, it was a reasonable idea, and Jake and Jonah agreed.
“No,” said Henry. “I will not go in there.” We tried to convince him that it was no big deal, it was just this once. In the end, Jake, Jonah, and I sat at a yellow molded plastic table, warm and dry, drinking ridiculously sweet hot chocolate from polystyrene cups, while Henry stood outside, glaring in at us through the window from beneath the golden arches.
“I can’t believe you did that,” he said when we walked out.
“That is so evil.”
Honestly, the whole thing just plain warmed my heart.
So there would be no waiting: Henry and I began cooking lessons.
I knew this new project would work best on Henry’s terms, so I let him choose the foods we prepared. I also knew he’d be more interested if we focused on technique rather than recipes.
Our biggest success that fall was pesto. Pesto had always been important to Henry and was maybe the primary thing standing between toddler Henry and nutritional deficiency.
Pesto was my most successful strategy to sneak green vegetables into his diet. Jonah, the baby road warrior, had learned early how to eat anything anywhere, he never needed to be tricked into eating his veggies, and his omnivorousness left us unprepared for Henry. Bereft of the dubious benefit of joining his parents on rock tours, Henry was a more typical toddler regarding food. A picky eater. When friends invited our family over to dinner, they’d ask ahead of time about our kids’ preferences.
“Don’t bother trying,” I’d say. “Jonah will eat anything. Henry will eat nothing.”
Henry turned up his nose at most foods, which made it all the weirder when he insisted, at the age of four, that he was a trained chef. Henry was adamant, and Jonah pressed him on it: “Where did you get trained?” Jonah asked. As it turned out, Henry had received his training on the planet “Popy,” the home of his imaginary alter-ego, John Mugazin.
“Oh really,” continued Jonah, still hoping to come out on top. “If you’re a chef, then what’s your specialty?”
“Wait,” said little Henry. “I’ll make it for you.”?And so Henry made Jonah his specialty, a little something he called “pop pie,” (named for planet Popy) comprising a single Altoid with a slice of bread smushed firmly into a ball around it. Jonah declined to eat his pop pie. Henry was not discouraged, and for months he offered his specialty to everybody. The only taker was his loyal preschool buddy Mackie.
“This is good,” said Mackie. He politely requested pop pie every time he came over.
Pop pie didn’t do anything to help with Henry’s vegetable problem. In particular, he didn’t eat enough green vegetables. We tried the classic Popeye argument, but really we were gun-shy about pushing Popeye too hard ever since Jonah, who had perhaps been overexposed to Popeye cartoons when he was littler, had once pounced on an unsuspecting girl at the shopping mall, fists swinging, gleefully singing the words of the Popeye theme song, “I biffs ’em and boffs ’em!” We subdued the usually calm and peaceful Jonah and apologized to the crying little girl and her angry parents. And we cut way back on Popeye cartoons.
Happily, I discovered pesto, a nonviolent solution. Picky Henry loved pesto, and I found I could sneak all kinds of greens into the mix—parsley, spinach, kale, arugula—and he would always eat it.
Thirteen-year-old Henry had outgrown much of his pickiness, but pesto remained a favorite. For our lesson, I kept the instructions loose and I focused instead on the general proportions of cheese/nuts/salt/greens/pasta. I showed him how to use the food processor, although I was nervous about its extremely sharp blade. He clearly appreciated this gesture. Space, freedom, and trust were still the keys for Henry.
Soon, Henry had invented his signature blend: spinach and Brazil nuts on bow-tie pasta.
As the weeks went by, he started to ask, “Do you want me to make pesto for dinner?” It was vaguely reminiscent of those pop pie days gone by. But with a major difference: his pesto was amazing, and yes we did want him to make it for dinner. When we praised him lavishly he only shrugged. The achievement came as no surprise to Henry. And we should have been well beyond being surprised by him anymore. “Wow,” we said with our mouths full. “Wow, wow, wow.”
Freda Love Smith is a drummer and the author of Red Velvet Underground: A Rock Memoir, with Recipes. She blogs here. Follow her on Twitter.
Photo of Tobermory by Sam Kelly CC BY
Pesto photo by thebittenword.com CC BY