Martha Rose Shulman has been a food fixture in this town and beyond for many years, teaching cooking classes at Venice Cooking School, working on the cookbooks of some of L.A.'s favorite chefs — she co-authored Mark Peel's recent New Classic Family Dinners and Sherry Yard's The Secrets of Baking and Desserts By The Yard — and writing a column, Recipes for Health, for The New York Times.
Shulman's latest book, The Very Best of Recipes for Health, a collection of 250 recipes from Shulman's popular NYT stories, came out last month from Rodale. We sat down with Shulman recently at Anisette, where she talked about her new book, cooking vegetarian and writing to Julia Child over a cappuccino and lunch. Yes, it was vegetarian, but, as Shulman pointed out, it didn't have to be.
And check back later for Shulman's recipe for barley and mushroom salad with English peas.
Squid Ink: So how many cookbooks does this make it?
Martha Rose Shulman: 27. Well, not including my ghost-writing. Or my in collaboration with. I think there's like 37. It's a lot of books.
SI: How did you first get into cookbook writing?
MRS: Well, I realized that what I wanted to do was cook long before the Food Network. I was 23 and I was really in to building a vegetarian cuisine that was good. There was just so much that wasn't good back in the 70s. And I was cooking all the time, going to school, changing my major every year. And one night after a very long party where I made a lot of ratatouille and a lot of quiche I just said, Well, this is what I'm going to do. I dropped out of school again and I got a job at a library and I thought about how I was going to do it. I didn't want to do a restaurant. I didn't know about business and I didn't like to cook that way, so I decided to teach.
So I went to University of Texas Extension and I designed all these vegetarian cooking classes, and started as a teacher and then I had a supper club. Which was way before anybody ever did that. And 35 people would come to my house. I took my closet doors off and I put them on cinder blocks. And it was a one-course sit-down meal. And that allowed me to build this repertoire and because I was always a writer in search of a subject, I sort of knew that I would write a book. So then in 1975, I guess, I sat down and wrote a cookbook. And then it took two years to sell it.
SI: You wrote it first.
MRS: It was all about the supper club. But I corresponded with everybody I knew, everybody I admired, and I had a very interesting correspondence with Julia Child. Yeah, I'm working on a memoir and I've just been going through a lot of files and stuff. It was really amazing. Dear Miss Child I Am A Twenty-six Year-old Vegetarian Cook And I'm From Austin, Texas, And I Have A Catering Service. Anyway, she gave me advice. And I would just sent it to one publishing house at a time; I had no agent. And I'd get these very nice rejection letters, but I just sort of knew that it was good, and that there was a lot that was bad, and so I decided if I don't sell this book by the time I'm 30, I'm going to do something else with my life. And I was 27 when it landed on Fran McCullough's desk at Harper & Row and she took it. That book came out in 79, and it's still in print. It's called The Vegetarian Feast.
SI: So what kinds of things would Julia Child tell you?
MRS: First she just gave me a lot of encouragement: Well, I think it's great what you're doing. And I said, I've written a book. And she said, Well, why don't you send it to my editor, Judith Jones. And then I wrote her again and I wanted very much to do television, and I had a friend at the local station in Austin and we were working on a vegetarian cooking show. I don't know why it never got off the ground, maybe funding. So I wrote to Julia Child and asked her, I said, I wondered if you could give me some advice about approaching television. She said that when thinking about what I wanted to show on television, to choose dishes that needed visual explanation. “Something like a Gaspacho (sic), where everything is dumped into a blender has no excitement at all! If you could blend, then do something fascinating, fine. In other words, if you can read it and do it, it's not for TV…”
As for food television today, I think it's preventing many people from becoming home cooks. Lots of people watch it, but the message they get from Top Chef and from the star chefs on the Food Network is that to cook you have to cook like a chef. And the more homey cooks are teaching shortcuts. Cooking is not so slick. I reread Julia Child's introduction to The French Chef Cookbook last week, with her account of how they conceived of the show and started doing it. She says that even though they couldn't do the show live, because of equipment constraints and the risks involved because she was an amateur, they did decide to tape it as though it were live, with no stops “unless the sky fell in, the cameras failed, or the lights went off… would far prefer to have things happen as they naturally do, such as the mousse refusing to leave the mold, the potatoes sticking to the skillet, the apple charlotte slowly collapsing. One of the secrets of cooking is to learn to correct something if you can, and bear with it if you cannot.” Food Network cooks don't wear aprons, and this drives me crazy, because the message that gives is that you never have to wipe your hands and you never have anything to clean up.
On the positive side, I think it's great that kids are being exposed to food through television, and this is making them want to cook; but they would develop more confidence as cooks if their parents cooked and they learned by their sides. But — back to the negative — the way the food shows are done today, television isn't teaching; it's entertainment. It's leaving out one of the great cooking teaching tools: the cookbook. When I was learning to cook, I would say to my mother “I want to learn to make such-and-such,” and she would direct me to the recipe in the cookbook that she used for that dish. I learned to cook from cookbooks. I studied them. It's a great way to learn how to cook. Kids don't get that message if they're getting their culinary information from television.
SI: How have attitudes towards vegetarianism changed since you first started cooking?
MRS: Vegetarianism is much more mainstream now. Many more people are looking for good vegetarian recipes, which is one of the reasons my Recipes for Health column is so popular. I also think that people don't feel that they have to be vegetarian to eat that way. It's not the political statement that it was for many in the 70s. Perhaps that kind of attitude is now more in the realm of vegan and raw. By the way, see my Soapbox on the subject of bad vegan food on ZesterDaily if you haven't already.
SI: What do you think of the whole Meatless Monday idea?
MRS: It's nice, something that can ease people into the idea that you don't have to eat meat every day, but you don't have to give it up altogether either. When I was vegetarian, which I'm not now though I rarely do eat meat, I wasn't doctrinaire — I didn't really “give up” meat, I'd just had enough. I think Meatless Mondays can help people with this notion.
SI: You've tested recipes for a long time, both your own — for your books, for The New York Times — and many chefs'. Can you talk about the importance of a reliable recipe?
MRS: It's essential. There's a French word I love, “primordial,” of the highest of importance, and that's what comes to mind. As a writer of recipes, my biggest fear is that somebody will make something and it won't work. My readers put their trust in me — they go out and get the ingredients, then spend time in the kitchen, so I want to be sure that the recipe works. Also, I wouldn't be able to describe a dish if I hadn't tested it. You have to know what the result is supposed to be like, what the pitfalls might be. I think I'm a good cook because I know what I want something to taste like, and if I can get my readers to make the dish taste like that too, then I'm succeeding.
SI: Do you think Bon Appétit moving from L.A. to N.Y.C. will have a big effect on the L.A. food scene?
MRS: I'm so out of it, I didn't even know about this until I read the tweets. I don't read the magazine carefully enough to know if it will have an effect. But it does strike me as sad; LA is such a force when it comes to food.
SI: So if you could write any (cook)book you wanted, about anything — ignoring issues of publishers and marketability — what would it be about?
MRS: As for cookbooks, anything that would put me back in France or in the Mediterranean doing research would be great; or something that would force me to go to India or Southeast Asia, where I've never been. As for books, what I really want to write next is a memoir.
SI: Aren't you working on one already?
MRS: Well I am, but only intermittently.