Photography by Jenna Noel
By Singer-songwriter Darden Smith has spent 20 years on the road, a territory long known for its lousy food. But he never succumbed to what he calls “the land of the go-cup.” And now he’s here today, jitterizing himself with late-morning coffee, about to go grocery shopping at Whole Foods. “A musician,” Darden likes to say, “has got to learn to eat.”
So do the rest of us. That’s why Edible Austin sat with Darden one recent morning, also in a caffeine stupor, learning the basics.
First, the background, in his own words:
I grew up on a farm [near Brenham] eating 1960s food. A lot of beef. Fried chicken and catfish. I thought asparagus came out of a can. My mother put Miracle Whip on the vegetables so we would eat them. She wasn’t an experimental cook. I remember the first time she saw me chop garlic—she had never seen anyone do that.
I was in my 20s when I got a record deal, and that meant I got to spend time in New York and L.A. I discovered what Italian food really was—that the New York version was different than the L.A. version or the San Francisco version. I even learned about the four-hour mafia version. One night, I was sitting at a North End kind of place, eating chicken cacciatore, and the guy I was with said, “it’s all about the tomatoes and peppers. You can’t use just any—they gotta be fresh.” That’s when I started thinking about ingredients.
I grew up in a family of Michelob Lite and wine in a box. But when I started touring in Europe, I learned what good beer was. The first time I got to England, I went to 300-year-old breweries. I got introduced to really good scotch in Scotland. I discovered this whole world, and it just kept expanding. At this point, I would probably draw the line at eating bugs, but I’d try anything else.
But I also did a lot of traveling around America, and the food choices were terrible at first, especially the coffee. Maxwell House.
Darden shudders at the memory, then shakes it off. He’s traveled the badlands of weak coffee and strong preservatives, and lived to tell the tale.
I’m not a kid, I’m 45. I like luxury. Why drink bad coffee? Why eat at the IHOP?
First of all, I always find a good grocery store and get fresh fruit and vegetables to eat raw. The promoters are supposed to feed you, but I take the cash instead. I keep a log of good restaurants everywhere I’ve been. And here’s the secret: go into the hippest hair salon or spa and ask them where there’s a cool place to eat. I don’t drink before I go on stage, but after a gig I’ll buy a bottle of wine and some good chocolate and stay up till 3 a.m. eating and drinking and playing the guitar.
On the road, I schedule the day around finding food and a place to swim, because you gotta carve out time to exercise. The Dixie Chicks travel around with a gym in a semi. A lot of musicians are like that now. Food is the new porn. In the green room, we talk about recipes and wine and restaurants. We’re food snobs. A lot of musicians are great cooks. Jon Dee Graham will spend the whole day cooking.
Now Darden stands up, grabs a cart, and wheels it into the produce section. He has no shopping list. “I like to go in without a plan,” he says. “I find it calming.”
Edible Austin finds it disorganized, intuitive and thrilling.
“Peppers! I love peppers!” He selects three—one red, one yellow, one green—then veers over to a pile of slender green beans, grabbing a large handful. Ignores the onions—“if you can have a shallot, why not?”—and snags a box of strawberries. Dessert for the dinner he’s just now beginning to devise.
“I’m kinda thinking pasta with peppers, and green beans with garlic and lemon. You always have to have lemons, and a house without garlic is not a home.”
Now to the butcher counter for a few sausages, just the thing to add to the linguine and peppers. There, he sees an astounding bargain—rib-eye steak at $6.99 per pound! He buys a pound and a half. Sliced thinly, across the grain, it will make a meat course for his family of four. And what goes better with steak than green beans?
“I now have two whole dinners, the steak and the pasta,” he says. “Now, wine. Might as well give the wine guy something to do.”
The wine guy recommends a malbec that falls under Darden’s 10-buck limit. (“I might go up to $15 on Christmas, but that’s it. I don’t like to spend money for no good reason.”)
Not when a small, expensive hunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano is calling his name. “It’s the real deal,” Darden says, throwing the cheese into the cart. Same with the expensive chocolate—he prefers Green & Black’s.
“The difference is, it’s got flavor, not just the flavor of sugar. A Hershey bar no longer cuts it.”
The bill comes to about $45. Not bad for eight meal servings, including dessert and wine, plus leftovers. Planning, even when you do it at the last minute, pays. Or maybe, by now, Darden’s hunting and gathering style is hardwired. Case in point: what he eats during the thousand-mile drive home from a gig in Colorado.
I drive across that food wasteland, but I’m prepared. Last time, I stopped at the Whole Foods in Santa Fe and got two smoothies, a sandwich, fruit and vegetables, and two cups of coffee. One to drink right away, and one to put on ice and drink right around the time I hit the Texas–New Mexico border. I take my time eating, and I enjoy every second of it.
One of my favorite things to do, and I learned this when I was on tour with Joan Baez in Germany, is to stop in the middle of nowhere and eat a sandwich as the sun goes down.
Enough, already. It’s time to go home and cook. It could take all day, but so what?
“Food is a big deal,” Darden says. “And it should also be a slow deal.”