MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Memorial Day marks the start of grilling season for many of us. There may be some coals burning in your barbecue pit right now as you listen to this program, so we thought this would be a good time to check in with musician and cookbook author, Ruby Dee.
Now, if you're a fan of rockabilly or honky tonk, then you've probably heard of Ruby Dee and the Snakehandlers, but what you might not know is that Ruby is also a chef and her cookbook, "Ruby's Juke Joint Americana Cookbook," is just out and she's with us now.
Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us. Happy Memorial Day.
RUBY DEE: Happy Memorial Day. Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: Ruby, I hate to start on kind of a sad note, but there is actually a really interesting story behind how the cookbook got started and it actually started with a brain injury. Do you mind telling that story?
DEE: Well, sure. About four years ago, I was in a pretty bad scooter accident. The driver of a car didn't see me and ran me off the road. I was wearing a helmet and everything, but I suffered a moderately severe brain trauma and I had a really difficult time with the language side of my brain. I couldn't put words together into sentences and I could see the thing in my head. I could see the object, but I couldn't think of the word for it and I'd struggled with that.
And so to do a sort of cognitive therapy, I started writing out stories and then I realized after a while that I was cheating a little bit. If I couldn't think of the word for - for instance - couch, I would use the word, sofa, and I'd get by with that. And so I realized I wasn't really exercising my brain as much as I wanted to and the way to do that, I figured out, was to write the recipes that my friends and family had been asking me to write down for years.
So I started doing that and that was great. That was really good, hard exercise because, after all, in recipes, you can't cheat. You can't substitute an ingredient with another ingredient and call it the same thing. You know, cinnamon is cinnamon.
MARTIN: And you found that that really helped?
DEE: It really helped. I'm able to have this conversation with you and make it through and make sense.
MARTIN: How are you doing now? You sound great.
DEE: I still have some issues, but I - you know, I have little tricks that I use. I pause a little bit or I'll use a word that is close enough to the word I'm looking for, as long as I'm not writing. But I'm doing so much better than I was four years ago and the writing really, really helped.
MARTIN: How did you get to be such a good cook, also being a musician, because that's a life that many people understand as kind of lived on the road, you know, in buses, on tour buses, in hotel rooms. So how is it that you've managed to do both?
DEE: Well, sure. First off, almost everybody I know who's a musician is also artistic in some other way. I mean, creativity is creativity, so you're either a musician and a photographer, or a musician and a cook, or a musician and a painter, or something like that. You know, there's a lot of cross-referencing when it comes to creativity. But as a kid, I grew up in two - both my grandmothers come from different cultures and I grew up in these households where I would watch, fascinated - and watch my grandmothers cook these amazing meals and I really got interested in that.
And then, also, to tell you the truth, when I was in grade school, I was one of those nerds who took a cooking class. Everybody else was out playing football or doing whatever they were doing and I was one of those nerdy kids, like, I'm going to go take a cooking class.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DEE: And when I started handing out the things that I was cooking, I noticed that people started getting this smile on their face before I even showed up with the thing that I was offering. And I realized, oh, if you give people food, they like you and so I kept doing that.
MARTIN: Well, I think that people will like you a lot if you make some of the recipes in this book. What are some of the favorites?
DEE: Well, anything that you can throw on the grill or barbecue. One of my personal favorites are the Coca-Cola baby back ribs.
MARTIN: Who wouldn't want some Coca-Cola baby back ribs? Well, the thing about your Coca-Cola baby back ribs is that you - and it really does have Coca-Cola in it. I just wanted - you're not kidding. But this is...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: ...how you start preparing the ribs. You boil it up in your - I'm looking at the recipe right now and, of course, it has Coca-Cola, onion, garlic, bay leaves and black peppercorns and you stir that up and you kind of boil the ribs and you're kind of preparing them. Right? You're kind of parboiling them before you throw them on the grill. It speeds up...
MARTIN: ...the cooking time.
DEE: It's kind of a tenderizing thing. You're breaking down the meat a little bit and that's partly what the Coca-Cola does. You could do it without the Coca-Cola, but that just adds to the flavor.
MARTIN: And then you have a sauce that also has Coca-Cola, so you have a double Coca-Cola hit on your...
DEE: You got it.
MARTIN: Right. If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. It's Memorial Day and we're talking good cooking with Ruby Dee. She's the author of the book, "Ruby's Juke Joint Americana Cookbook."
What makes Americana Americana? Like I say, you're kind of - your music is identified with Americana. That's one way that it's described and so is your food. What makes Americana Americana?
DEE: Oh, great question. You know, if you know anything at all about Americana music, that's music that was brought here by cultures from all over the world, so whether you're from Eastern Europe, Africa, Northern Europe, Southern Europe - wherever you're from, you came to this continent and you brought your music with you and you came in contact with other cultures, new instruments, and new music came out of that.
So you've got hillbilly music, blues, jazz, bluegrass, surf music, rockabilly music. I mean, I can keep going. Cajun music. The list goes on and on. That's all Americana.
Apply the exact same principal to food. Those cultures came here and they had their recipes with them. They came in contact with new ingredients, other cultures and new recipes came out of that. You'd recognize some of the recipes. For instance, a chowder. You'd think, oh, wait, I've had that in Scotland. But you also think of chowder as something from the Northeast.
You know, in the United States, I mean, we're a huge country. We're a big continent and plus all the islands that we've got connected, Hawaii and Alaska, and if you touch base on the different cultural cuisines all around this country, you get all these different variety of flavors, but it's all Americana.
MARTIN: Well, so...
DEE: Does that make sense?
MARTIN: It absolutely makes sense. So what are you going to be serving this Memorial Day? I hate to put you on the spot, but...
DEE: Oh, I will tell you what I'm serving this Memorial Day. It's actually a friend of mine's birthday, as well, so we get to double-dip. I get to bake and throw something on the grill. But what I'm throwing on the grill are my favorite brined, grilled pork chops with the molasses date barbecue sauce and probably some smashed potatoes with buttermilk and garlic and some fresh tomatoes out of our garden. I'll mix those up with a little olive oil and vinegar and throw those on the table and I think I'll be done at that point, except for what I'm baking.
MARTIN: What's the dessert? What's the dessert going to be?
DEE: Well, peaches are coming into season right now - and so is lavender in our garden, so I'm going to probably make a peach lavender cobbler.
MARTIN: You're hurting me.
DEE: You are invited.
MARTIN: You are hurting me. I don't know if I can get down to Texas by dinnertime, but thank you.
DEE: Oh, well, yeah. Absolutely. There will be a place at the table for you when you make it. All right?
MARTIN: OK. Well, Ruby, you also thoughtfully include a CD with your "Ruby's Juke Joint Americana Cookbook," so music to cook by and perhaps eat by. So I think, to say goodbye, why don't we play your cut - right - from the CD?
DEE: Oh, that sounds great.
MARTIN: Right. "Home Cooking."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOME COOKING")
DEE: (Singing) No matter 'bout the weather, if it's warm or cool inside. I know the way...
MARTIN: This is "Home Cooking" by Ruby Dee and the Snakehandlers. It's from the companion CD for "Ruby's Juke Joint Americana Cookbook" and Ruby Dee was with us from KLBJ in Austin, Texas.
Ruby, thanks so much for joining us.
DEE: Thank you, Michel. You have a good holiday.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOME COOKING")
DEE: (Singing) ...all that I can muster, cook it up to see you smile. Home cooking, home cooking, from the garden to the stove, barbecue or in the oven for when my fella comes on home. Home cooking, home cooking, mix it up all nice and sweet. All the freshest and the bestest in my baby's home-cooked feast. When my baby start to cooking a wholesome meal, that man of mine, there's a whole lot of flavor. Makes everything taste just fine. A little sweet and something savory...
MARTIN: Coming up - OK. So the grill is going. Now what we need is a playlist. How about some funk? And who better to explain what that is than Bootsy Collins.
BOOTSY COLLINS: Funk is the absence of any and everything you can think of, but the very essence of all that is.
MARTIN: Are we clear now? The professor of Funk University, Bootsy Collins, is just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: Award-winning chef Guillermo Pernot has gained a following for his Nuevo Latino cuisine.
GUILLERMO PERNOT: My food is different than what your mother did or your grandmother did.
MARTIN: Now, he's on a quest to bring new ideas about Cuban cooking to American foodies. He'll give us a taste next time on TELL ME MORE.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.