Robert Gordon: The Memphis Fridge
Grammy-Award winning writer Robert Gordon is the author of six books (It Came From Memphis), and producer/director of eight feature documentaries (Best of Enemies). Born and raised in Memphis, he has focused on the American South — its music, art, and politics — to create an insider’s portrait of his home. We met up with him in Central Gardens where he lives with his wife of 22 years and BFF of 37 years, Tara, and their two teenaged daughters, Esther and Lila. (Lila is a good eater and Esther is currently expanding her palate from foods that are white to foods that are orange. “I think mac & cheese was the bridge,” Robert says.)
Robert is currently working on a book of collected essays that are connected musically and says he has a number of documentaries percolating. He spends the majority of his day at the computer, writing. “I get up early, work, eat, shower, work, eat, etc.” he says.
Tara, who does the bulk of the cooking, has been out of town for ten days, but Robert and the girls went grocery shopping and were planning a burger night.
What is the first thing you remember cooking?
Cinnamon toast. My technique was to melt the butter on top of the toaster while the toast was toasting. I also learned to mix my own cinnamon and sugar combo. I was six.
What was your first food-related job?
I was a baker the first summer of high school at the Super Sub Bakery. A family friend was the owner.
I met Tara in a food truck in 1979 in Philly. It was called Le Bus and was in an old school bus. They made gourmet sandwiches. After college, the guy was expanding Le Bus — he had two trucks — into a restaurant. He wanted it to include a bakery — oh I also worked at La Baguette — so that was good for me because it was night work. It kept me out of the clubs so I could focus on my writing. I used to get up at noon and write. Tara was the manager of the restaurant. It’s still open. They make a really good hard crust rye and pumpernickel. I send it to my mom. She’s says it’s like the Messiah in a FedEx truck.
What is your “default” thing to cook when you’re hungry and need to make something fast?
I usually go for the freezer — La Rosa tamales from Charlie’s Meat Market. The best are Delta tamales. I’ve tried all but Solly’s. The best I’ve tried are Hicks in Clarksdale. He’ll ship five dozen if you call.
Any memorable mishaps in the kitchen?
Oh yes. In the bakery I nearly cut off my thumb and had to go to the ER. You can see the scar. [Shows us his thumb.]
We shared a kitchen with the restaurant. I would go in at night when they were closed. They kept the salt and MSG in similar containers…one night I baked the most beautiful breads, but used MSG instead of salt. They weren’t edible so we dumped them in the dumpster. Homeless people scooped them up all day and were similarly disappointed.
One day at home I was pouring hot oil and somehow it hit my leg and I only knew that I was in excruciating pain. I ran through the house taking my pants off as I went and the girls had friends over. I was howling like a monkey.
Name any ingredients that you couldn’t live without.
Hot sauce. Salt. My dad put red pepper on everything when I was a kid. He kept it on the table. That’s how I got into hot flavors. Oh, and lime — from the pre-cooking cocktail to the final accent to the dish.
What’s your favorite indulgence?
I guess I gotta go with ice cream. It’s a treat. I try to stay in shape and exercise pretty regularly. I’m subject to whatever the kids pick, but Breyer’s Frozen Dairy Dessert is disgusting. It tastes like puffed plastic.
Favorite thing to do in the kitchen?
With minimal exception, I am the sous chef. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Tara really knows what she’s doing and I don’t. Wistfully, he says, “She used to leave a big pot of spaghetti and meatballs when she’d leave town.’ I’m good at chopping on demand and keeping the sink clear. I used to cook a lot but after kids and after work got intense, we split the duties.
What’s your least favorite thing to do in the kitchen?
My first job when I had to wash lettuce — twenty heads of Romaine — I really hated that. Now, I don’t know. I’m sure Tara would take great glee in answering that.
Favorite kitchen tool?
I went to Davis Kitchen Supply in Nashville and got Tara a mallet with a smooth side and a pulverizing side. At first she was like, “Why did you get that?” and now she’s like, “This is the best thing ever!” I am also a big fan of the lemon squeezer. Our stove (Kenmore Elite gas) was a great investment and pays in dividends nightly. Tara has cooked some great meals on it. I also really like our defective Fiestaware from Schwab’s.
Ever watch cooking shows on TV?
I don’t. I never watch TV. Now that I’ve started to try and make TV shows, I have to force myself to watch. I did briefly binge on Transparent, but I can never seem to make myself watch. It’s a luxury I feel like I can’t afford.
What condiments are in your fridge right now?
Condiments! Do you do recipes? I’ll have to find Tara’s recipe for condiment gravy. It’s so good — ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise mixed together.
[Opens fridge] Okay, we have BBQ sauce, Sriracha, salsa…gotta have sliced jalapenos…I’ve got white wine if you want some…My daughter would say Hershey’s chocolate syrup. There’s usually a big jug of Tara’s homemade dressing, but I finished it while she’s been away.
Fruits and vegetables?
Oh, we keep them out here — apples, pears when available, bananas…blueberries now that they’re coming around. In the fridge we have celery — the most underrated vegetable of all time — carrots, bell peppers of various colors, garlic, Brussels sprouts — a personal favorite, leeks — I didn’t know we had leeks; I haven’t spent much time in the vegetable drawer — asparagus, salad, and onions.
Most embarrassing thing in the fridge?
Well I would leave that up to you. You did come on a day that it doesn’t smell.
[Chip and I do due diligence but find nothing. Not even in the freezer. Or pantry. Finally we settle on a piece of pizza sitting on the cutting board next to a half-eaten pepper. Robert is perplexed by our choice and says both will be eaten before the night is over.]
How about cottage cheese? I’m embarrassed that Tara likes that.
What’s in the freezer right now?
Three boxes of waffles, tamales, Skinny Cow mint ice cream sandwiches, four boxes of butter, big bag of frozen blueberries, chicken burgers, edamame, pot stickers, wild corvina, and Dr. Praeger’s kale & quinoa burgers. We have a vegetarian coming to burger night tonight.
What’s in the pantry?
Our shelf of replenishments — salsa, soy sauce, etc. Tomato products, beans, rice, nuts, dried fruits, oils, baked goods stuff…caster sugar? I don’t even know what that is.
Favorite thing your mom cooked when you were a kid?
My mom makes really good chicken and matzah ball soup. She complained that all I wanted as a kid was hamburgers. So she made hamburgers every day to try and punish me, but I never had a problem with it. Now she smokes salmon. She’s a great salmon smoker.
Will you share a recipe that you cook at home?
It’s been years since I made this, but I learned to make it before I dropped out of film school in Austin. There was a cowboy who made fideo. It’s cactus with super hot, canned, smoked peppers. You break up thin noodles and cook them like risotto, letting the chicken stock absorb. Then you throw in the cactus and hot peppers. It really used to annoy Tara when I made it.