Mollie Katzen

The vegetarian-cooking pioneer

January 9, 2014

Mollie Katzen didn’t invent broccoli, but with her bestselling cookbooks — including The Enchanted Broccoli Forest and The Moosewood Cookbook — she got Americans to eat it.

Moosewood, which came out in 1977, presented radical-at-the-time plant-forward recipes like mushroom moussaka, all done in Katzen’s own whimsical hand-lettered text with her endearing illustrations. It was the hippie-era übercookbook, and remains one of the bestselling cookbooks of all time, earning a spot in the James Beard Cookbook Hall of Fame.

Since then, Katzen has hardly rested on her vegetable laurels. Though not a hard-line vegetarian herself, she’s been on a mission to make broccoli and other vegetables “cravable.” A charter member of the Harvard School of Public Health Nutrition Roundtable, Katzen is also on the faculty of Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives, and has written more than a dozen other cookbooks, including three award-winning cookbooks for children.

Her newest effort, the bestselling book The Heart of the Plate: Vegetarian Recipes for a New Generation, is a triple threat and a triple treat, with Katzen’s recipes accompanied by her own food styling and photography.

You grew up in upstate New York, eating a typical American diet at the time. How did you become interested in cooking?
I was born with a tendency to put things in a bowl and stir them around. All the girls in my neighborhood got miniature stoves for birthdays. My mom would give me her discarded kitchenware — bowls she was throwing out, a battered wooden spoon. Those became my toys.

Mollie Katzen

I remember being three years old, possibly younger — all I wanted to do was be in the back yard, putting dirt into a bowl. I was totally, absolutely, naturally drawn to it. You stir and add water, and you have this other thing happen. You have a transformation. You make batter.

I was notorious in the neighborhood. I’d make these cakes and decorate them with grass and clover. I had imaginary friends I would feed the mud to. My mother would let me in the kitchen and clean me off.

She would cook out of mixes, but it was fascinating to me. It was a continuum: this is mud and that’s food. It’s about creation — tactile, sensual creation.

From mud girl to professional cook and James Beard Award-winning cookbook author. How did that happen?
I never thought of myself as a professional cook. I still don’t. It was my hobby; it was seamless. I just gravitated to it.

I studied art very seriously; I meant to be an artist in my painting studio, a working artist. But I’d go back to cooking for friends and family on my breaks. When I needed a job, I always looked for a food job. It wasn’t always healthy food. I was 15, flipping burgers. It was bad, but I loved it.

Whatever else I was doing in my life — music, art — whenever I took a break, I would wander into the kitchen. In a friend’s house, I’d wander in and ask if I could make something to eat.

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America barely knew what broccoli was back when you wrote The Enchanted Broccoli Forest. How did you go about making vegetables fun?
People credit me for more than I think is justified. I stand on the shoulders of people like Frances Moore Lappé, Anna Thomas, women who have since become my friends — they are such visionaries. They influenced me hugely. They showed me what was possible.

Back then, the only thing people did with vegetables was steam them and eat them plain. Or there were raw vegetables at cocktail parties. I think of raw zucchini, or a big unit of broccoli, raw, with onion dip. It was — forgive me — horrible. It was absolutely punitive: the Joan of Arc diet.

Then, in 1970, I moved to San Francisco to study. I had never seen the produce that was available here, or such cutting-edge restaurants, like Chez Panisse, serving very international, sophisticated, cosmopolitan vegetarian dishes: vegetable curries over pilaf decorated with strawberries; pesto; tabouli; spanakopita. Those things were unheard of in 1970. It was a crazy, edgy thing to eat yogurt. When I first discovered tofu, I couldn’t believe this stuff. We’d go to parties and wrap things in phyllo.

My timing couldn’t have been better. My brother and his friends were building a business in Ithaca, this tiny place in upstate New York.

That was Moosewood. How did you and your brother develop the menu?
I was trying to create a restaurant and a cuisine that grew out of my interest in international culture and folk dance and folk music — it was very popular in the 1970s. There were young American kids traveling to Yugoslavia and Bulgaria or Greece, traveling to India to study with gurus. These are countries for whom meat is an occasional thing. Their daily diets are filled with greens and onions and eggplant and Mediterranean sheep’s-milk cheese.

When did you realize you’d tapped into the zeitgeist?
To this day, a light bulb never went off. It was never a career plan. My audience was our customers. We had a little kitchen; whatever we were cooking that day, we wrote it on the blackboard. People’d ask for recipes. We didn’t have them. We had no recipes; we were winging it. After my shift, I’d write down approximations.

Of all the people working in the restaurant, the only person who had cooking experience was me. I wasn’t the chef; I was just the only person trying to standardize the carrot-soup recipe so the business and the food could have some cohesion.

How did writing down the carrot-soup recipe become The Moosewood Cookbook?
We needed something people could take home to their mothers and not have their mothers die of worry. There were all these historical things people take for granted, like Xeroxing. It was radical. We could run off these recipes and collate them. I hand-lettered — it was how I handed it to customers, it was more personal.

Had I known a greater population would find The Moosewood Cookbook, that so many people were going to buy the book, I don’t know that I would have been so relaxed in my voice. I would have felt the need to make it more formal. I have been astounded by the success of my cookbooks.

From Moosewood to The Heart of the Plate, how has your approach to creating and writing recipes changed?
There are so many reversals in this book and in my cooking. I’m learning and growing constantly. I feel like I was at the beginning of what I was doing when I did Moosewood Cookbook. I was in my early 20s; I’m 62 now.

Is that what’s behind your new book’s subtitle, “Vegetarian Recipes for a New Generation”?
It’s a double meaning. I have two kids in their 20s, I have a lot of friends in their 20s and 30s. I’m a real young-person fan. I love this generation so much; I’m so impressed by their relationship to food.

As for me, my cooking is so much better now. It’s simpler, more straightforward. Once upon a time, I thought, the more ingredients, the better — how many herbs can I possibly cram into a dish? Now I think food from the orchard, food from the garden is so good, it tells you what to do with it.

You’re one of the pioneers of vegetarian cuisine, but you’re not vegetarian. Tell me more about that.
I like to take the word “vegetarian” away from being a person and have it be about the food: “This is a vegetarian plate of food.” It is a plant-forward, vegetable-filled plate with so much garden and orchard stuff that it fills the plate and fills you. Other things can be added.

Some people don’t want to eat any meat — that’s absolutely fine. Some people need animal protein, and that’s not to be judged. I don’t want to contribute to making more divisions between people; I want to find the common ground.

You’re right: even the word “vegetarian” is fraught. Do you prefer the words “meatless”? “Vegan”? “Plant-forward”?
The word “meatless” is problematic. It has nothing to do with vegetables. It’s a negative statement. It’s not an embrace, but a pushing-away.

I’m concerned about our concept of nutrition being what’s not on our plate. I’m not on a mission to eat less meat, but to eat more vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and fruit. To make those things cravable, to help people buy that stuff, prepare it, and make it a delicious part of your life.

Florida-based writer Ellen Kanner is the author of Feeding the Hungry Ghost. She keeps a website and a blog, and contributes regularly to the Huffington Post and to Culinate.

Related book: The Heart of the Plate

There are 2 comments on this item
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1. by Joyce Cole on Jan 10, 2014 at 12:22 PM PST

“I don’t want to contribute to making more divisions between people; I want to find the common ground.” Well said, Mollie!

2. by dorothy on May 16, 2014 at 12:24 PM PDT

The yellow cover original Moosewood cookbook was my intro to vegetarian cuisine more than 30 years ago, a huge departure from what I was cooking for the dinner table.
But there was something infectious about the ‘brand’: Mollie’s drawings accompanying the recipes, the often- amusing commentary and what was an obvious kitchen camaraderie among a diverse group in that Ithaca kitchen. (And when I learned one of my favorite authors, Isaac Bashevis Singer, had eaten at Moosewood and was waited on in Yiddish, that clinched the deal.
I am pleased and proud to say that for many years, my kitchen has been almost exclusively vegetarian and it surprises me how often what goes on the plate is now vegan. My husband can’t get enough of it and I love its creativity and how readily it adapts to almost every ethnic culture. I have five Moosewood cookbooks, and they are the most stained and patched of all my cookbooks. That says it all.
Thanks, Mollie
Dorothy (Montreal, Canada)

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