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Now reading A Letter from Michael Hurley

A Letter from Michael Hurley

What the folk singer keeps in his fridge, eats for breakfast, and carries in his "food basket" while on the road.

For a brief moment, LP released a series of 45 rpm 7-inch records under the auspices of the Lucky Peach Record Club. Installment #2 was a thematic accompaniment to our All You Can Eat issue, a disc of two anti-Monsanto songs, one by Michael Hurley and another by Wes Buckley.

Hurley is one of America’s great folk singers, with a discography that reaches back to the sixties and includes a wheelbarrow’s worth of records that have a habit of staying on the turntable once they get there. He’s also a visual artist, a painter and drawer and comic-book-maker, with a distinct and compelling style and cosmology of characters that are always on his album covers and sometimes even in his songs.

Anyway, you should look him up and tune in if you don’t know his work. Either way, we liked this straight-ahead snail-mail correspondence that food writers Emily Hilliard and Justin Levy conducted with Mr. Hurley, where she presented him with a bunch of food-related questions. We present it for you here. 

Hi Emily

I’m delighted to have a questionnaire like this.

What did you eat yesterday?

I like to have oatmeal with cooked apple slices cooked with it in a double boiler, then I add a tablespoon of honey, almost everyday that’s breakfast

What’s in your fridge?

Some pickles & pickled vegetables. Some jams & jellies in jars, some beer. Butter, cheese, ginger root, fresh turmeric root, burdock root, parsnips & carrots (from my garden, miscellaneous condiments; mustard, ½ of an apple for tomorrow’s oatmeal. Pressure cooker full of brown rice, miso & grated parmesan cheese. There is also a rock that looks like a slice of salt honey pie with a crumb crust; that is just there to fool somebody in case it is April Fool’s Day

What’s good to eat around where you live in Astoria, OR?

Wild caught salmon, The Blue Scorcher Café has great baked pastries and whole wheat, rye & sourdough breads. This area has abundant blackberries in the summer. Many feral fruit trees; apples, pears, plums, cherries all about for the foraging.

Do you cook a lot? What do you like to make? I know you keep a garden—what’s your favorite thing to make from what you grow?

I mostly cook all my meals. Frequently I sautée some vegetables in a frying pan while noodles are cooking in a pot; then when they both are ready the noodles go onto the vegetables & mix up. Since I don’t eat tomatoes or meat, this is how my spaghetti sauce is. I also like to make rice & beans in a soup with vegetables. My garden has been the source of my vegetables all thru the winter. Parsnips, turnips, carrots, collard greens, chives, thyme, and garlic surviving.

What would you like to be able to make but haven’t tried?

I’ve tried all things but I like to get good at muffins, pie, & bread. From what I grow my fave would be my soups & noodle frys. A German friend once asked the waiter after he had ordered; “and something really boring for my friend here,” because he had noticed I seem to like the blandest meals. I do not like hot sauce (peppers). But I do like mustard, ginger & horseradish & wasabi.

Who’s the best cook you know?

I think the cooking in Lisbon, Portugal is good wherever you go. *see Sweedeedee

You’ve hobo’ed around the country quite a bit. Do you have any good road food recipes or tricks?

I carry a food bag or box and avoid restaurants. Carry bread, crackers (that’s what I want to know how to make!) cheese, dried cherries, olives, avocados, mustard, honey. Tea. The food basket is great. Sometimes I make oatmeal in a motel’s coffee cooker. Sometimes I cook in motel rooms on a Coleman propane stove. Quite happy when I do that. But don’t carry a stove unless I have a car.

What are some memorable food discoveries you’ve made on the road after all these years of traveling?

For a while it was Wendy’s baked potato deal which started at 99 cents, but then Monsanto got to the potato so that’s out. I had a spell of always getting honey roasted peanuts in the quick stops but Monsanto has got to that so that’s out. I always go to the health food stores and keep that food basket fat. It’s very hard to find good food on the road. In cities I tend to go to Thai restaurants or Chinese when I do go to a restaurant. Bread is my staple mostly.

Sweedeedee (regarding one of Hurley’s songs)—I have always wondered—was her cooking fine? What did she make? How do you tell from the way a woman washes clothes that her cooking will be fine?

She liked sumptuous spaghetti dishes. There is a café in Portland now called Sweedeedee. Eloise Augustyn is the best cook I know. It’s her café, since she named the café Sweedeedee; I get free everything there for life; salt honey pie, green tea, oatmeal, whiskey honey cake, fried eggs & sourdough toast. It’s a breakfast & lunch place, closes at 4:00 pm. You can tell a good cook if they are clean & careful about everything. Detail that is pleasing all around the room & kitchen. A happy disposition goes to the food & then to the person who eats it. This is how it is at Sweedeedee.

Food shows up a lot in both your art and music. What is it about the connection between food and music and art that is compelling to you?

Food & love. Food is grown or transmuted, & that is a miracle, It takes love & care. It is life, so you can make good art. The art is product of the food you choose.

You told me before that you used to make a lot of pies when you lived in Richmond, VA. What was your favorite pie to make and what recipe did you use?

I don’t have any of these now. I think I like to make apple pie. But I’m not a good pie cook. I’ve had help in the past but now it’s the bakeries and I always like to save a slice of pie-to-go for an end of the day treat. I don’t like them to be made with a lot of sugar though.

What is the “pie of by and by” (in the song “Hog of the Forsaken”)

These pies are for goners; pie of eyesight, pie blue-black. It’s just a vision I used to entertain, of a river & pies floating down it. I wanted to write the Pie Diner Novels. I painted a picture of the Pie River.

Thanks for this questionnaire, Emily, it makes my day thinking of these answers and it gives me a considerable appetite.

cheers & love,

Michael