One on One: Neko Case on Sugaring in Vermont and the Glory of Quebec Cheese

What can I say about Neko Case? I remember first becoming aware of Neko when she was living in Vancouver (she grew up in America, but because of that brief stint in Vancouver, we Canadians will always try to claim her as our own) when she was playing drums in my then-favourite band, Cub (we’re talking the early ’90s here). Indie-rock types familiar with her work in that band and the tougher-looking all-lady trio Maow were surprised when she released her first solo album, The Virginian, a full-on country crooner that showcased a voice that many never knew she had. Since then, through both her solo work and her albums with The New Pornographers, Neko has grown into one of music’s most creative and starkly heartbreaking songwriters, and has delivered those songs with a strong, pure voice that rivals some of the greatest vocalists of all time. Her latest album, the superbly titled The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You (her first in four years) is, of course, absolutely gorgeous.

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In celebration of the new album, Neko and her band are heading out on tour this week, starting in Albany and going all through Canada and the United States through the spring (including a stop here in Calgary headlining the Sled Island Music Festival in June) and then off to Europe in August. Before she hit the road, we asked Neko a little bit about what she likes to eat and cook and what the food scene is like in her current home base of Vermont:

I’ve been told that you’re not a cooking obsessive, but when you do whip up something for yourself, what are some of your go-to foods?

Salad. Oatmeal. Turkey and rice soup and Borscht. Eggs with cilantro and hot sauce. I’m simple at home.

Are you still living in Vermont? What is the food scene there like? I think I saw some maple syrup production photos on your Twitter feed recently.

Yes! It’s really awesome. I don’t have much sugaring experience, but I’m learning. I love buying local meat, veggies and raw cream from places I see every day. Both animals and veggies have great lives with my neighbors, which is really what it’s all about: “The Neighbor System.”

You’ve been touring for a number of years — what are some of your favourite cities to tour to as far as food goes? Likewise, have you ever hunkered down to record in a city and absolutely fallen in love with the local cuisine?

Well, Cleveland, Ohio has AMAZING Hungarian food at the Balaton. Portland, Oregon is pornographic for yummy food variety with a lot of snobbery. Vancouver is the best for Asian and vegetarian, Toronto for everything in between. Minneapolis for Vietnamese. The list is LONG!

What do you almost always have in your fridge.

Cucumbers, kale, almond milk, and sauerkraut. If it’s available, jicama! My favorite! Local butter and St Dalfour black raspberry preserves! No sugar! Just fruit!

Here in Canada we still kind of claim you as our own, even though you haven’t lived here for a long time. Do you see a lot of food differences between Canada and the U.S.?

Not so much anymore, people have been refocusing on fresh food for a while. I think we have a pizza-disconnect, but the cheese of Quebec BEATS OUR MANGY ASSES! Raw grass-fed milk. It’s key.

Have other musicians cooked for you very often? Are there any secret culinary stars in the music world you can tell us about?

I haven’t tasted her cooking yet, but I’m told she’s the BEST, is kd lang. That said I’ve never eaten at a place she’s recommended without being BLOWN AWAY! She has GREAT taste.

Kurt from the New Pornographers is a GREAT cook! Holy cow! That guy can make some dinner-art..

What were some of your favourite foods growing up? Do you still eat them?

I liked crap. Mac n’ cheese from the box and dehydrated potatoes. I can’t believe I made it to adulthood with ZERO nutrition, we are resilient animals!!! I’ll have Mac n’ cheese once in a blue PMS moon.

What is your favourite kind of pie?

Rhubarb!!! Mmmmm!

Maple Apple Muffins

Neko says that she doesn’t usually cook from recipes, so I came up with something to incorporate some of that delicious Vermont maple syrup and fresh apples, which are also apparently a Vermont thing. Plus they’re handy enough to pack on a tour bus, should you be a musician hitting the road.

Maple Apple Muffins

1 cup quick-cooking rolled oats
1/2 cup milk
3/4 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup butter, melted
1 egg
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
pinch of salt
1 apple, peeled and diced

Maple drizzle:

1/3 cup icing sugar
2 Tbsp maple syrup

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Combine oats and milk in a large bowl and let it sit for a few minutes so the oats can absorb the milk. Add syrup, butter, and egg and combine (just use a wooden spoon — an electric mixer will overmix your muffin batter). Add in the flour, baking powder, cinnamon and salt and stir until all the dry ingredients are moistened. Gently fold in the apple.

Spoon batter into a greased muffin pan, filling each cup about 3/4 full. Bake for 20-25 mintues, until muffins are brown and a cake tester comes out clean. Let the muffins cool before removing from the pan.

To make the drizzle, combine the icing sugar and the syrup, adding a few drops of water if it’s too pasty. Drizzle over the muffins. Makes 12.

Enjoy! Preferably with this song from Neko’s latest album: