Banjos, Fiddles, and Big Az Chicken Sandwiches
The morning after his Grammy win for Best Bluegrass album, Mike Guggino, lead guitarist of the Steep Canyon Rangers, took some time to speak with us about all things food, music, and eating Steve Martin’s tuna sandwiches.
Epicurean Musician: Did you grow up cooking?
Mike Guggino: No. Both my mom and dad cooked a lot. I think as a guy, growing up as a boy…if your father cooks, I think it’s a unique experience. I thing its becoming more common now than when we were growing up. Most of my friends parents, the mom cooked. My dad cooked a lot, and it had an impression on me. It’s always something that I thought I would want to do, and when I got into being a teenager, and looking for summer jobs, I immediately went to restaurants and started working in kitchens, and just kind of learned how to do it from working in restaurants as a teenager. I did in college, too.
EM: What was you dad’s favorite type of cuisine to cook?
MG: Well, I’m Italian American. My great grandparents were Sicilian. There was obviously a lot of Italian food. A lot of homemade pasta, sauces, and things like that. Pretty much every Sunday, we’d come home from church, and he’d make something.
EM: What are some of your favorite recipes or ingredients?
MG: I really like fresh food. I think that’s the rend right now in the United States, in general. Its just fresh, local food. My wife cooks a lot, too, actually, and when she married me, she realized that I cooked and she had to step it up. She is a fantastic cook, herself, so we cook together a lot, and we love doing fresh vegetables and fresh herbs. We grow tomatoes; we grow our own herbs, and things like that here at the house, and obviously a lot of pasta dishes and a lot of Italian stuff. But mainly more like Italian from Italy than Italian American not like cheesy, red sauce, like manicotti, which is more like what my dad made, interestingly. He made more of that kind of style of stuff, lasagna, ravioli, manicotti, the big casserole, the big heavy comfort food kind of Italian American things. What I like to cook are more of fresh proteins, vegetables, or pesto, kind of more along those lines.
EM: Where in NC do you live?
MG: We live in Brevard, which is pretty close to Asheville. Asheville is a great city. There’s a million restaurants, and they’re all fantastic. Chefs are starting to move there to open up these great restaurants. There’s great markets and health food stores, so there’s access to a lot of good, fresh, organic local food around here, and in Brevard as well.
EM: Do you have any favorite farmers’ markets at home?
MG: In Brevard, they have the Transylvania Town Market, which is all farmers, and folk in town bring their stuff there. We’ve also been a part of local CSAs, community supporting agriculture, where everybody pulls in your money, and you support one farm, and every week, they bring you a box of fresh produce, meat, or eggs. Local supermarkets, even the bigger ones, here in Brevard are doing more local stuff.
EM: What’s you favorite food to have on the bus?
MG: I eat a lot of raw almonds. I eat a lot of fruit, bananas, blueberries, things like that. Granola bars are always good because you can keep them in your bag, and you don’t have time to eat, you can take down a granola bar.
EM: What are your favorite food cities?
I love New York, obviously. We’ve gone there quite a bit recently, since we’ve been working with Steve Martin. I love that there’s great restaurants everywhere, and they’re all walking distance from where ever you’re staying, usually. I love San Francisco. I love the Asian food you can find in San Francisco, the dim sum restaurants; the noodle shops that are everywhere are fantastic. Then, of course, the Italian restaurants that are in both of those cities are plentiful. I’ve actually been to Italy and had some great meals just about everywhere I went. Somebody once said that if you go to Italy and you find a bad restaurant, you should report that instead of saying there’s good place to eat because they’re all good.
EM: What is you favorite New York City restaurant?
MG: We always got to Morandi. It’s an Italian restaurant; I think it’s on 7th, down in lower Manhattan. I’m getting better at knowing my parts of New York City. It’s sort of casual, but not overly casual. It’s a place you can go, and not be dressed up. It’s not a fancy place. It’s more like the food you’d get in Italy, rather than Italian American style. A lot of fresh stuff and things that are in season.
EM: What is your favorite festival food?
MG: It seems like I always gravitate towards the fish tacos.
EM: Which festival has the best food?
Bonnaroo has a lot of good food. We have a buddy who is a caterer, Fired Up Kitchen. He lives in Asheville. We actually me him in Arkansas at a big festival there, where Wakarusa is. We didn’t know him, and he’s from Asheville. He has this big catering business. He pulls this big, brick-over pizza thing behind his truck, and it’s amazing. He makes the best wood fire pizza you’ll ever have and things like that. It’s really cool and really good. He does a lot of those big jam festivals.
EM: What are some of your favorite restaurants in your hometown?
MG: In Brevard, there’s a place called Jordan Street Café that I live about a block from, that’s always been my favorite in Brevard. And there’s another place called Hobnob that’s a block in the other direction. Those are my two favorites in Brevard. In Ashville, there’s so many good ones, and they’re always changing.
EM: What types of restaurants are Jordan Street Café and Hobnob?
MG: They’re American fusion. They have al little bit of everything. At Jordan Street Café, myself and Nicky, our fiddle player, we hose an Italian nigh there, once a month in the winter, where we paly traditional Italian folk music, and the owner does a complete Italian menu for the night with wine and desserts. The whole thing, and we do a concert in the dining room while people are eating. It’s a really cool pairing of the food and music.
EM: Favorite Dessert?
MG: Recently, I quit eating dairy products, so that puts a limit on what I can eat for dessert. I used to love chocolate. I guess I’d have to say because I can still eat this, I can make it dairy free, is apple pie. My grandmother, when I went to visit, she’d make a homemade apple pie with granny smith apples, and she taught me how to do it about 10 years ago. Now I can replicate my grandmother’s apple pie after many years of practice.
EM: What’s her secret?
MG: I think there’s two secrets. It’s the crust. They way she makes the crust. Her recipe with the crust, she uses Crisco, she uses lard. I actually found a healthy alternative to Crisco that doesn’t have the hydrogenated oils, and that’s vegetable shortening. And picking the right apples. My grandmother was the best at picking out the best apples. She could look at the whole pile of apples and pick out the best four, I swear.
EM: What is the worst meal you’ve ever had?
MG: Sometimes you’re at festivals, especially in the southeast. Sometimes the only stuff to eat is fried food or really unhealthy things. Travelling can be tough to find healthy food. We’re getting a lot better. I know the worst thing I had. We were in Mississippi. I think we were playing in Jackson, Mississippi, and flew out of the airport at six in the morning, and there was nothing there to eat. Except there was one like convenience store that sells like gum. It was the only food they had a six in the morning, and I was starving. I had a cheeseburger in a plastic bag, like pre-made that you put in the microwave. I took one bite of it, and I thought I was going to throw up. It was a chicken sandwich, not a cheeseburger. It was called Big Az Chicken.
EM: What is your favorite late night snack?
MG: When I was in college, there is a place in Chapel Hill, NC called Time Out. After you’d been out on the town and had a few drinks, you couldn’t beat a chicken, egg, and cheese sandwich from Time Out. There’d literally be a line out the door at 2am on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. I ate too many of those things.
EM: What is your favorite alcoholic beverage?
MG: I drink a lot of red wine. I’ve been trying to cut back on the beer because I really like beer. Asheville is really famous for its beer, and the Oskar Blues Brewery just moved to Brevard, and Sierra Nevada is coming in.
EM: Do any of your band mates have weird food habits?
MG: Oh yes. We’ve become the most complicated eaters over the years. We didn’t start this way. I think, as we’ve gotten older, we’ve gotten a little more conscious of our health, which is a good thing, but it makes it tougher for promoters that are trying to feed us, or if we are trying to figure out a place we can all go eat. Two guys are vegetarians in the band. One guy is gluten free. I’m completely dairy free, and another guy eats everything, so it can be challenging to make everyone happy. Steve is a vegetarian. He’ll eat fish, but he’s a vegetarian. There’s always a tuna sandwich in his dressing room while we’re on tour, and he usually does not eat it, so we fight over who gets to eat the tuna sandwich at the end of the night if all the food is gone, and we’re starving after the show. He’s really nice about giving us his tuna sandwich. That’s the kind of boss you want. The one who will give you his tuna sandwich.
Mike & the rest of the Steep Canyon Rangers have a summer packed full of tour dates and festivals, and they will undoubtedly be searching for some new epicurean delights along the way. They are supporting the new album by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, Love Has Come For You. Definitely check to see when they will be playing a venue near you!