The contemporary memoir at its best to me, is rarely about one thing. Not only that, but the most interesting aspect is frequently not the aspect that drew me in.
When bassist, artist and writer Joyce Raskin told me that former Blake Babies drummer Freda Love had written a memoir, it was downloaded to my kindle within a minute. A voice from the remarkable late 80s early 90s Boston alt rock scene? Yes please.
I am making strawberry scones with my son Jonah. Not Jonah at four, rosy cheeks and long eyelashes, or Jonah at seven, outsized front teeth and towhead crew cut, but Jonah at eighteen, scraggly blond mustache and apparent hangover. And yet my heart flutters. It is 10:30, Sunday morning. Jonah has been home for one day from the University of Illinois, where he just completed his freshman year.
He towers over me. I show him how to zest a lemon. He gets the hang of it, producing little ribbons of zest and a bright smell that elevates our little apartment kitchen, with its yellow 1970s linoleum and rusty appliances, to a place of memory and emotion where more is at stake than a tray of scones.
Thus the first paragraph and a half of Red Velvet Underground set the scene. This, and to be fair there were clues I withheld from you for the sake of the review, is a memoir of motherhood and of cooking. Those clues? The subtitle ‘A Rock Memoir, with Recipes’; the contents pages listing food items; the witty title and the cover art.
Freda decides, as her elder son reaches about 16, to teach him to cook. To prepare him for leaving home, and to help him think through his food choices. It becomes a routine, and a bonding experience, so that when Jonah goes to college it is the loss of this shared time that hits Freda.
Chapters focus on a cooking session, such as the scones, stir fry, and huevos rancheros, but evolve into memories and philosphising about the roles of food and cooking in Freda’s life. The dishes mentioned in that chapter are described in attached recipes, some with commentary including at one point ‘Makes enough to feed a 6-piece band or family’. Most are vegetarian or vegan, almost all can be adapted either way. Flexitarian at heart, Freda and family experiment with a raw food week, soup week, Vegan months. Some ideas flow into others.
And yes the rock music comes in too. Jonah asks his mom if she has heard Pixies, so she tells him about gigs together, and playing Euchre with ‘(coolest person in the world)’ Kim Deal. Even in a memoir of that Boston scene, did you expect that line? How about ‘Few people will ever gaze upon a human more beautiful than 19 year old Evan Dando.’?
But when Freda and a reformed Blake Babies go on tour briefly, the other mothers at young Jonah’s preschool have opinions. ‘I think it’s great that you can leave your kids like that for so long, I could never do that.’
Mostly the setting is Jonah’s late teens though, perhaps not the most commonly depicted period of motherhood? The time when Freda and husband and former bandmate, Jake, have gone into reputable employment in academia and administration.
Again and again though Freda returns to cooking, and especially shared cooking.
It was sublimation, an effective distraction, a form of therapy, and had the added bonus of ensuring that we ate extremely well.
That simple sentence amidst the detail of college applications, the stresses of costs, and cooking tilapia in a foil pouch, sums up much of Freda Love Smith’s charming, moving and uplifting memoir (with recipes.) The combination of pragmatic choices and natural human emotions is an unexpected balance where so many other memoirs come from trauma to supposed health, or show indulgent cliché ahead of humanity.
Each episode takes Freda into her own life patterns, occasionally her own parents, and her husband’s. As she ultimately seems to recognise in writing this book, structure becomes visible from a distance, relationships, patterns, echoes that seemed absent at the time emerge later. Her brother, praised her for his soup making but actually an acclaimed jazz bassist, is wise on this.
He claims that it wasn’t restaurant work that taught him most about cooking, it was jazz.
Music and cooking seem interchangeable emotionally for Freda, as the unity and community of the band becomes the unity of the kitchen. Touring memories are of eating free Hare Krishna meals through financial necessity, and of a particular vegetarian diner The Grit in Athens, Georgia, which earns a chapter of its own.
After Jonah goes to University, his brother Henry asks for lessons, but it is Jonah’s decisions on changing college that reflect Freda quitting high school to form a band across the country with her boyfriend.
‘It was a crazy decision. But it was one of the best crazy decisions of my life.‘
Quoting Mike Watt, they were ‘jamming econo’ she says. So with Jonah she aims for instilling the same abilities, but with better judgement. And she teaches him to make cake because ‘I know too many women who make their own birthday cake.’
[Cake] had become tied to thornier issues of gender identity and to my identity as a woman and a feminist. And I’m not sure how normal this is. I wanted to convey to Jonah that this was important, that this cooking lesson had, um, layers to it.
There’s the nub of Red Velvet Underground perhaps. Freda Love Smith chatting to the reader, to herself, to her son, about cooking, making a point almost without making a point. Educating not teaching, perhaps, and learning herself as she goes. She calls it a sermon at one point, but it’s exemplar too really. As she talks about work life balance she asks if it even exists. Her book suggests to me that it does, when we aren’t looking.
Red Velvet Underground is funny, charming and light, but deceptively substantial in areas outside it’s apparent focus. The memoir that is about so much more than its purported theme, like any good tune is more than its notes or a recipe its ingredients.