Indie Rock Food Blogs: The Steve Albini Interview

Skirt Steak with Jasmine Rice and Apple-Wine Chutney, Albini-style.
Skirt Steak with Jasmine Rice and Apple-Wine Chutney, Albini-style.

Back in March, when we wrote about the Monsters of Folk crème brûlée blog, we said that famous recording engineer, musician, wicked amateur poker player, and gourmand Steve Albini should have a food blog too. And now he does. And judging by the color on that skirt steak, he might have some chops. Albini started mariobatalivoice to share the thoughtfully devised, lovingly prepared meals he cooks for his wife Heather as she languishes in bed--orzo with tomato and egg yolk, cavatappi with peas and dates, and so on. Apparently, the name of the blog comes from the imitation of Batali's jolly rumble he uses to announce the arrival of dinner. We tracked Alibini down via email and presented him with a few questions, which he answered cheerfully. Turn the page...

Squid Ink: Any similarities between putting together a good meal and making a good record? Is drawing out flavors in ingredients like capturing sounds from instruments?

Steve Albini: No, not really. Cooking is about presenting flavors and other aspects of food in a way that makes best use of them and makes an engaging, satisfying meal. Taste necessarily comes into it along with technique. Some ingredients require cooking, cleaning or otherwise denaturing them, some are fine as they are. In my job as an engineer, I'm just trying to make a recording of the creative effort of the band, and while it requires my attention and some technical knowledge, it's more of a problem-solving exercise than a creative one.

If you mean within Shellac, the band I play in, then I don't know, probably still not. In the band, I'm pretty much always playing guitar or vocalizing, but I use a much wider range of ingredients and techniques in cooking. Also, when cooking I really want Heather or whomever I'm feeding to like what I make, while in the band we're pretty much exclusively concerned with pleasing ourselves. A lot of musicians are good cooks, and a lot of cooks are musicians, but I think that may just be a result of the creative impulse finding several means of expression. Probably an equivalent number are visual artists, woodworkers or compulsive liars.

SI: Why so much pasta?

SA: Pasta is fast and versatile. Also, delicious. In heaven, after antipasti, the first course will be pasta.

SI: Any food television personalities, cookbook authors, or food scene folks you particularly despise or respect? And why did you choose the Batali voice?

SA: I chose Batali's voice to describe food to my wife because most of my food is Italian, superficially at least, it was funny and makes all food sound special. Also, she got the joke. If I spoke to her like Julia Child or James Beard she would just hit me. I have Escoffier's book, and it's essential, if intimidating. Joy of Cooking is a decent mom cookbook, if awfully conservative. I really like the Fergus Henderson books. One of my favorite food books is Calvin W. Schwabe's Unmentionable Cuisine, which details foods most people would rather not think about, but I intriguing. It contains my favorite chapter title found in any book about anything: "Non-Flesh Foods of Animal Origin." I also have a cookbook exclusively featuring recipes incorporating human semen, but it's more of a novelty. "Man-Made Oysters," "Good Gravy," things like that.

Most TV cooking is repulsive. Frathouse cocksuckers with gimmick hairdos and catch phrases, hooting and hi-fiving, "bringing it," celebrating gluttonous sports bar chow. Dipshits abbreviating their ingredients and making childish, cutesy-poo "comfort food" full of "yummy veggies," shit like that. Detestable. You can spot the people who have their shit together because they don't have to tell you how delicious their food is. Of the people who cook on television, I have admired people like Jacques Pepin, Julia Child, Mario Batali, Jamie Oliver and a few others because they are free of drama, display good taste and masterful technique, and use clear exposition to bring you up to speed. From that description you'd think I'd like the Martha Stewart cooking shows, but all that mealy, beige country club food looks like I could only choke it down under threat of prison.

My friend grillmaster Tim Midgett has proposed a TV show that would be just an hour of Jacques Pepin cutting vegetables, and I'd TiVo every episode of that. Pepin made an instructional set of videos 10 or 15 years ago, and I have watched them repeatedly. Check out this clip of him boning-out a chicken for ballotine.

SI: Is there anywhere you like to eat in Los Angeles?


SA: Not really, but I'm not that familiar with your city. Certain things stick out, like the brown bread ice cream at Scoops and the salume and dolci at Pizzeria Mozza. Certain food experiences haunt me and I think about those dishes often. I was disappointed in Osteria Mozza though, the service was inattentive, the pastas were poorly handled and the lamb sucked -- all the flavor of a boiled towel. The salads might as well have been from Stuckey's. Your "legendary" fast food like Fatburger and Pink's don't hold a candle to Chicago joints like Kuma's, Hot Doug's and Jim's Original.

Oddly, I've never had great Mexican food in L.A., but the taquerias on every block in Chicago are consistently great. I know, I know, I just need somebody to show me the spots. Maybe next time. I love cooking when I'm in L.A. though. Your markets are fantastic and you have exceptional fruits and produce available all year.

SI: We are having our friends over for poker. We want to feed them well and take their money. What should be our game-plan, meal-wise

SA: Poker dudes include smokers, slobs and people who are both distracted and numb to disappointment, so use strong flavors and an abundance of small items. Nothing that requires utensils or multiple plates, because you don't want to do dishes at 5 a.m. For simplicity make crostini with good vegetables, or toast points with a cheese plate, salume or a strong tapenade. Particular favorites at our game have been rice pallets topped with portions of a foie gras and artichoke terrine (a kind of mock-sushi), prosciutto-wrapped dates stuffed with gorgonzola and almonds, empanadas stuffed with a chorizo ragu, fried dumplings stuffed with bleu cheese and fruit, spring rolls made with kale and mint, and tacos made from shredded braised turkey leg.

One week my mom sent some excellent bison loin and I made a carpaccio of it that was gone in minutes. I always try to provide a vegetarian option if the main snack has meat in it, and spring rolls have been a regular item, though last week I made some dolma with avocado, jalapeno, tangerine and mint that went down well. There are a couple of free-thinkers in our group and one night on a dare I had to serve bacon-wrapped tamales with a savory pear compote. Just don't insult people with your food, that's all.

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