The dosas at Pongal are a thing of beauty: crispy on the outside, slightly soft on the inside, with the perfect marriage of salt, butter and crunch that makes you forget the concept of grease existed outside of The Outsiders. I’ve suggested that John Darnielle meet me at this South Indian vegetarian restaurant because, first, he’s been a vegetarian since 1996 and I wasn’t about to watch the man eat a salad on the interviewer’s account.
But secondly, when Darnielle isn’t touring the world with his band The Mountain Goats, he’s likely poring over an extensive cookbook assemblage or pounding out a spice mixture for Isan-style larb. Cooking, it turns out, is a passion for Darnielle, a serial collector of passions (you can add music, religion, animal rights to the list).
And as I found out in the first part of our interview, his passion for the culinary world revolves around what the singer describes at the “best foods in the world right now” — popcorn, eggplant, watermelon, peanuts and a “revolving fifth.”
You’ve been hanging out in New York the last couple days. Where have you been eating?
I had really good pizza last night [laughs].
Yeah. Fornino, which has some one of the best pizza in town. I usually go with the margherita.
Where did you eat breakfast this morning?
I had a simple breakfast this morning with my wife. I’ve been really busy and haven’t really had time to do much. Getting out to the pizza joint last night was an accomplishment.
Who joined you?
Do you eat out a lot on the road?
You don’t really have time to do that much on tour. Tour is not traveling, it’s work. These last couple of tours, we have tried really hard to squeeze in things because you get pretty tired of Taco Bell.
So you eat Taco Bell?
People think tour is vacation, but unfortunately it is not at all. To actually go out of your way to see stuff takes a lot of planning and effort and usually most of your planning and effort has gone into the tour.
Let’s talk about your vegetarianism. Are you a vegetarian for religion? Politics? Health?
I don’t want to eat animals. There are some health arguments for vegetarianism, but I think that the only real argument is whether it is cool or not to kill beings of life in order to eat them, and I don’t think it is for me.
When did you first time make that decision?
It was in Queens in 1996. There was this major blizzard in New York and I got snowed in and couldn’t leave for a couple of days. So I slogged down to the video store and rented a video called “Brother’s Keeper” about some farmers in upstate New York. One of them dies and the local sheriff charges them with murder. It was intense. There is this incidental scene in the movie where they take a hog to market, put him in the back of a truck, put a rifle to his head and shoot him — and don’t really hit well. It just really registered with me that this wasn’t cool. A pig is the most intelligent land mammal after man and has real smart features. That was really it. It’s not really a mystery to anybody who eats meat where it came from, but there is this moment. Like, if you wouldn’t eat a dog because they are smart, then why eat other animals? You also learn pretty quickly when you go vegetarian that there is no real loss, and it actually opens up a world of cuisine to you.
Do you think about being a vegetarian a lot?
No. I think about food a lot [laughs], but I don’t miss anything about meat at all. I was a big meat eater and used to special-order ham steaks from Kansas City.
Were you cooking a lot with meat before 1996?
No, I didn’t really do much cooking. That’s where vegetarianism comes in handy because you learn how to cook – there used to not be a lot of vegetarian options where I lived, so I became the cook of the house.
So are you a meat-proxy guy — like veggie bacon and sausage for breakfast.
I asked because some vegetarians aren’t down with that.
I like to actually cook, and those are cool when you don’t have time to cook.
When cooking vegetarian, do you have a go-to cuisine?
I have a giant cookbook collection. Cookbooks are sort of like albums, where you live in one for a week or two then move on. Right now for me it’s Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything Vegetarian, which is a totally amazing cookbook. His focus is on minimal spicing on good cooking – put olive oil, salt and pepper on and then decide if you need anything else. He also roasts vegetables a lot, which I am really into right now. Before that, it was Vegan With a Vengeance by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Brad Misanthropic’s Please Don’t Feed the Bears! That compiles cooking ‘zines from the late 90s, when cook ‘zines where a big thing.
Why do you buy a particular cookbook?
Each author has his or her own message that they prize and their own focus on cooking – whether it’s about a sauce, the ingredients or the process or style – it varies from book to book. There is a Thai book that my mother-in-law gave me that is about making your own spice mixtures, which is hard and time-consuming. You usually want to go directly to the stove, but here you’re not.
Do you have a mortar and pestle at home?
No, no I don’t. I used to use one a lot.
What is your favorite Thai dish to prepare?
Thai curry. It’s different from Indian curry because it’s usually coconut milk-based. Also, my favorite thing in the world is soup.
Soup? Nobody says that.
Soup is an aggregate. It’s like saying your favorite is a stew. The best foods in the world are popcorn, eggplant, watermelon, peanuts and the fifth one is always rotating, right now for me it is chili peppers. Potatoes go in and out. Peanuts are eternal. Popcorn is a massively wonderful food that is not useful in many dishes, but it is the king of all snacks.
OK, let’s back up on this. Watermelon. That’s really polarizing! I don’t like it.
You’re out of your mind! But it’s difficult to argue about food because it is a matter of taste.
Right, it’s like arguing about a record. Though for watermelon, I like sweet and savory combinations there. Like add some salt or sharp herbs and we are in business.
Do you know how I eat watermelon? I take a knife and cut it in half, take a spoon and eat half, then put the other half in the refrigerator to eat later.
You get good watermelon in North Carolina?
Yeah, and in Iowa too. I like all melons – cantaloupe is fantastic, honeydew is good.
Do you use a blender to make smoothies with the melons?
No, it takes too long. My method of eating melon is so efficient [laughs]. My wife ate a watermelon granita the other day, which is good. You can also make a sharbat, which is amazing – it’s a liquid with simple syrup and watermelon.
Do you have any food rituals before you perform?
Well, I’m a singer, and you shouldn’t eat much before you play. When I get done playing, though, there is usually not great food still available at that hour. Pizza, fine. I focus more on breakfast because it’s difficult to find a good dinner. Plus, I can’t talk in a restaurant when I am touring because it is too loud. Right now I am not touring so I can talk but I can’t usually do that when I am touring.
So touring is…
It’s an ascetic discipline is what it is. Super big artists have chefs who work with them — even people who are not that big will have a chef or catering backstage. But that is more for people who are loading in around noon and are sound-checked by two.
Where do you like to tour for the food?
There is a lot of great food in Australia, it is a really good food country. I can tell you particular places to go. The Rose Hotel in Sydney has one of the best pizzas you have ever had, but it’s not a New York pizza. The brewery Little Creatures in Fremantle is amazing. Australian brews are really good, and craft beers are blowing up over there. I discovered salt and pepper tofu at this tiny and totally unassuming place, Asia Café in Brisbane. It is the best damn dish in the world. The collard greens were pretty amazing also.
So you had some time to eat when you were in Australia?
We had a tour manager, Bob Trig, who was really into food. He would ask what type of food we liked and set up a whole itinerary. We ate really well over there.
What about eating with other bands or musicians while on the road?
I am a hermit! I don’t really hang out with people or go out, other than with my wife. I don’t really ‘hang’ at all [laughs]. On the road, you usually find dinner by yourself because you are with people all day. I did eat with Yuval [Semo] at Zahav in Philadelphia, and that was one of the best meals I have had in my entire life. Yuval is from Israel and we have hummus on our rider. The first time they brought it back, he was like “this is not real hummus.” Every time we would ask him how a hummus tasted, he would say it was terrible, and it sort of became a thing. After a sound-check in Columbus, Ohio, we found a hummus that he said was incredible. The next one that we found that was almost as good was north of Los Angeles, in the valley at some random place that had a big rotating oven. But apparently to find good hummus in this country is very hard.
Zahav can be a cool place to dine for vegetarians. Do you remember any of the particular dishes?
I don’t remember any of the individual things, unfortunately. And I don’t take pictures when I eat, either. But I do remember that the hummus and the olives were very good.
Have you ever tried to cook Israeli dishes?
No, I have never tried yet. The thing is, in some cuisines, the process or spices are important. In Middle Eastern cuisine, as in say Mexican cuisine, the freshness of the ingredients is the single most important thing. If your tahini has been sitting on a shelf for a month, you’re not going to get the best hummus. If the chickpeas are extremely fresh, you can really taste the difference – at Zahav, I’m sure they make their own tahini.
Check out part two of the interview, where Darnielle talks coffee, food TV and cooking collards.
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