On the heels of last year’s critically adored Gone Away Backward, Robbie Fulks is all over the place this summer. At festivals (from the American Music Festival in Chicago to Pickathon in Oregon), on Prairie Home Companion (where listeners could hear the exact moment Garrison Keeler drank the Kool-Aid: “I think Robbie Fulks just became one of my favorite singers,” he said, wonderingly. Welcome to the club, Garrison), and across the sea, where he’s playing a string of August dates in the UK with the “Mini-Mekons” (Sally Timms and Jon Langford). Between summer travels, Fulks continues to repeatedly one-up himself with his Monday night residency at The Hideout in Chicago, blowing minds right out of faces one week with a set of experimental jazz versions of Carter Family songs, inspiring sighs and tears the next in a sweet duo with Nora O’Connor.
Fulks brings his restless work ethic to the kitchen, where he isn’t afraid to tackle complicated and challenging recipes, and where he is apparently cooking his way through London chef Ottolenghi’s brilliant cookbook, Plenty. At the same time, he doesn’t suffer foodies gladly and is perfectly fine with a meal of M&Ms and Doritos on the road, or a simple salad and classic spaghetti and meatballs at home.
Paste: You’re at a truck stop, you’re starving, and you have five minutes to assemble a meal. Please describe that meal, and how you feel about it.
Robbie Fulks: That happens so frequently that no powers of imagination are needed. It’s peanut M&Ms, a little bag of Doritos (they don’t look little until you hold them next to the family-size bags), a banana, and a Coke. I have the same meal if I’m checking into a Marriott Courtyard after hours and haven’t eaten. The banana is optional, because truck stop and hotel bananas often taste like the namesake of this magazine. How do I feel about that? Fine! I’m no goddamn Alice Waters.
Paste: When you’re traveling, what food from home do you crave?
RF: I miss really simple stuff. There are so many stretches of interstate, especially in barbaric places like Missouri and Pennsylvania, where there’s nothing on offer that any decent person could hold down. Two slices of bread with non-cooked things in it is seemingly beyond the world’s greatest economy to provide, scalably. And I find no restaurant with “apple” on the menu. Can I just get an apple? One thing I like to eat almost every day at home is a basic green salad, featuring a soft and topologically complex lettuce like Boston or red-leaf, dressed in oil and lemon. On the road you can get a splay of bitter alley weeds in starchy places, and the grazing bar cum spittoon over at the Bonanza, but they don’t quite fill the niche.
Paste: Do you have any superstitious pre-show drink rituals?
RF: No I don’t. I’ve got this thing, “alcoholism” I think the docs call it, and I put off drinking until the work is done because sometimes it gets out of hand.
Paste: Can you tell me about a meal or a particular food that you were supposed to like but didn’t?
RF: I’m not sure I understand the premise, but let me reply in this way. For a long time my wife and I were unreflective subscribers to the leisure-class cult of foodie-ism. In the early 2000s, with our first discretionary income in hand, we started going on dates to places where we’d cavalierly spend the equal of our grandparents’ annual income during the Great Depression on dinners portioned in Great Depression sizes and taking as long as the Great Depression to finish. Vita brevis, we laughed, while clinking and gorging away at Trotter’s and Ambria and other posh Chicago troughs.
After several years of this wanton wastage, reality began dawning. Where, once you’d rid your mind of reputation, social chatter, and magazine reviews, did you really find the best food away from home? Tacquerias, Thai holes-in-the-wall, family enterprises in drab strip malls, midnight ramen dives—all places where dropping twenty dollars was a challenge. A fifty-dollar tab in a slightly la-dee-da place equated, time and again, to over-salted nonsense; and as for the joints where you burnt through your savings hundreds at a clip, only one out of 10 had suitably spectacular food, food you might recall fondly on your deathbed. The other nine were memorable for sitting upright for four hours in a tight collar, putting up with oily and ill-humored waiters, enduring the company of the kind of boring loudmouth businesspeople you’d never want to have to dinner at your own house, running out of talk in the third hour, and leaving a little hungry. An expensive lesson in common sense, but one solidly learned. I do adore food and the ritual of dining out, and I don’t believe the term “fine art” is comically antithetical to food preparation, but I’m dead sure that the fine-dining biz (let’s except Grant Achatz, Daniel Boulud and a few others) is a complete racket.
Paste: What restaurant in the world do you most look forward to visiting when you’re on tour?
RF: Well, I’m a nostalgic fellow and most of these places aren’t notable for world-class food, just oft-visited sites of happy personal memories: Hattie’s Hat in Seattle, Veselka in Manhattan, Little Purity in Brooklyn, Lisa Elmqvist in Stockholm, Second Bar in Austin, Norske Nook in Osseo, Old-Fashioned in Madison, Il Canale in Georgetown. As M.F.K. Fisher and others have observed, the objective chemical taste of something on your tongue, assuming it’s measurable, is just one part of the sensual experience of a meal. I’d put it three or four down the list.
Paste: What’s your worst on-the-road food story?
RF: I find the food in Sweden to be notably bad, and I’m there a week or two most years. Last time through, I spent some days off in the cosmopolitan cities of Malmo and Stockholm testing the hypothesis that the cuisines of certain Eastern ethnicities approach gastronomic fool-proofness. I mean, if I’m driving in a desolate stretch of Texas and see a sign, “Indian Buffet,” that’s all the persuading I need; it’s a cuisine that has a hundreds-of-years evolutionary advantage over the local species, made by people who come from there. In America, Indian and Thai and Vietnamese places almost never do you—your stomach or your wallet—much harm. Not so in Sweden, where, as I found over many dark days solitarily roaming the aforementioned cities, Irish pubs serve soggy French fries, Indian cafes bland sludge. It seems the immigrants are really bending over backward to sate the Swedes’ unslakable lust for hospital-ward flavors. My last day in Stockholm, I was near the end of my rope. Walking near the central train station, I espied the word “Japanese,” and I fairly leapt—I was, in P.G. Wodehouse phrase, “like a hart seeking cooling streams.” The menu was a semi-decipherable goulash of the Japanese and Swedish tongues, but one dish of concise description, “tofu with spicy peppers,” jumped to the eye. Here was a haven for the non-meat-eater, an end-run around one more gluey potato with pink goo and a sliver of dill. What was served me, however, was: a bed of boiled rice, beneath a bed of tofu, beneath a layer of small black peppers, beneath a one-pound mound of chopped hamburger meat, bleeding soapy fat over all below it. I actually ate some of this, because I was very hungry, and it’s important in Japan to be polite.
Paste: What’s the best meal you’ve had lately?
RF: Or: what’s the last thing I cooked out of Plenty, Yotam Ottolenghi’s unbelievable book? Okra with tomato, lemon and cilantro, Spiced red lentils with cucumber yogurt, sweet potato cakes…that’s just the last couple days.
Paste: What’s your favorite thing to cook or bake?
RF: I’m not a good cook but I’m a good reader. I cook out of a handful of books all the time: Marcella Hazan, Giuliano Bugialli, Ruth Reichl, Ottolenghi, Deborah Madison. I love the challenge of an all-afternoon frenzy of prep, with some difficult steps (“chop up a lot of rosemary and add to the stew…an hour later, take your hand and pick out as much of it as you can”), and time-organizing it with several other dishes. We’re Thanksgiving ground zero here at my place. But on the other hand, my favorite things to eat are totally simple things. Noodles with a little something on them and a green salad.
Paste: Please share a recipe.
RF: Nika Hazelton was a popular cookbook writer from around WWII, a little bit like Julia Child—a touch of Old World Euro-aristo-hauteur over an accessible, no-crap American kind of personality. I like her easy and unfailing recipe for spaghetti and meatballs.
Spaghetti and Meatballs
Adapted from a recipe in Nika Hazelton’s Pasta Cookbook
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
4 tablespoons chopped flat leaf parsley, divided
4 tablespoons chopped garlic, divided
2 16-ounce cans tomatoes
1.5 lbs. ground beef
1 cup grated Parmesan (plus more for serving)
3 thick slices stale sourdough bread, wetted with warm water, squeezed out, and torn into shreds
2 eggs, lightly beaten
salt and pepper
1 lb. spaghetti
Warm 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large, deep skillet over medium heat. Sauté 2 tablespoons each of parsley and garlic for 2 minutes. Add canned tomatoes and a pinch of salt. Reduce over low heat for 20 minutes.
For meatballs: combine ground beef, Parmesan, remaining parsley and garlic, shredded sourdough bread, eggs, salt (1 teaspoon, or to taste) and pepper (1/2 teaspoon, or to taste). Form balls.
Warm remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a heavy pot or skillet. Add meatballs in batches (don’t overcrowd) and brown on all sides (but don’t cook them though). Drain grease off on paper towels.
Add meatballs to the pot of tomato sauce. Simmer for another 20 minutes while you cook the spaghetti.
Add salt and pepper to taste, if necessary. Serve with Parmesan.