Dinner & a Disc: X’s Los Angeles and Punk Night

What happens when you play a seminal punk record and cook vegan food with a teenager

Food Features Los Angeles
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Punk Night at my house would be small but non-exclusive—the attendees would be me, my husband Jake, and our son Henry. For the menu, I selected dishes from This Ain’t No Picnic’s “Not Your Grandpa’s Hardcore Vegan Slop” chapter. First, there was a chili-topped macaroni dish that sounded safe and crowd-pleasing (“Here we combine two fairly easy, often terrible dishes into one new improved thing you could serve to a person without proving that you secretly hate them”). We finished with a “big sexy milkshake” inspired by the Big Boys’s Randy Turner. I had a lot of pricey shopping to do to get the sauerkraut, cashews, miso, mustard, white pepper, onion, garlic, lemon juice, white balsamic vinegar, mushroom broth, tahini, potato starch, and nutritional yeast I needed for Ploeg’s mac and cheez, and the textured vegetable protein, tamarind liquid, espresso, sundried tomatoes, and mountain of spices and vegetables for the chili. I doubt the dumpster would have been much help to me.

I didn’t mind buying all this stuff, and it wasn’t a foray into the exotic—I’ve been vegan myself for stretches of time, and was strictly macrobiotic for a while. I’ve spent plenty of time on the fringes of food, and I know my nutritional yeast from my textured vegetable protein. I’m not vegan anymore, but I’m a sucker for inventive vegan food and a longtime fan of recipes that try to imitate and stand in for conventional ones. Ideally these “mock” dishes allow us to enjoy both meanings of the word mock: not only is mac and cheez a pretend version of a dish, it is also making fun of “good old” dairy-laden macaroni and cheese. It is a critique and not just an inferior substitute. Kind of like punk, which was rock at the same time that it was rock criticism.

Ploeg’s food delivered in all regards. His cheez sauce, in particular, is luscious and zingy, a mocking improvement on the classic in terms of both flavor and texture. My son did not share my love. “Hey,” he said, after his first bite, “can you make normal macaroni and cheese sometime? The way you make it with the breadcrumbs on top?”

He wasn’t crazy about Los Angeles either, and spent those twenty-seven minutes picking at his expensive bowl of vegan food, listening to Exene “scream,” and complaining that the record “hurt his neck.” Just as John Doe and Exene wailed through the disturbing rape narrative of “Johnny Hit and Run Pauline,” he asked, “What is this album about?

“You don’t want to know,” answered Jake.

“What do they believe in?” he asked at another point. I addressed this question falteringly, finally talking about punk’s DIY ethic. I thought it would appeal to him. I told him about Ricky’s Canteena, a short-lived but glorious experiment of my high school years, when a bunch of local punks joined forces one summer with a local slumlord to clear out a junk-filled storage space on top of a Salvation Army store, build a stage, install a sound system, and book punk bands. He didn’t look super impressed. He reminded me that he is spending his summer volunteering at the animal shelter.

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It was hurting my son’s neck and sensibilities, but Los Angeles sounded great to me, as raw and modern as ever. I was reminded of my question about punks and hippies as I soaked in the production and groovy keyboard playing of Ray Manzarek, who had himself rocked the Whiskey A Go Go when the Doors played there a couple of decades before. The album even includes a version of the Doors’ “Soul Kitchen.” Los Angeles gives a big conscious nod to its LA lineage, and this marriage of the 60s and the 80s flies in the face of conventional wisdom about the unbridgeable gap between punks and hippies. The first X album managed to land in a sweet spot, with the vitality of British punk and a wild, democratic openness, before punk would entirely splinter into its subgroups of hardcore, oi, etc. In fact the album is downright embracing, finding a sonic space for the 50s too: I mean, Billy Zoom is Gene Vincent.

Our vegan dinner shared this sensibility. The first popular vegetarian restaurants in the US—predecessors of the Black Cat Café—were hippie establishments. Think of Woody Allen in Annie Hall, having lunch in California, ordering “mashed yeast” and looking very uncomfortable. The Sex Pistols probably wouldn’t have cared for that restaurant either. In fact the conversation about food might not have landed on the punk table until the Smiths song “Meat Is Murder” met the ideology of the American straight edge punk movement and gave birth to the vegan punks behind the Black Cat and its ilk. Joshua Ploeg slyly acknowledges his vegetarian lineage by calling his chapter “Not Your Grandpa’s Hardcore Vegan Punk Slop.” Finding his own democratic sweet spot, Ploeg invites everybody to the vegan punk party—instead of dissing grandpa, he takes his crappy veggie chili and makes it new and better.

We made our way to the last song, “The World’s a Mess It’s In My Kiss” and Henry, who had made himself a sandwich, said he liked that song best. He was obviously searching for something nice to say: “I don’t hate this album as much as that Sex Pistols record.”

He added, absentmindedly, “Punk seems so angry.” Jake mentioned Columbine. Sandy Hook. Great, now we’d managed to bring rape and school shootings to the dinner table. It seemed like the right time to make milkshakes. Jake’s point lingered—the world is more of a mess than ever, but are kids allowed to be openly angry anymore, to dress in black and gather above Salvation Army stores? Doing so might invoke suspicion of activity way scarier than slam dancing.

I’m happy to report that the milkshake was brilliant, a complex blend of strawberries, bananas, melted chocolate, coconut cream, cashews, lemon juice, dates, salt, and vanilla. “This is a great punk milkshake,” said Henry, with just a smidge of mockery in his tone. But he inhaled the whole thing. Maybe it’s true, what Barack Obama said about my son’s generation: “They’re better than us.” Is it because they want to be or because they have to be? Henry plans to spend his summer helping dogs. And wearing flip flops. Hippie. But I have to accept the possibility that he is way punker than me.

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Freda Love Smith is a drummer and writer whose food memoir, Red Velvet Underground, is forthcoming on Agate. She blogs here. Follow her on Twitter: @fredalovesmith.

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