Beyond Moosewood

Mollie Katzen has not always written cookbooks that match the way she eats. "You know in the old vegetarian cookbooks, mine included, there was a real center-of-the-plate ethos," the 46-year-old muses as she sips fruit juice. "Dinner had to be a hunk of something red or white or brown. It had to be a heavy entree that you take out of the oven surrounded by a variety of green dishes, or maybe if you're lucky a little yellow or orange. That's what I had to let go of."Twenty years after publishing the Moosewood Cookbook, Katzen is letting the haphazard nature of her own cooking take over. Her lavishly illustrated new book, Vegetable Heaven, due out this month along with the start of a companion public television show, has no chapter for entrees and none for side dishes. Katzen decided to scuttle the hunk-of-something-in-the-center-of-the-plate tradition in favor of side-by-side dishes that readers can mix and match. "I'd come up with a good broccoli stir-fry and a lentil puree and then get worried about what the main dish was," she says. "But then I realized hey, that's what I like to eat for dinner."The result is 26 season -- and geography -- based menus, each with a whimsical title that will play well on TV. There's "Late Winter Bounty" with root vegetable soup, toasts, red onion and shallot marmalade, giant mushroom popovers, asparagus in warm tarragon-pecan vinaigrette, and yogurt berry swirl. "Crazy Quilt" features black-eyed pea and squash soup with shitake mushrooms, miniature potato dumplings with sage and chives, kale crunch, cherry tomato chewies, green salad, and apple pizza. Katzen's readers and viewers will learn how to make plenty of food, which they can serve in a ring of multicolored, equally proportioned dollops. Even as the dishes multiply, the object is to keep them simple.Katzen gets mail from all over the world, and her new generation of readers differs from its forebears. "In the 1970s no one cared about the time it took to cook some of these things," Katzen says. "The first Moosewood even has a recipe for homemade egg rolls." Now the challenge is to keep the ingredient list simple and preparation time per dish under half an hour. "It's easy to come up with a fantastic recipe based on rosemary-infused olive oil and the perfect tomato," Katzen sniffs. "But that's not the point, because my readers often can't shop in the fancy stores they might like to, and the bottom line is that they need dinner!"Katzen's readers also want their food light. Katzen revised the Moosewood five years ago to satisfy the fat- and oil-conscious (though many of us had already figured out that six servings of Swiss cheese and onion soup don't really require five tablespoons of butter). Her new book follows the light-on-dairy trend that has come to be synonymous with vegetarian cooking. It was not always so.When the Moosewood appeared in 1977, Katzen was cooking at the Ithaca, New York cooperative restaurant that bears the same name. Most of the restaurant's customers were young, and plenty were still chasing the fading hippie trail. But Katzen says she didn't publish with that clientele in mind. Instead, she went for their mothers. "At the time, a lot of mothers were suspicious about vegetarian food because they thought it lacked protein and also richness," says Katzen, who now lives in Kensington. "I wanted to calm them down by proving that vegetarian cooking could be opulent and rich and very, very good."The Moosewood wasn't the first major meatless cookbook, but it didn't preach-the word vegetarian doesn't even appear in the first edition -- and it quickly became a generation -- spanning classic. In the early 1990s, I left my college dorm to live in a five-bedroom house with four other women, backpackers and recyclers who vowed to turn down the heat, dig compost piles, and quit eating meat. We had big plans to live and eat cheaply, healthily, and well, but we'd all grown up eating roast chicken and brisket. My mother, for one, is a terrific cook, but she didn't have much to say when it came to lentils. And it was lentils we were determined to serve on the backyard-salvaged picnic table that we'd lugged into our new dining room.The Moosewood took over where our know-how left off. We relied on the earnest, step-by-step instructions (Katzen never assumed that we'd realize you had to soak beans before cooking them) and enjoyed the accompanying whimsical illustrations. When a bunch of neighbors got together to place an order with a local food co-op, my house bought a fifteen-pound bucket of tahini, and burlap bags filled with lentils and chick-peas. With the Moosewood as our guide, we turned the tahini and chick-peas into quarts of hummus and the lentils into steaming pots of soup. Once we had the skill to elaborate a little, the easy-going recipes could absorb whatever was left over from the weekly shopping.Playing with the recipes -- "Oh, I think I'll just throw in some kale" -- made me feel like I actually knew what I was doing. In the years since, my friends and I have graduated to more sophisticated vegetarian cookbooks. But we still turn to the Moosewood when we want a kugel to bring to a potluck, or a pot of soup simmering on the stove on a cold day. The night before I talked to Katzen, I went out for Ethiopian food with two of my college housemates and asked them about learning to cook. "Page 91!" Mandy said right away. "That's my page in the Moosewood. It's the recipe for hummus."Chani claimed page five, a sweet-potato and chick-pea-based brew called Gypsy Soup. Recalling the recipes triggered memories of our steamy, crumb-filled kitchen and the growing up we did there. No wonder seeing the Moosewood on a new friend's kitchen shelf makes me feel like I'm at home. The rosy glow cast by our memories seems perfect for such a homey classic, and the Moosewood, together with Katzen's three other books, has sold three and a half million copies. But the story also has a controversial wrinkle: other chefs at the Ithaca restaurant claim that Katzen took credit for a collaborative project. The original Moosewood, they say, circulated as a nonauthored, handbound compilation of recipes. The fight over the cookbook's history -- and profits -- led to a years-long litigation that was settled out of court.Katzen says the settlement binds her from discussing the Moosewood controversy. Instead, she likes to talk about her early love affair with vegetables. Katzen grew up eating flank steaks, Minute Rice, and frozen peas. When she was twelve, she encountered fresh green beans at a friend's country home. "I was absolutely transfixed," she says, her smile widening. "I developed a very serious interest in vegetables during middle school."Katzen says she learned to cook at a now-defunct San Francisco restaurant called Shandygaff. It was 1970, and aside from die-hard macrobiotics, not many people knew how to make good-tasting vegetarian food. Katzen was getting a degree in painting at the San Francisco Art Institute, and when she heard a Shandygaff radio ad trumpeting innovative cuisine, she took a bus straight from her studio and asked them to hire her.From Shandygaff, Katzen went to Ithaca, where several cooks had taken over part of a former elementary school, founded the Moosewood restaurant collective, and were cooking free-form without a set menu. Still interested in a career in painting, Katzen often added drawings to the recipes to explain an instruction or to evoke a favorite vegetable. Whatever the true source of the recipes themselves, Katzen proved the collective's most savvy marketer: at age 26, she got Berkeley's Ten Speed Press to publish the cookbook under her name.Katzen moved to the Bay Area in the early '80s, after leaving the Moosewood collective. She hasn't cooked professionally since, though she says that preparing food for others doesn't make her nervous. "Naahh," she says "I enjoy it." But she's not a big entertainer. "What happens a lot is that I'll be testing a new recipe -- like recently I was working on a grapefruit curd tart, which is really hard to get right because the grapefruit tends to get weepy and then the crust goes soft -- and I'll have six of that and nothing else in the kitchen for dinner."Katzen's family keeps her experimenting, but not necessarily along the lines her readers might expect. When I later asked her twelve-year-old son Sam about his childhood's culinary bliss, he shrugs. "Yeah, people are always saying how my mom is this great vegetarian chef," he says. "It's kind of funny since all I like to eat is hamburgers and hot dogs."Sam will admit to eating, and even liking, tofu with peanut sauce. But five-and-a-half-year-old Eve only wants sugar. "Good food just doesn't hold her attention, doesn't call her name," Katzen says of her daughter. She shakes her head and pauses between words to emphasize the unthinkable: "Shexskipsxmeals."Other frustrated moms may enjoy knowing that Chinese food is the only meal Katzen, her husband Carl, Sam, and Eve all like to share. Katzen herself isn't a strict vegetarian, though she sticks to fish and free-range chicken. While her recipes include a wide range of ethnic influences, she credits her mother's Jewish cooking as a kind of indirect inspiration. When I mention a mushroom casserole that's a particular favorite, Katzen says the dish she grew up eating was made from Campbell's cream of mushroom soup and cornstarch. "I use my mother's cooking," Katzen says. "I just try to figure out how to make it taste good with my kind of ingredients."As to my generation's quest for cheap, healthy, vegetable-rich food, Katzen predicts the newfound flexibility of Vegetable Heaven will be appealing. "I care very much about trying to influence people, especially young women, to have a constructive, powerful, self-nurturing, sensual relationship with food," she says. "My books try to convey that cooking good food can be a source of incredible stability. That's not a trivial thing to me."


Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal
{{ }}

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.