Crescent Dragonwagon has written dozens of books, including 39 children’s books and six cookbooks (among them the James Beard Award-winning Passionate Vegetarian). She is the former owner and chef at Dairy Hollow House in the Ozarks, where she prepared beans and cornbread for President Clinton.
The daughter of the children’s author Charlotte Zolotow and the entertainment writer Maurice Zolotow, Dragonwagon is also the creator of the writing workshop Deep Feast. She brings to her workshops what she brings to her books and her food: a child’s capacity for endless amazement.
You come from two literary parents. How did you become interested in food?
When you’re a teenager, you talk to your friends for hours on the phone. When I was young, the phones were hooked to the wall with a curly pigtail of a wire. The shelf the cookbooks were on was next to the phone. I’d leaf through the cookbooks.
The first cookbook I ever read was How to Cook a Wolf, by M.F.K. Fisher. It made me think about food as a lens to look at the world. Food was ever associated for me with stories and relationships. It was always contextual, always.
But you weren’t just reading about food then; you were writing about it. You were 16 when you published The Commune Cookbook.
I disowned The Commune Cookbook for many years.
There was a part in it about how to steal. It was the Abbie Hoffman era. I don’t disown that piece of it; it was part of who I was. And it is the first cookbook that ever used the term “biodiversity.”
You were ahead of your time even then.
In some ways, whenever I hear global warming discussed, I think it’s a good thing. We’re nominally more environmentally literate than we were. We’re asking questions.
In those days, we didn’t have the terms “global warming” or “climate change,” but the ice caps were melting. I thought the world was coming to an end. No way could you tell me I’d live to be 60. I didn’t think I’d live to be 20; I didn’t the world would survive that long.
How has America’s food culture changed since then?
As with everything, it has gotten so partisan. People give me a hard time because I eat dairy products. I don’t go to a fitness class to have you tell me how to eat. I’m a laissez-faire vegetarian; I hate the PC-ness.
The trend I’ll be glad to see the ass of is paleo. It just infuriates me. It’s low-carb high-protein with a new name.
It irks me, because its premise is somewhat a lie and impossible. Everyone ate meat then, but they didn’t eat the meat that’s here now, that’s factory-farmed or even small organic farmed. They ate animals that don’t exist anymore. You know there’s a recipe for Paleo Boston Cream Pie? There’s no way our ancestors were eating that.
I also feel terrible for the people who don’t have the knowledge to make choices, be it vegetarian, vegan, or paleo, who can only afford cheap fast food. I feel sorry for the planet being raped by it, and the people being paid $8 an hour to make that food.
How did you develop Deep Feast, your culinary writing workshop?
It developed officially 10 years ago. I used to teach a class called “Fearless Writing” at IACP [the International Association of Culinary Professionals]. Julia Child — she was over 80 — came and took the class at the last minute, did the exercises like everybody else.
Toward the end of the day, I was saying my thing about tolerating anxiety for growth — that’s the way the creative world worked, you don’t know how something comes out until you make it. Someone asked, “Doesn’t it get any easier?”
I said, “Usually, when I have famous people in my class, I let them have their privacy, but in this case, I’ll ask Julia Child, who has has achieved the maximum you can in this field, to comment. Julia, does it get easier?”
“Absolutely not,” she said, like she was waiting for it. It was perfect.
You ran the kitchen at Dairy Hollow House for years, turning out meals for your guests. How did you cook meat without eating it?
I ran a restaurant. I wasn’t born a vegetarian. We shouldn’t be alienated from food. Every day we’d have meat — a pork or beef entrée — as well as a vegetarian entrée, soup, salad, and dessert.
People would rave about our vegetable sides: “They were marvelous! Wow, I could make a whole meal out of that.” And then people would rave about my pot roast, and I’d think, “Wow, we’d be having a really different conversation if you knew I didn’t eat it.”
How did you develop recipes?
I lived in the South, I was steeped in that, so I was interested in aspects of that culture and cuisine. There are a lot of wonderful dishes made with meat. My challenge became taking a traditional recipe and making it vegetarian.
I’ll taste something that will intrigue me, or see something that’s growing. I had one experience where some butternut squash and tomatoes were sitting in a wooden bowl, and a ray of light came down on them. Well, then: squash-and-tomato soup. Pure divine inspiration.
What’s the difference between whipping up a recipe and writing one?
To me, if you’re a good recipe writer, you teach through the recipe. And if you teach, you have to give truthfully, as opposed to wanting to show off and have people think you’re great. You have to say how the process developed, so they can be empowered enough to look your recipe and say, “I don’t have apricots, but I’ve got prunes, maybe I could . . . “ I love that.
How has your approach to cooking and eating changed since Dairy Hollow House?
When I made vegetable soup when I was 16, 18, 20, it always had a ton of herbs in it. It was complicated. I like more straightforward flavors now, something that tastes like itself.
I don’t like food that is fussy. I like big flavors, like garlic, and I really, really love hot and spicy. But I don’t like dishes you have to take apart to eat, with too many layers and flavors.
Talking early days, I had a rampant and uncontrollable sweet tooth. Less so now. I enjoy baking, but I notice I’m more drawn these days to fat. Passionate Vegetarian was very low-fat, [with recipes] using a teaspoon of olive oil. Now it’s one tablespoon, two tablespoons, four tablespoons — it tastes good enough to me that I’m willing to have those extra calories. My body is wanting that.
What food says home to you?
Homey to me, in some iteration, is beans with some kind of grainy starch — cornbread or corn tortillas with nice spicy beans. My fauxjoada — I could eat it every single meal, it’s so good. Beans over rice, with raw threadlike ribbons of collard-green salad.
The ice caps are still melting. So why does food still matter?
I created Deep Feast because I got tired of hearing people say, “Shucks, I’m just a food writer.” Just? Just? How do you know if you’re alive? You’re living and breathing. You take in the world and you inhale it and exhale it, you eat it and excrete it. I feel like food is a contract with life.
The whole planet we’re walking on is the graveyard of others, animals and people, things that lived and died. The basic contract of being born into a body is, “I will sustain myself and eat from what this earth offers me for as long as I live, and my body will become part of this earth.”
You can probably look at anything and get to the ultimate through it. It’s very, very easy to see that about food and articulate that. Food is sacramental; it is like a gate between the physical and nonphysical. It has layers of meaning. I love to let that show organically, in my teaching or in my writing.
Related recipe: Black Bean Fauxjoada Vegetariana
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