Ruby Dee Philippa is the lead singer of the high-octane roots and rockabilly act Ruby Dee and the Snakehandlers, which earned a 2011 Grammy nomination for “Live from Austin, Texas.” Her latest project is Ruby’s Juke Joint Americana Cookbook, a veritable feast of down-home recipes, including ribs, cornbread, and sweet tea. Ruby’s Juke Joint Americana Cookbook is full of delicious recipes that are guaranteed to inspire conversation around the table - picnic table or otherwise!
In 2008 Ruby was in an accident that resulted in a brain injury, but you'd never know it. Ruby talked to us about her music, her fascination with food, and recovering from her brain injury and life in Austin.
Tell us about your restaurants in Seattle, Bandoleone and Tango. How did you decide to open them and what did they serve?
For years, friends had been telling me I should own a restaurant. I was doing some consulting in Spain and the day I got home, an old friend of mine called and asked if I wanted to go ahead and do it: open a restaurant. Of course I did! So we got together and designed the flavors of the place, found a space, built it from the ground up, and opened in 1995. Originally we were a Cuban restaurant with a cigar bar. Shortly after we opened though, we found it difficult to find Cuban ingredients on the west coast, so we expanded our menu to include all Latin-based cuisines in the world, though we really concentrated on the Americas: Cuba, Trinidad, Tobago, Central and South America, and so on. There are so many more flavor options to bring together with all those cultural cuisines!
Bandoleone was a real neighborhood spot, but it also became a great destination location. And in fact, folks in the industry- chefs, servers, and bartenders- made Bandoleone their hang out spot. That was a true compliment. That place was ideal: it was romantic, small without feeling claustrophobic, had a great menu, classic Spanish, Portuguese, Central American and Northwest wine list, and full bar with over 140 tequilas, including our own brand!
After being open for a few years, I had the opportunity to open a second place, and did, closer to downtown, near theatres and the bustle of the city. That was Tango Tapas Restaurant and Lounge, so named because it is the music one dances to while the Bandoleone (other spelling: Bandoneone) is played. That was also a really fine place. We concentrated on Spanish and Portuguese cuisine, focusing on tapas and paellas, with another incredible wine list and popular, snappy bar.
And a few years after that, I opened a third place, La Tienda Cadíz, which was a sweet little deli-cafe where you could dine in or take out from our great selection of imported Spanish and Portuguese cheeses, meats, and wines, as well as a wide selection of salads, roast meats and seafood dishes, desserts, and breads. There were also picnic baskets, textiles, music, books, and all sorts of cooking items from Spain and Portugal. There was a park right down the street from La Tienda Cadíz, so we had folks packing dinners to go all the time. I loved that place.
Owning restaurants involves a lot of work! What was the most fulfilling part of the restaurant business?
I love making food for folks, and then being there while they enjoy it. My favorite part about owning restaurants- and yes, it is awfully hard work- was making sure that the folks who decided to come into my place got the best of everything they could get anywhere. The lighting was just so to make everyone look great. The decor and ambiance was designed to make folks feel relaxed and like royalty at once. The food and beverages were of the best quality available. And my staff was the best. It was (and is) my belief that if you decide to spend your hard earned money somewhere, you should be treated with respect. And dining isn’t just about the food. It’s about the conversation, the people you are with, the moment. So, when I got to see folks enjoying their delicious meal, being treated well by my staff, and falling a little bit in love with the moment, that made my day.
You suffered a brain injury as the result of a scooter accident in 2008. What were the short and long term effects you had to deal with?
Right after the accident, I had severe vertigo, as well as intense headaches, moderate memory loss, and extreme fatigue. I also became easily confused and distracted by anything going on around me, so that made performing quite a challenge. It all actually made performing difficult. I sat on a chair on stage for the first few months, and requested no bright lights. I started using lyric sheets since, right in the middle of a song, I would lose my place and forget what I was singing, let alone what the words might be.
The language side of my brain received the brunt of the injury. I had a difficult time stringing words together into sentences, and most of all, in finding the words I needed to express my ideas. Simple words, every day words. I could see the thing in my head, but couldn’t think what it was called.
Over time, the vertigo went away, though I have a difficult time if there’s a lot of movement all around me. And the headaches are gone for the most part too. I still suffer from memory loss, especially by the end of a long day, it’s obvious. Words just don’t come to mind easily in the course of a conversation. Luckily my husband is really good at helping me find the thing I’m trying to say.
How did you come to try writing down recipes as therapy?
After the first year of coming to terms with the fact that I’d traumatized part of my brain and might not get back the cognitive function I’d had before- after I was through most of the depression- I started writing stories to help exercise my brain. In the quiet of my home, without the pressure of being in a conversation, I could relax and take my time in trying to access the exact word I wanted for each sentence. The problem with that, though, is that I found myself cheating a little bit. If I couldn’t find the exact word, I would veer off a little and use a word with similar enough meaning. Or I would refer to my thesaurus, also cheating.
So, in order to really stretch my brain, really get those synapses firing on all levels, I decided to write out my recipes that friends and family had been asking me to write down for years. You can’t cheat in a recipe. Cinnamon is cinnamon. A carrot is a carrot. And so on. The process took a lot longer than simply writing stories, and I gave myself little breaks by writing out tidbits of information about each recipe- a story, really- about what connects that recipe to my life. But I’ll tell you honestly, writing the book really helped. I’m able to converse more easily today, and have an easier time either finding the word I need or finding one that gets my meaning across.
Where did the recipes come from originally and how did you decide to compile them into a cookbook? Are these things you served at your restaurants?
None of these recipes are from any of my restaurants. I wanted to fill the book with my down home recipes; that is, dishes I make for friends and family at home. A few of the recipes originated in my grandmothers’ kitchens, or in the foods I was surrounded by as a child. I was lucky to be exposed to two different cooking cultures growing up: southern cooking and New York deli foods. As I grew older, I began creating my own versions of those dishes, calling forth the best of my childhood memories in the kitchen. And then, as I travelled around the country- both with my band and just for fun, with friends- I always found myself interested in the local foods, the local cultural cuisines. I tasted this myriad of flavors, and upon returning home, often worked on approximating those flavors, coming up with my own versions of those dishes as best I could. Over time, I found I had signature dishes that friends and family began requesting over and over again. That’s where the recipes in my book originated.
Are there any organizations you’re involved with in Austin that reach out to those with brain injuries?
The Brain Injury Association of Austin is a wonderful volunteer organization that provides support and help for those suffering from brain trauma, as well as for families of those with injuries. They have meetings once a month that are similar to Twelve Step meetings in that you gather together and share what’s going on for you, and receive support from others who have gone through or are going through similar circumstances. It feels so good to know that I’m truly not alone.
About ten years ago you started a band that has even toured in Europe. How would you describe the music?
My band is Ruby Dee and the Snakehandlers. We’re a high octane Americana roots and rockabilly act with a penchant for playing twang the way it was meant to be heard- with attitude! We used to tour three and four times per year, across the US and to Europe yearly, though since my accident, we’ve cut that back to once or twice a year. The music is fun and entertaining. You can dance to it, that’s for sure, and I love to tell little stories about some of the songs: connecting the song to the writer and why it was written in the first place. It’s all a fun show, every bit of it.
How did you get into playing music? What instruments do you play?
I grew up singing in the church choir. My grandmother was the choir director, so there was no question about being there or not. But also, we always had music of some kind around the house: gatherings on the back porch with someone playing guitar and someone else on fiddle or banjo, and a whole bunch of us chiming in on song. And my mom’s job had her on the road, and she often took me with her, so I spent hours every day harmonizing with all those eight track tapes... As I grew older, I sang back up harmonies in a number of bands until the day I became inspired after seeing Bonnie Owens sing at a Merle Haggard concert. I quit the band I was singing back up in, and started my own.
I write all my own songs, though I don’t play much of an instrument otherwise. I can pick a tune out on a guitar, and find my way around a piano keyboard, but really what happens is this: I’ll get a little ditty, a tune of some kind playing over and over in my head, or some words come together that sound like they belong in a song somehow. I then sit down and sing the ditty into a recording app I have on my phone, and begin working on the song that way. Or I write out the words, adding to whatever the original phrase is, until a song starts to come together that way. Then I bring the mostly finished song to Jorge, my husband and guitarist in the band, and we work out musical details that make the song pop. We bring that to the band, rehearse it up, and that’s the new song. I love that process.
Before the accident, songs came together for me easily and quickly. Since the accident, it takes a lot more effort, but I’ve just started writing again, and am excited to bring those songs to the band and have us flesh them out into something we can play for folks.
What types of themes does your music cover? Does any one theme recur more regularly than others?
I write about whatever comes up for me at the time. In days gone by, that was a whole lot of heartache: he done me wrong, I’m thinking about doing you wrong, or I’m gonna do you wrong in revenge. Good fodder for the kind of music we play. These days, my songs tend to be in response to something I’ve read, or something I heard on the news, stories that spark something inside my heart. For instance, one recent song is about a friend of mine, who, when she was about 9 years old, got caught stealing from the store. Her mother made her return the things she stole, gave her a lecture, and made her write out twenty times “When I steal, bad things happen.” Now if that isn’t a song, I don’t know what is!
As for themes recurring regularly, I guess it’s all about the human condition. What makes us feel, and what happens when we do something about it.
What can we expect to see from you in the coming months?
Well, I’m cooking a lot! And have even started batting the idea around for another cookbook. My nanny always said, “If something is worth cooking, it’s worth putting into a pie.” I’ve started taking that as my own personal challenge and have begun coming up with all sorts of crazy concoctions for pie recipes, baking them and testing them out on expectant friends and loved ones.
Otherwise, The Snakehandlers have begun rehearsing some of my new songs, so I’m excited to start playing those for folks, live. And it’s about time we start thinking about recording another release. Our last release, ‘LIVE FROM AUSTIN TEXAS’ garnered us a Grammy nomination for Best Americana Album this year, in the first round of nominations. It would be nice to follow that up with something sooner rather than later. But rather than rush the new songs into production, I’d prefer to take the pressure off, and record a holiday album. Nothing is set in stone, so we’ll see.
Definitely, either way, I’ll be out there singing somewhere, or cooking a good home cooked meal.