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Handful of Biscuits: Life Lessons from the Kitchen

Freda Love Smith

Freda Love Smith shares a recipe that helps her preserve a beloved legacy

In's Recipe Vault series, celebrity chefs and food bloggers share how recipes preserve our life stories and connect us to those we've lost.

Freda Love Smith is a columnist for Paste, a lecturer at Northwestern University, and the author of the cookbook and memoir "Red Velvet Underground." But fans of college radio might remember her name from a very different context – from 1986 to 1991, she was the drummer for the power pop trio Blake Babies, whose alternative hits included "Out There." She went on to be a member of other bands including Antenna and Mysteries of Life. Love Smith's food life was influenced by the challenges of touring with a band as a vegetarian, but that was just one of many experiences that brought her to where she was when she taught her teenage son to cook and chronicled the lessons in "Red Velvet Underground." A few months after the publication of her book, we talked to the author about how recipes can reflect our legacies. 

Tell me a little bit about how you first got interested in cooking and in writing about food.

I think that cooking has always been really central in my life. I definitely trace it back to formative experiences I had in my childhood with my southern grandmother, who was a really wonderful cook. Later in life, I was a latchkey kid, so I was on my own a lot, and it sort of ended up being a gift, having a certain amount of freedom. I really distinctly remember playing around in the kitchen when I was 10 years old, cooking for my younger brother. And discovering cookbooks, also, which is something that I fell in love with when I was really young. I write in my book, "Red Velvet Underground," about discovering my mother's copy of "Joy of Cooking" when I was 10, and trying to make the scrambled eggs recipe from there, and just being thrilled that it was so perfect. It sort of felt like cracking a code. It demystified the whole process of cooking for me, but also really opened it up for me.

Later in my life, I worked in a bakery. My first job that I had when I was 16 years old was in a really excellent local bakery in my hometown of Bloomington, Indiana. Luckily, I got incredible hands-on training in doing French pastry and bread and all of these things. That only increased my respect for the baking process and my marveling at the alchemy of food.

Then later in my life, I became a musician, I became a drummer in bands, and food was really a big part of those years. I was barely eking out a living as a musician, and I was also trying to be a vegetarian on the road, so a lot of my story is really about trying to find ways to feed myself on very little money and also within these dietary restrictions I'd chosen for myself.

And wasn't it so much harder, 25 years ago, to be a vegetarian? I was a new vegetarian then myself.

Oh, it was so hard! I really remember going through a menu and just trying to pick out things, and eating, like, a boiled potato for dinner. Especially when you're in an unfamiliar town and you don't know where to go, it was a challenge – but it was an adventure, too, and in some ways that was part of the fun. It felt more triumphant when you could actually score a really good, healthy meal. And pre-internet, as well! There's a whole other added layer of challenge of having to ask around, or search around, or just get lucky sometimes. Or sometimes just be kind of hungry. I definitely had experiences with that, with just eating lots of peanuts.

I guess that all of this love of food really carried into my own experiences as a mother of two sons. And it provides the most prominent narrative in my book, which is organized around a year of cooking lessons that I did with my oldest son, Jonah, before he went away to college. I think that my thinking at the time – this is maybe five years ago now – was that this was the best thing I could do for him to prepare him for the adult world. I feel like there are so many skills wrapped up in being able to cook. This is something that unfolded in my mind as that year progressed. This is kind of about learning how to manage a budget, and this is sort of about learning to take care of yourself, and also about how to share with others and help take care of others, and about learning how to improvise.

It ended up being a really moving experience for me to have this time with my son. And this year of cooking caused me to reflect back on all these other moments in my life in which food was really central. So I think it's kind of a recurring theme in my life, but it's also a connecting thread between different chapters in my life and different aspect of my identity.

You mentioned the scrambled eggs from "The Joy of Cooking" being a memorable early meal that you cooked. Would you say that's the first thing you cooked, or at least the first thing you cooked well?

That's the first thing I remember cooking completely independently. I know I cooked alongside my grandmother when I was much younger than that, but this was really me taking everything out of the fridge, putting it together, and serving it. So yeah. I'd say that was the first thing – certainly the first thing I remember. I was 10 years old.

Would you say your grandmother or mother taught you to cook, or are you more self-taught?

Kind of a combination. I definitely trace my origins as a food lover to my grandmother. Her food was always the food that I loved the best, and she always really welcomed me into the kitchen, so that most of my memories of spending time with her, when I was younger, they all take place in the kitchen.

It was a little bit different with my mother and my father in that cooking seemed less leisurely. It was more something to get done, to get on the table. It was always good – both of my parents are really good cooks. But with my grandmother, it seemed more like this thing to experience together. Of course, a lot of that is because she wasn't working from 9 to 5 and then coming home and trying to get food together with kids. Her lifestyle was different. So I feel like she didn't explicitly teach me to cook, but she really imparted on me this certain attitude about cooking as a really enjoyable activity, as a way to connect to the people you're cooking with, but also as a way to communicate to the people you're cooking for. Cooking cut pretty deep for her, I think, and that was really influential on me.

When you were talking about the lessons you were able to teach your son through cooking – that's so interesting. I wanted to ask what your favorite thing about cooking is, but I wonder if there are so many things about cooking that come together to make it a special activity that there's not a single favorite thing? I'm curious what your answer to that will be.

I guess it's different things for different situations. For me, personally, if I'm just cooking for myself, then I think my favorite thing about cooking is that I find it comforting. Especially baking. I find it comforting and reassuring. It's something that, when other things in my life feel in upheaval or uncertain, I can turn to baking to kind of settle and ground and comfort me. So for just me personally, I would say that. But when I start to expand out to my family, including my past with my grandmother, or my relationship with my son, I feel like all of these other factors come into it, too.

You've talked so lovingly about your grandmother and really painted a picture of her as someone whose memory is, for you, all wrapped up with memories of food. Is she the person whose recipe you're going to tell us about today?

She is. Her food was always the best food. She lived most of her life in Nashville, Tennessee, which is where I spent a lot of time with her. I grew up in Indiana, but I spent lots of time just going down and staying with my grandmother for a period of time, and eating her green beans or her okra or her cornbread or fried chicken. But the thing that I always loved the most – and that anyone who ever tried them agreed were the best – were her biscuits. The recipe that I'm going to share, which is from my "Red Velvet Underground," is actually my vegetarian take on her biscuits and gravy.

So the biscuit recipe is really hers. She just used three ingredients: self-rising flour, shortening, and buttermilk, and that's it. I think the reason they were so amazing was her technique. She had a really light touch with biscuit dough, and she had cooked for 10,000 hours – she really just knew how to make them without thinking about them. It seemed like an almost unconscious process, just turning out these perfect, beautiful, fluffy biscuits. They were just a marvel.

When I was writing a book about food, I knew she would be part of that story, and I wanted to include a couple recipes to honor her, but the biscuits and gravy that she always made me were based on pork sausage, and that's not something that I eat, since for most of my life I've been vegetarian. So I created the vegetarian biscuits and gravy recipe to honor her influence on me in keeping with my own food choices and preferences. It took some trial and error to recreate, as best as I could, that memory of her perfect, fluffy biscuits and that creamy, peppery gravy. But finally, I got a good result, and it's something that I now make a lot for my family, and they always love it when I make it for brunch. And I can't make it without thinking of her. There's a lot wrapped up in it. Her memory lives in the process of making this dish.

Do you have any particular memories of enjoying that with her or cooking it with her?

One thing that was really lovely was how she would always include me in the process. She never, ever shooed me out of the kitchen or made me feel like I was in her way. The way she would do it is she'd give me little jobs to do. She'd give me a little bit of biscuit dough and say, "You make some baby biscuits." And I would make my own small biscuits, and then it was really exciting when they came out of the oven and I had my own little tiny ones that I'd made. Or she would have me stir the gravy or let me taste it, and help her make decisions about seasoning.

She just had this effortless way of including me and making me feel like I was an important part of the process. That was really emblematic of our whole relationship. She was always really unconditionally loving and supportive, and I could kind of do no wrong in her eyes. It was never the feeling of being a little child who is underfoot or in the way. I was very much a part of the process, and that meant so much to me.

This is obviously a strong part of your memories of your grandmother. You've gone to a lot of trouble to make a version of her biscuits and gravy that you can enjoy with your current diet. What do you think, in years to come, is going to be the food that someone associates with you in this same way?

Oh, I'm so glad you asked that! In the chapter of my book in which I write so much about my grandmother, it's actually centered on this experience of making granola with my youngest son, Henry. We had this period of time when everyone was eating a lot of granola and it was getting really expensive, and I was really fed up. I said, "Look, we're just going to start making our own." So every Sunday, Henry and I met in the kitchen and we made granola. I tried to do that in the same way that my grandmother had cooked with me, which was to include him, to make him feel empowered, to let him make choices, and really be a part of that process. I had a moment when I was thinking about how every time I make biscuits, I think about my grandmother. I had kind of a goose bumps moment when I thought, maybe someday when Henry's making granola, he'll think of me when I'm gone.

Vegetarian Biscuits and Gravy

Serves 4

For the Biscuits

2 cups self-rising flour

1/2 cup shortening or 1 stick unsalted butter

2/3 cup buttermilk plus 1–2 tablespoons, if needed

For the Gravy

2 cups whole milk or unsweetened soy milk

1 cup water

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 teaspoon dried sage

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1/2 teaspoon salt

Big pinch ground white pepper

Pinch cayenne pepper, optional

3 tablespoons olive oil

14-ounce package vegetarian ground sausage, chopped into small bite-sized pieces

1/3 cup all-purpose flour

To Make the Biscuits

1. Heat the oven to 425 F.

2. In a large bowl, work the shortening into the flour with your fingers or a fork, quickly and lightly. The mixture should have the consistency of coarse meal. (You can also pulse in a food processor a few times, then transfer to a large bowl.)

3. Slowly stir in the buttermilk until the dough comes together. Add a little more buttermilk if you need it to incorporate all the flour.

4. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface, fold and knead briefly, and press into a 1/2-inch-thick rectangle. It can be a little thicker.

5. Using a biscuit cutter, cut rounds. Place the rounds on an ungreased baking sheet, with the edges just touching. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until golden brown.

To Make the Gravy

1. In a medium bowl, whisk together the milk or soy milk with 1 cup of water and the soy sauce, sage, thyme, salt, pepper, and cayenne pepper, if using. Set aside.

2. In a deep, wide skillet over medium heat, warm the olive oil. Add the sausage and brown, stirring constantly, for 5 minutes. Add the flour, reduce the heat to medium-low, and stir for 2 to 3 minutes.

3. Gradually whisk in the milk mixture, then whisk more to fully combine. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly, then reduce heat to low and cook for 15 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning as needed. To serve, split biscuits open and top with warm gravy.