Book Review: Down Home With Ruby Dee

How one tragic accident led to a therapeutic cookbook

Musician and cookbook author Ruby Dee Philippa is a gal with sass and fearlessness to spare who has led a life that reads like some kind of flowerchild flashback: Born in the foothills of Northern California's Sierra Nevadas, she was home-schooled and often shuttled from the Redwood forests to the flat plains of Big Spring, Texas, by a close-knit clan who valued family get-togethers filled with food and impromptu musical performances. Even with all that moving around, her parents had "high expectations for my education. I tested into college at the age of 15," she recalls. She went off to college but dropped out after the first year, determined to pursue the life of a rocker, young and reckless, on the streets of San Francisco and Los Angeles. Ask Dee to list her musical influences and they range from her opera-singing grandmother to the Singing Nun and on to the Clash, the Cramps, and Blondie. In those wild days, she experienced an edgy strain of life that most of us can only imagine.

"When I cleaned that act up, I went back to Northern California and college," Dee says. Post-college, her life choices remained eclectic and transitory. Travels took her to Alaska, where she worked on the decks of a fishing boat and in the depths of a cannery. During this period, she sometimes lived in a tent city with folks who had no work. Ruby put her cooking skills to good use there, often making meals out of donated, unused food. She enjoyed working with plentiful salmon and cod, mastered hobo bread, and learned how to stretch donated vegetables for days. After Alaska, she escaped to South America, before eventually settling in Seattle in 1995.

Seattle turned out to be the city where things really came together for Ruby Dee. She opened not one, but three, popular restaurants over a period of years and started her band, Ruby Dee & the Snakehandlers. It was when she decided to form the band that she waltzed over to an experienced, older guitar player at a Seattle honky-tonk. The way she tells it, she put her hands on her hips, looked up at him, and said, "I hear you're my new guitar player." The brazen approach worked; Jorge Harada joined the band and eventually became her husband. Meanwhile, Dee wrote songs and ran her restaurants. They lived the life of touring musicians, playing gigs in the States and in Europe, passing through Austin often enough to feel like locals, and even bought a house here.

Before they could settle in Austin, however, a scooter accident in 2008 brought one aspect of Ruby's life to a screeching halt: A major brain injury destroyed her facility for language completely. She had to struggle to remember even the simplest words or phrases, and the stages of her recovery have been long and arduous. "Almost immediately, they gave me simple puzzles and fill-in-the-word workbooks that were childlike," Dee recalls, "And I realized it wasn't enough. I wasn't exercising my brain enough." That was when she started writing down a life's worth of recipes along with stories about where they came from. Writing down the recipes demanded that Ruby summon the word "cinnamon" instead of "that red powder." Her self-prescribed brain exercises resulted in a delightful recipe collection, Ruby's Juke Joint Americana Cookbook (see review, left), which she paired with an Americana CD to play while cooking.

These days, Ruby Dee's life is good. The words are flowing easily, and writing songs, recipes, and copy for her new radio show are a delight once again. The band plays gigs around town, she and her husband are promoting a well-reviewed new roots and rockabilly CD for kids called Rockabilly Playground, and she teaches the occasional class at Central Market as part of their Music on the Menu series. Sounds like Austin is home, sweet home.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Ruby Dee Philippa, Southern drinks, cocktails, bread pudding, Americana

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