Midtown Dickens are a Durham, North Carolina-based folk group who thrive on a ragtag mix of acoustic instruments and twangy harmonies. (When I saw them in Brooklyn a while back, I had trouble keeping track of who was playing what because they all switched instruments after nearly every song.) They just released Home, their third and most focused record: The vocals and production are more polished, but they keep the charm and playfulness of their earlier work.
The band was in town a couple weeks ago to play a show with Retribution Gospel Choir, and like I did with their Trekky Records labelmates Lost in the Trees a while back, we met up for breakfast before they played a show at Barnard and headed back south.
Over beets and eggs, lox, and a huge baked pancake at Williamsburg’s Roebling Tea Room, I chatted with multi-instrumentalists (and fellow mostly-vegetarians) Kym Register, Catherine Edgerton and Will Hackney about the “food-service mafia,” Will’s uncommon and seriously fascinating taste buds, and the food that reminds them of home.
On being a supertaster:
Will: My taste buds are at least twice as sensitive as everyone else’s. All tastes are amplified. So for instance, if you applied it to hearing, this would be deafeningly loud right now, even louder than it is. So that limits a lot of stuff. I can’t drink alcohol or coffee, anything with a strong taste, pretty much. So I eat a lot of raw carrots, apples, bananas, scrambled eggs, things that are quick and easy. Just my whole life I couldn’t eat anything — people would be like “This is amazing” and I’d be like, “This makes me feel like I wanna die.” It just is not pleasurable, it’s too much sensation. It’s real. We’re out there.
On food and family:
Catherine: The most important part of food for me is the gathering around it. For me, I’m not really excited about food unless it’s ceremonious in a way… History-wise, too. Food that my grandmother made, the stories that were associated with the food, when I think of the foods my grandmother made, I can remember stories that were told about my family.
Kym: my mom grew up with the ’50s crockpot culture and she also had four kids. She’s a great mom and she cooked, but we never sat down. We’d have stewed beef, chili — she makes the best pasta sauce ever.
On food that reminds them of home:
Catherine: Mashed potatoes for me. And biscuits, without a doubt. My friends have biscuit-offs, or biscuit wars. [There are] sour cream, buttermilk biscuits, obviously, chive biscuits.
Will: Sweet potatoes with cinnamon and sugar on top, which my aunt always makes for Thanksgiving and Christmas. We go down to my family farm for those holidays, so it’s a very direct association. It’s kinda the only thing I like about Thanksgiving, because I don’t like many foods but I love sweet potatoes. It’s cool, I’ll go down, watch you guys eat a bunch of meat, as long as I can have the sweet potatoes.
Kym: I remember on New Year’s Day, my stepfamily would take out this big pig cooker and there’d be a head and a pig and it was an all-day affair. It started at three in the morning: The dudes would get up and get drunk at three in the morning and start cooking a pig, and by 12 they’re wasted.
On vegan soul food:
Kym: Have you heard of [Bryant Terry’s] Vegan Soul Kitchen? I wish it came with a CD. That book is awesome. It’s vegan but it’s vegan soul food — it’s got fried green tomato with vegan aioli, and it’s not a lot of soy stuff, either. His mom used to cook a lot of food and when he became vegan he was like “Ahh, how do I get the same food?” Because that’s hard — it’s a really cream-based, fried-based culture.
On their favorite cooking music:
Will: I usually listen to the R&B radio station. And NPR, but that’s just because we have a radio in our kitchen. I used to keep a boombox in there.
Kym: I think it’s the most important place for music, the kitchen. This is what we’ve been cooking to, Fleetwood Mac [“Rhiannon” currently blasting in the restaurant]. My girlfriend DJs so she has an intense amount of records. And the new Sharon Van Etten record.
Catherine: NPR. It’s a good stationary time to get your news. It’s just a habit.
On the challenge of eating on the go:
Kym: I’m working for myself so I’m constantly running from place to place, so I try to cook, and I try not to go out because it’s too expensive, but when I do cook I cook lots of casseroles, soups, stuff that I can take with me. It’s not the way I want to eat but it’s just the way it works out. And I try to cook vegan when I cook, as much as possible, because you never know who’s gonna come over, and I like to have that food be accessible to everyone.
On music and community in the service industry:
Catherine: I used to work in a seafood restaurant and …everything about the kitchen was absolutely the opposite of what was going on outside. I always saw it as a huge metaphor for class and workers and racism but that whole scene too about food — I think in a lot of situations, most people who play music have service-industry jobs, so there’s a lot of community around serving food and being in that industry. There’s this kind of food-service mafia kind of thing that goes on where I know where to get coffee from my friend who’s in a band and I know where to get a PBR from my friend who’s in this band. It’s this network of camraderie over music and over food.
Kym: It’s totally true, everyone who works at the bar I work at is a musician. At Toast [a restaurant in Durham], they pretty much only play local music on the radio. You’ll walk in and be like, “Oh , that’s my friend’s band.”
On what they’ve been listening to lately:
Will: We have a bunch of friends in North Carolina who just put out albums, so we’ve been listening to the new Lost in the Trees album, the new Bowerbirds album.
Kym: I’ve been listening to a lot of Neko Case and Fleetwood Mac — a lot of female-fronted projects recently. And Mount Moriah, I’ve been listening to her record. She’s from Durham, too.
Catherine: Hope for Golden Summer, I just got their CD. And I’ve been been putting my iPod on random a lot.