The Awful Purdies: All Recipes Are Home
We are all sitting around the table sharing a potluck meal marveling at how it has all come together with no planning. There are no repeats and somehow, miraculously, the meal is even loosely themed. Nicole has set out a perfect pico de gallo made with heirloom tomatoes from the garden at Prairie Green School in Cosgrove, where she teaches preschool. Marcy has too much kale in her giant garden, so the kale salad is enormous and perfectly mixed with garlic, lemon, olive oil and sea salt. I have brought black beans thick with cumin and coriander from the Grimm Family Farm and there are cold, sliced cucumbers from Sarah’s garden. Katie has brought a roast chicken that has been shredded and dressed with lemon juice and chiles.
We are Awful Purdies, an eclectic quintet of female multi-instrumentalists, ranging in age by 20 years, who take turns stepping up as songwriter and lead singer, but on this day we are hosting a potluck, a ceremonial kick off to our next big, upcoming project. Awful Purdies eight year career has resulted in countless potlucks, two albums, nearly 100 concerts, radio shows, and film and television placements, but up until this time we have primarily written about what we know intimately: love and loss, family, struggle, childbirth, floods, and community. As folk musicians, telling the stories of our lives and the lives of the people around is right in our wheelhouse, so when we were invited by playwright Sean Lewis of Working Group Theater to write five songs for a new play called All Recipes Are Home, about food and farming, we decided to make a full album and thought it would be better for us to write songs that came out of stories of real people. So, with the help of a grant from the Iowa Arts Council and the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs (who receive their funding from the National Endowment for the Arts) we have been gathering source material from farm/food production workers from around the state.
Our method for gathering stories has been simple: bring together the people we want to hear from to hear us play some of our music, and then sit in a circle and talk. We ask questions, they tell stories and we listen. We’ve also posted an online survey at AwfulPurdies.com, sent essay questionnaires to the vendors at farmers markets around the state and we have each spent time pursuing people who might be able to shed some light on a subject that we don’t know much about, like meat production. We’ve written music that we’d never have written if we had not heard from people like Lois Pavelka, a lamb rancher in Mount Vernon; a song, an ode to hard work came spilling out of her letter. And themes emerge from talking to so many people, themes like how isolating it can be to work the land when you are from another land, how quiet a life on the farm is, how children leave and don’t return, how other people’s children arrive and want to farm, and how important recipes are in helping us remember our families.
Sean Lewis’ play title All Recipes Are Home (which we also adopted as our album title) came out of the lyrical idea that a recipe is really a roadmap leading you to something physical that helps you to remember your people, your family, your home. Sean was also inspired by a story told to him about the origins of Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, the story of an immigrant bringing seeds over in his pockets, so that he could grow food from home. The theme of food is not something that we typically find discussed in music or theater, but when Hancher Auditorium, Grinnell and Luther Colleges commissioned the play, Hancher’s programming director Jacob Yarrow said he saw a subject that when more closely examined, would contain multitudes.
“Food offers so many ways to explore what’s happening in our communities and how culture and community are created. There are so many ways that they are interconnected. Additionally, the multiple ways that farming and agriculture are important in Iowa are fascinating. It’s a very broad topic and we wanted to see what aspects of it Working Group Theatre would weave into their new play”, said Yarrow.
Making art that is relevant to our community, to Iowa, is not an easy undertaking. We are, as both playwright and band has discovered, a very diverse group, even when viewed through the microscope of food. However, the songs we are writing have allowed people who are not typically sought out as subjects to consider what about their lives, their work, could be the seed or a reason for a song. For one very old woman in Decorah, she sat quietly in the song circle until we asked each person to say just one thing before we closed. Then, in full, mouth-watering detail she described a pie made of concord grapes that she enjoyed as a child, how you could smell when the vine was ready, how she misses this pie and how it cannot be made the same again, because the vine is gone. The vine is her family and this is the hardest part of this project: every story could be a song. We are rich with stories, we are rich with songs and we are hungry for both.
The University of Iowa knew how abundant this subject was when it allowed the theatrical production of All Recipes Are Home to become central to its first Theme Semester: Food for Thought. Academics, campus activities and community events like All Recipes Are Home will create many points of collaboration that will bring diverse perspectives to bear on a wide variety of topics related to food. At Luther College, they are collecting recipes from theater goers leading up to the play’s performance there. Students, people are thinking about food and how it affects our lives and that is a good thing.
Awful Purdies new album will be released on Maximum Ames Records in conjunction with the tour of All Recipes Are Home in April 2015, followed by a record release concert at the Englert Theatre on May 15th. You’ll get to hear the songs first in the play, but if you are looking for an album that you can put on your shelf, this is an album you can eat. The album will only be available by purchasing an envelope of Seed Savers Exchange Seeds with a download card attached. You won’t get to see the physical album until you plant the seeds in your garden, grow them, eat them and sit down for a listen.
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Writer Katie Roche sings, plays accordion and washboard for Awful Purdies.