When we talked with cookbook author Mollie Katzen in January, she was deep into book number 12, The Heart of the Plate: Vegetarian Recipes for a New Generation, due out in September. During that conversation, Katzen wondered if this might be her last cookbook.
“The first time you talked to me, I was actually working on the book. I was in my grumpy author mode. Now I'm in — 'Whee! I finished the book!' — mode,” Katzen said during a recent phone interview.
It's understandable why she might have experienced a touch of cookbook fatigue, having spent the last three years testing and re-testing dishes. The just-completed book, contains some 300 recipes. At one time, there were even more.
“The book got bigger and bigger and bigger, because I was thinking, if this is my last hurrah, I want to make sure I've said everything I have to say,” Katzen told us this week. “Lo and behold, it got too big and unwieldy and unaffordable. So my editor and I took out a handful of recipes, and I thought, 'Oh no! I like these recipes, now what am I going to do with them?'”
The solution is to eventually publish the recipes on her website, which she is redesigning. In addition to creating all the recipes, Katzen did the book's photography and collages. In between, she continued to pursue other interests, such as music, painting and public health projects.
Katzen, 62, grew up in upstate New York, “in the same kind of American cuisine kitchen that a lot of people my age did, where dinner was a piece of meat and some sides. ” She started working in restaurants as a teenager and eventually, food became a passion, as well as a way to support her music and art.
She studied oboe and piano at Eastman School of Music (and she still practices piano every day, usually while she waits for something to bake.) Katzen also studied at Cornell University and at the San Francisco Art Institute. Her interest in vegetarian food was awakened by her involvement in international folk music and dancing, where refreshments at parties were ethnic foods of different regions. “It was through that, that I discovered what interesting non-meat options there are,” Katzen said.
But Katzen is quick to clarify that she has never been anti-meat. In fact, one of her cookbooks, Get Cooking, includes meat recipes. This book was written for her son when he graduated from college, so he could learn to prepare some of his favorite fast-food meals at home, in a healthy and sustainable way.
Still, there's no question that Katzen is primarily known for her contributions to vegetarian cuisine. She's been credited with changing the way many of us eat.
“It's very flattering, and it's very nice. It makes me feel like I've done something worthwhile. But I stand on other people's shoulders. I was very much influenced by people who came before me. I owe a huge debt to Frances Moore Lappe (Diet for a Small Planet) and Anna Thomas (The Vegetarian Epicure). “
Katzen was one of the founders of the Moosewood Restaurant and Collective in Ithaca, New York in 1973. She sold her shares in that enterprise in the late 1970s; there are now two distinct Moosewood identities. One is the collective and restaurant, and the other is Katzen and her Moosewood Cookbook. She self-published the very first version of that signature cookbook.
“Word got around that I had sold several thousand copies of this homespun, hand-lettered little book out of my station wagon, in a small town, and was getting orders from all over the country. It was one of those word-of-mouth things, before the internet,” she recalled. “Ten Speed Press saw that and saw some value in it for them, (which, in retrospect, turned out to be an understatement). They paid me to do a bigger version with the same informal, quirky, hand-done approach. I couldn't believe they wanted to let me do that!”
Turn the page…
In the decades since, the Moosewood Cookbook has sold some 4 million copies. Along the way, Katzen revised the first edition, making some dishes less rich. “In my early cooking days, I thought adding sour cream or butter would make something taste really good. I didn't know about high-end olive oil or roasted garlic. A learning curve was in store,” she noted, emphasizing that she is not a proponent of low-fat eating — more on that in a minute.
To rework Moosewood, Katzen cooked her way through it, one page at a time. After looking at each recipe, she closed the book, then made the dish anew, reflecting her evolving cooking style and philosophy. She went through the same process with The Enchanted Broccoli Forest.
“When you write a cookbook, it doesn't necessarily mean you're at the pinnacle of knowledge. Any cookbook is what that author is cooking and what that person knows at that point in time. And then you finish the book and you publish it and then you look at it later and you think: 'Wow, I could make that a lot better now.'”
Some of Katzen's journey as a cook is due to her long-term involvement with Harvard University. She credits her friendship and work with Walter Willett, head of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, with influencing her views: “We made this kind of pact that he'd keep me apprised of real nutrition information, as opposed to popular mythology. He's the one who taught me, don't count total fat, don't refer to low fat. Instead, people need to pay attention to what quality of fat they're having. There are some very good fats that we actually need, and we need to go out of our way to put good fats in our diets.”
At Harvard, Katzen has worked on a variety of projects, including consulting on dorm food and helping to create the Food Literacy Project. She also has been involved in a program that seeks to educate medical professionals on the link between nutrition and health.
One goal of her new cookbook is to enhance enjoyment of plant-based eating. “People are confused about whether that means they have to go out and eat their lawn. I want to show what plant-food based eating can be,” said Katzen. “I think one of the keys is to keep the plate really interesting, very visual and playful.”
Katzen confessed that in her “civilian life” she rarely follows a recipe. With that in mind, she hopes the new cookbook will jump-start innovation in readers' kitchens.
“One of the things that's most important to me is people using my cookbooks as a springboard for their own creativity. Throughout the new book, I give the basic recipe. Then, in a separate section, so it doesn't confuse people visually, I give a bunch of options for improv. My hope is that it makes people more comfortable and freed up in the kitchen, and lets them develop their own signature style. “
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