“The government doesn’t want you to wear flip flops,” says my son Henry, confident as only a sixteen-year-old can be. I admire his revolt against bourgeois rules of attire, though honestly I am the one who doesn’t want him to wear flip-flops. I think he looks like a frat boy at a Jimmy Buffet concert and furthermore he has a solid mile to walk home from school. But I listen as he goes on to tell me that flip-flops don’t encourage productivity and conformity, which is what the government wants from us.
“You know,” I say, “This is some pretty punk rhetoric.”
“As long as I don’t have to listen to more of those records,” he says. “Or eat more of that food.”
Punk Night was only a few nights ago. And it wasn’t a smash hit.
In fact, here’s a perfect recipe for a strained Sunday family dinner: cook some vegan food for your son, freaky vegan versions of some of his favorites (nutritional yeast mac n’ cheez, textured vegetable protein chili, chocolate cashew “milkshake”) while forcing him to listen to X’s Los Angeles in its entirety. Throw in some stories about when you were sixteen and you and your cool punk friends opened and operated an all-ages club.
It’s all part of my ongoing experiment, Dinner and a Disc, in which I pair an album and a meal. In this case the pairing started with an album. Los Angeles (1980) is a California punk classic, and X were a definitive American punk band. So, I thought, I should pair it with a punk meal. But what’s a punk meal? I know what punk sounds like—it sounds like Los Angeles: nine tight and ferocious songs thrown down by a band that had been perfecting them live for years to raucous moshing audiences at the Whiskey a Go Go. Distinguished by John Doe’s muscular voice, Exene Cervenka’s idiosyncratic harmonies, DJ Bonebrake’s powerful drumming and— especially—Billy Zoom’s astonishingly catchy guitar riffs. The album’s tough lyrics about LA street life are perfectly in tune with the punk slogan, “No Future.”
But what does punk taste like? How does food fit into the story? If there’s no future, does food even matter?
There hasn’t been much published on food and punk, but I stumbled upon an excellent article, “The Raw and the Rotten: Punk Cuisine” by Dylan Clark. Clark’s piece is a case study of The Black Cat Café, a now-defunct vegetarian restaurant and hangout in Seattle. He approaches that scene through the lens of Claude Levi-Strauss’s “culinary triangle” of raw, cooked, and rotted, and argues that punks gravitate away from the “cooked” category—foods that are processed, branded, and refined—in favor of the “raw”—uncultured, unprocessed, wild—or “rotted”—stolen or pulled out of a dumpster.
I wasn’t prepared to dumpster dive for this meal, but I was intrigued by Clark’s discussion of how the Black Cat Café community equated the meat and dairy industry with capitalism, patriarchy, cruelty, and environmental destruction. Being vegetarian, and especially being vegan, was another way to question authority, but vegetarianism was also something I associated with the 1960s counterculture. And punks hated hippies. Punk was about “no future,” but also about “no past,” driving a wedge between the present moment and the weight of previous rock traditions and expectations.
I hadn’t solved the hippie question, but had the good fortune to discover an actual punk cookbook: Johsua Ploeg’s This Ain’t No Picnic: Your Punk Rock Vegan Cookbook. (Named after a Minutemen song!) The budget layout of Ploeg’s book makes it look more like a zine on the dirty floor of an Olympia record store than a cookbook, and I must admit I was prepared to roll my eyes all the way through it. But I didn’t. I giggled at the gleeful punkness of the recipes—Dashboard Kale Chips, Engine Block Casserole, Zippo S’mores and Old Dumpstered Bagel Bread Pudding. I loved the section of recipes inspired by punk icons, like Refried Bean Pizza for Joey Ramone. Not only is it all good fun, but the recipes suggest that Ploeg has spent a lot of time preparing food, whether on dashboards and engines or in kitchens.
I also instantly related to Ploeg when I read his bio. He writes: “as someone who entered punk culture after punk was already dead…” I became something of a punk in 1982, and it was already dead by then. Even in my small southern Indiana town there was a clear sense that I’d missed the real moment and the older punks in Bloomington called me and my friends “pseudo punks,” which taught me early on that punks tended to police their borders as vigilantly as any mean cheerleader clique. “Besides,” writes Kathleen Hannah in her 1994 zine My Life with Evan Dando, Popstar, “I’m way punker than Juliana Hatfield.” You Weren’t There is the (clearly good-humored) title of the 2009 documentary about the Chicago punk scene. But during the first wave of British punk, everybody was there, punk was wildly popular—the Sex Pistols had a number one single in the UK with “God Save the Queen.” My favorite punk flyer is the one with illustrated tablature of three guitar chords and the message, “This is a chord, this is another, this is a third. Now form a band.” Anybody could be punk.