Sex, Drugs, and Béchamel

Touring musicians are better known for their poor nutritional choices than for their prowess in the kitchen. Yet when Nate Query of the Decemberists gets behind the stove, he makes pork loin with poblano chiles.

Kara Zuaro, a Brooklyn-based food writer and music journalist, has taken Query’s recipe and others—from bands like Franz Ferdinand, the Hold Steady, the Mountain Goats, and They Might Be Giants—and compiled them in the recently released I Like Food, Food Tastes Good: In the Kitchen with Your Favorite Bands (Hyperion, 2007). The title is a reference to a song by the LA punk band the Descendents, whose drummer, Bill Stevenson, lends his recipe for pico de gallo to the book.

Zuaro and I met up for meze in a Brooklyn café to talk about recipes, musicians, and Taco Bell.

Did you contact bands because you liked them or you knew them?

Both. For a while I was interviewing bands for OC Weekly, and I would always ask them about food, because it tends to be great a conversation starter. Brian Ritchie, the bass player for the Violent Femmes, usually doesn’t do interviews … it was really weird, he was giving me canned answers. Then I told him about the cookbook, and he was so excited. He was talking about how he lived in Italy for a while, and how the cooks in his favorite restaurant taught him how to make wild boar ragu.

Were there any bands or musicians whose enthusiasm for food surprised you?

Eric Bachmann of Crooked Fingers and Archers of Loaf. Archers of Loaf were my favorite band in high school, to the point where I never wanted to interview Eric Bachmann, because I was afraid that he might not be that nice. When I saw him at SXSW last year, I went over and we were talking about the book—he’s really big, with piercing blue eyes, kind of a scary character—and he said, “This is such a wonderful idea … what do you think about seared tuna with a wasabi-coconut glaze? I make a really good roasted pepper pilaf with it.” I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t believe it was happening at an outdoor concert where everybody was drinking lots of beer.

Did you get any weird recipes?

There were a couple of people who don’t really cook at all—like the guys in Cursive. We were talking to Tim [Kasher, the band’s lead vocalist and songwriter] before a show, and he said, “Well, sometimes I put salsa on spaghetti—is that a recipe?” I didn’t use that one because it’s very similar to the recipe I got from Judah Nagler of the Velvet Teen—spaghetti with canned clam chowder.

Were there any recipes that were better than you expected?

Roots of Orchis’s sweet potato biscuits with vegan vegetable gravy. Vegan food is very difficult, because a lot of times it tastes like a substitute for something else. But in this case, it does not taste like anything else. It doesn’t taste like biscuits and gravy—it’s totally different. [My husband] Pete loves steak and is definitely not vegan, but he’s asked for it.

Indie rock and good eating are not often mentioned in the same breath.

A lot of bands work in restaurants. Being a line cook is a job you can have in any city, wherever you end up in between tours, and it’s a flexible schedule: You can take off a couple weeks and go back. And you have all the vegetarians and vegans—there are a lot in this community—who have to cook for themselves to get by.

What do bands eat when they’re touring?

A lot of fast food—Taco Bell, because that’s the cheapest, and they have bean burritos for vegetarians. Once you’re on the road, you’re giving your whole life away to be in this band. Food is just putting something in your stomach; you’re not thinking about whether it’s good or not. You’re battling hangovers all of the time. A lot of bands get calories from beer. Usually the most nourished person in the band is the one who gave me the recipe for the book.

Did you test all of the recipes yourself?

I spent about three months living on the recipes. One of the bigger problems in the recipes was too much salt. People who are heavy smokers seem to use a lot of salt.

The recipes in the book are not in the classic standardized recipe format—they’re printed as the musicians sent them to you.

We felt that the more they were in the voice of the band, the better the book would be. While I did things like pull out ingredient lists, a lot of the recipes didn’t have ingredient lists. It’s possible to make them all, but the recipes are in their own words—you see lowercase letters, slang.

Do you listen to music when you’re cooking?

Yeah, definitely. Our favorite was this Marva Whitney record—she was a backup singer for James Brown. She has a duet with James Brown, “You Got to Have a Job (If You Don’t Work, You Can’t Eat).”

Photograph by Roger Kisby