In 1972, a hungry film student at UCLA published The Vegetarian Epicure. Predating The Moosewood Cookbook by five years, it appeared just one year after Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse. This seminal book, and its serial bestsellers (1978’s The Vegetarian Epicure, Book Two and 1996’s The New Vegetarian Epicure), have sold millions of copies and remain in print.
Thomas is the only writer to attend both the Academy Awards and the James Beard Awards as a nominee, and she asserts that the food awards are a lot more fun. She’s equally proud of her two Beard medals — for her most recent cookbook, 2009’s Love Soup, and her 2011 Eating Well magazine article "The Soup for Life."
Her current work-in-progress is a cookbook that is taking her out of her comfort zone. It promises to break the mold on how we think about what to eat when we gather at the table.
Do you ever want to stand up on a chair and shout to all the new vegetarian cookbook authors, “Hey, I did it first!”
[Laughs.] Well, no, because I wasn’t. I mean, there were vegetarian cookbooks. I don’t think they were necessarily great, but people thought about this before me. The thing I encountered when I became a vegetarian was cookbooks that were very earnest, like Diet for a Small Planet — “It’s a problem and we have to solve it and here’s a cure.” For me, it was, “Yeah, I don’t feel like eating meat. I like to eat well. I like a good time, and I like to enjoy myself, and here’s a way to do it.”
Are you still a vegetarian?
I am mostly vegetarian most of the time. And lately, I’m leaning to vegan — just in the style of food that I like. I don’t have any ganas to eat red meat. It has no appeal to me. I do eat turkey or chicken or seafood. Years ago, someone asked me, “What kind of vegetarian are you?” I was with my good friend Roger Ebert, and he said, “She’s the kind no lobster’s safe around!” [Laughs.]
Is it true you worked with Judith Jones, the famed cookbook editor at Knopf who discovered Julia Child?
I did three cookbooks with Judith Jones.
What was the publishing process like at the time you wrote the Vegetarian Epicure books?
It’s funny when you’re in your late teens and your early 20s and you’re in college — you don’t know you can’t do something. The benefit of the vast ignorance we carry at that age. I was learning to cook and teaching myself to cook and cooking out of self-defense. I couldn’t afford to eat out, and there wasn’t much choice for vegetarians, even in California. My friends said, “You should really write a cookbook!” And in my 20-year-old state, I said, “Maybe I should!” They would have said that to anyone who cooked them a home-cooked meal.
At the time, I was very lucky that I happened to know somebody who had a literary agent in New York. I had no clue at all about the publishing world or anything about it. And then it happened that Roberta Pryor, who was the agent, looked at it, and it happened that one of the people she sent it to was Judith Jones, who said, “This is what we need, a new voice. This is new.”
I was a student trying to get through the film program at UCLA and Roberta called: “We have an offer and I think you should take it.” Uh, yeah! A few thousand dollars was a fortune, and I was thrilled. But I didn’t have any idea what would happen. It was a revelation that the book took off.
How do you account for the success of your books?
I think Judith Jones was right. I was somebody who did not want to eat meat anymore at that time, but I still wanted to eat. I wanted delicious food, and it turns out there were a lot of people like that. People who wanted to not eat meat or to eat less, to enjoy their food, or had other people in their lives who didn’t want to eat meat.
I got letters from parents who had kids in college who didn’t want to eat meat. And they wrote to me and said, “I didn’t know what to do, and your book has saved my life.” There was a need and a desire for something like that. It was an enormous surprise and incredibly gratifying.
I’ve told this story to other food writers, and I feel like they just want to slap me. Don’t hate me for this. Believe me, I have paid my dues in the film industry.
How do you see the new vegetarianism? How is it different or the same as the early 1970s?
What’s new? For years now, I’ve seen many, many, many vegetarian cookbooks, and I just think it’s an evolution. Basically, all that means is that the idea of eating without meat or eating less meat or eating in a more plant-based way has become more mainstream. So you get a lot of books because it’s a more accepted lifestyle that nobody questions anymore.
There used to be a restaurant in London called Cranks, one of the first vegetarian restaurants in the 1970s. It was a pretty good restaurant, actually. That was how people felt about vegetarians. That’s not the feeling now; you’re not a crank, you’re not weird.
Is veganism part of the same trend?
The vegan movement is something where I feel a different energy, a more enthused and committed group. That’s a group that I find very communicative with each other, passionate and committed and energized and unbelievably grateful for any kind of help they’re given.
When I did Love Soup, I had started cooking with more olive oil and less butter. When I finished doing all the soups and was going over them, I realized that many were vegan. I didn’t alter them; they just were legume-based and vegetarian-based. So we put a “V” next to every recipe that was vegan. We got a lot of love back from the vegan community for doing that.
Your newest cookbook project is about bringing family with different diets together. Can you tell me more about it?
We hope it will be on the fall list next year. I’m in the throes of putting together the manuscript from work I’ve been doing the past couple of years. It’s tentatively titled Vegan, Vegetarian, Omnivore. It asks the question, “Can we all just sit down and have dinner together?”
After years of entertaining and raising my children and having family holidays, blah, blah, blah, I’ve come to feel that what you put on the table is incredibly important. More important than the food is who is at the table. I don’t like this feeling where people are afraid to invite people over for Thanksgiving and if you want to have a meal together it turns into a negotiation or a food fight. Breaking bread together is the basis of civilization. Let’s not just give this up!
I decided to do a book based on something I did long ago in The New Vegetarian Epicure called “Thanksgiving for Everyone.” It was a beautiful Thanksgiving meal you could have with the turkey or as a standalone. I got some heat from that, but I was talking about something I had done in my own house with my own family, and I wanted everyone at my table to be relaxed and happy — no one to be sidelined or guilty.
I wanted to do a whole book based on that idea: Let’s figure out meals that are wonderful — vegan or vegetarian — that can accommodate fish or fowl or meat. It’s been really interesting; it’s taken me out of my comfort zone. I had to learn how to be a vegan cook and then how to roast a turkey.
I’m not trying to teach people how to cook roast beef, but I’m trying to give people a sense of how to approach things and what can go with what. Start with the cleaner, greener end of the food scale, because it’s the most universal. You start your thinking around what everyone can eat, and everyone will want it. But if I’m making this risotto with squash, what is something that the meat eater would like with it? Maybe some pancetta . . . You evolve your thinking that way.
So, people can sit down together and avoid the crises around Thanksgiving and Christmas. We have enough anxiety; we need to be able to sit down and be festive together. And there’s a generosity of spirit that needs to be allowed to live. Let everybody eat what they want and be content.
Have you ever been tempted to write a food film, à la Nora Ephron?
I have a fantastic idea that I’ve been developing as a possible television show that has a lot to do with the food world. Whether or not that will happen, we shall see. It’s in a nascent stage, a great food-obsessed character that could make a wonderful TV show, and I hope to get it off the ground.
How is writing cookbooks like or unlike writing for film?
The most interesting and maddening thing in the world is what we think about when we write movies. With food, you write about experience with others, and communicate with others to convey a sense of what delights you. It’s a completely different thing, which is why it’s so refreshing for me. Making movies is very stressful. I go home and tinker in the kitchen and write about food.
Lynne Curry is a writer based in Joseph, Oregon. She is the author of Pure Beef: An Essential Guide to Artisan Meat with Recipes for Every Cut, and she blogs at Rural Eating.