Talking Lemonade and Eating on the Road with Justin Roberts

Food Features Justin Roberts
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Talking Lemonade and Eating on the Road with Justin Roberts

The results of my informal poll about children’s records among my Generation X friends are in, and the responses are remarkably consistent—we all had records when we were kids and they were our records: Sesame Street, The Muppets, Mr. Rogers. Some of my best childhood memories are of sitting on the floor with my record player, singing along to “C is for Cookie” or turning pages (“at the sound of the tone”) to the Winnie the Pooh storybook that accompanied the record. Many Baby Boomers will tell similar tales about Bozo the Clown, Tubby the Tuba and Peter and the Wolf.

When they became parents however, some of my friends began to sniff at the idea of children’s music. Why not just good music, they ask, claiming that their enlightened 7-year old loves Mom’s Wilco album. Which is great, of course, but I maintain that there is something special about songs that are written and recorded specifically for kids. Showing them that there are records made specifically with them in mind can be empowering, and you could argue that Bozo records primed the Baby Boomers not only to become record lovers, but to expect that music could speak for them. Bozo paved the way for the Beatles. So stop your sniffing, and give the children in your life some good music written with them in mind.

You might start with Justin Roberts. He’s been making records for kids since 1997, and nearly 20 years (and two Grammy nominations) later he’s released his thirteenth album, Lemonade. It’s an absolute gem. Lemonade represents a stylistic departure from Roberts’ well-established power pop format. The new record is stripped down and acoustic, recorded live with stand-up bass, cardboard boxes and paint cans for percussion, and stunning harmonies from Chicago luminaries including Nora O’Connor and Robbie Fulks (who recently admitted that Oscar the Grouch’s “I Love Trash” was the first song he ever performed before an audience).

Lemonade is not a departure though, in that it features smart, well-crafted songs. Subjects include setting up a lemonade stand, longing to be tall enough to ride the big kid rides, and the pleasure of escaping the world of grown-ups in a treehouse. Roberts seems to have an uncanny knack for getting inside the experience of young audiences. I have seen him bring a packed auditorium to a deafening roar in response to the question, “Who hates to comb their hair?!”

Roberts will be on tour this fall in support of Lemonade. He’s spent as much time on the road as any rock musician, and many of his touring experiences with food are pretty standard: the questionable bag of truck-stop almonds for example; or the Subway sandwich that tastes and smells like gasoline. But other experiences are unique to the kids rock genre, such as his band’s pre-gig ritual of strong coffee (not the tequila shots some musicians would favor), and the abundance of birthday cake consumed at his shows. Roberts told Paste all about it, and when we asked him for his lemonade recipe we instead scored his lemon granita recipe—a win for kids and grownups alike:

jr portrait.jpgPhoto: Todd Rosenberg

Paste: You’re at a truck stop, you’re starving, and you have five minutes to assemble a meal. Please describe that meal, and how you feel about it.

Justin Roberts: This is the worst part of being on the road, wasting a valuable traveling meal at a truck stop. I would usually get a bottle of water, some slightly questionable gas station roasted almonds, and maybe some Fritos. My bandmate Liam will occasionally get Fritos and they fill the van with that unmistakable fried corn scent. You can’t fight it so you might as well join in.

Paste: When you’re home, what do you miss about eating on the road?

JR: The band and I love finding local food. No matter how many great BBQ places you can find in Chicago, there is something different about having authentic BBQ in North Carolina or Texas, a real cheesesteak in Philly, jambalaya in Louisiana, or a slice of pizza in New York. It’s like there is something in the soil of those places that doesn’t travel.

Paste: Is there anything special you like to eat before you play a show? Or anything you definitely do not like to eat before you play?

JR: In general, I’d rather eat after I perform. We usually request protein bars, carrot sticks and almonds backstage so we have something to munch. But, I like to be a bit hungry when I perform so I don’t feel like passing out and taking a nap.

Paste: Do you have any pre-show drink rituals? I’m guessing this might vary according to venue, time of day, and audience?

JR: Coffee! Most of our shows and sound checks are in the early morning. So we always calculate the time to get to the venue and then add on fifteen minutes or so for getting coffee. We love to find local shops that roast their own beans and then do some elaborate twelve- minute pour-over that makes us late for sound check. But more often than not, we just stop at Starbucks for some semi-burnt dark roast.

Paste: Do you ever receive gifts of food from fans? Anything stand out?

JR: Yes. We get offered lots of cake (since people are often bringing their birthday parties to our shows). But the most memorable was a few families from northern California. We used to play this yearly concert in Mountain View, Calif. and these lovely fans would always bring homemade Japanese desserts and snacks. One year I was sick (but still able to perform) and they made me a little care package of these treats. That really hit the spot.

Paste: Is there one restaurant that you most look forward to visiting when you’re traveling? What do you like to eat there?

JR: This is almost impossible to answer but the first thing that comes to mind right now is a restaurant in Palo Alto called Rangoon Ruby that our bass player, Jackie Schimmel, found for us one year. It’s Burmese and it makes you wonder why there aren’t more Burmese restaurants all over the place. The best thing ever is their Tea Leaf salad. It has fermented tea leaves and it is out of this world. I know that doesn’t sound very delicious but trust me. It’s addictive.

Paste: What’s your worst on the road food story?

JR: The worst food story was when Liam and I were driving from Chicago to North Carolina. It was very late at night and nothing much was opened. So we finally stopped for food in southern Kentucky. The only thing available was a Subway inside a gas station. The smell of gas sort of permeated the entire place and we left with some sandwiches that smelled a bit like gas, as did we. This was very early in are touring days and now we research restaurants before we leave to make sure we avoid this kind of situation.

Paste: Did you ever set up a lemonade stand when you were a kid? When’s the last time you made lemonade? Do you have a recipe for it you can share?

JR: I did not, strangely. But my older brother did and he had this great idea to charge 3 cents for lemonade. It was such a pathetically low price that people often gave him a dollar or more and he quickly made a fortune.

I haven’t made lemonade in a while. Usually I just squeeze half a lemon into some ice water and feel like I’m really living. The closest I come to making lemonade is lemon granita. I think it’s one of the best desserts. You just simmer some sugar and water (Paste recommends 1/3 cup sugar and 1 cup water) with some lemon zest (we suggest the zest from two lemons), let it cool, remove the zest, add 1/2 cup of lemon juice, and put it in the freezer. Stir every 30 minutes for about 3 hours and you have the most delicious and refreshing end to a meal.

Freda Love Smith is a drummer, Northwestern University lecturer, and the author of Red Velvet Underground: A rock memoir, with recipes. Follow her on Twitter.