American (Food) Revolution

Several months ago, the New Yorker published a long essay about vegetarian and vegan cookery. In the process, it critiqued a number of cookbooks of the vegetable stripe—recent titles like Plenty, Vegetable Literacy, and Veg.

In the process, though, it gives a long history of vegetarian cooking, touching on ancient religious prohibitions against eating meat and the English nineteenth century, when a minister’s wife apparently wrote the first vegetarian cookbook. What I want to talk about, though, is a remark made about The Moosewood Cookbook, which the writer characterizes part of a moment where “preachy vegetarian communes and collectives…began to proliferate….remember the breads and carrot cakes that weighted almost as much as the people eating them?”

In this post, I intend to rise to The Moosewood Cookbook’s defense, but also to do a little historical correction and think a bit about the cycles of revolution and how they are overwritten.

So, to begin. Remember The Moosewood Cookbook reader? Two things. The Moosewood Cookbook was published in the late 1970s as a product of a popular café in Ithaca, New York (yes, called Moosewood!). It was communal in style, with many people doing cooking duties. The cookbook was originally a stapled-together version of handwritten recipes that diners had begged for.

More importantly, perhaps—and the point completely missed by the New Yorker–it was one of the first American cookbooks to say that vegetables could be it: could be the main part of your meal. Essentially, they moved vegetables from an afterthought on the margins of a plate to a possible (and desirable) centerpiece. It was a decisive break from the cooking of the 1950s (think Betty Crocker, and even Joy of Cooking). And not only in its emphasis on vegetables: it was far more international (baba ganoush rather than meat and potatoes), and it encouraged handmade rather than technological production. (Betty Crocker is a fictional character designed to give a human face to the laboratories of General Mills.) Betty Crocker cookbooks look like a slickly produced version of homey. Moosewood was designed, even after it was picked up by a mainstream publishing company, to look like a spiral bound, art-filled, hand-drawn book. moosewood cookbook

I started to read some of the history of Moosewood (and two other revolutionary cookbooks, The Tassajara Bread Book and Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet) because I was really struck by the New Yorker writer’s dismissal of Moosewood (and lack of mention of other two). At one point, these 3 constituted something of a holy trinity in the college towns among which I moved.

More importantly, they revolutionized American cooking in a way that the cookbooks that followed them didn’t. And that’s what I want to talk about in the New Yorker’s de facto history of the vegetable cookbook. Because she dates the revolution very differently: to Deborah Madison’s Greens restaurant (started, like Moosewood, before the cookbook) and the eponymous cookbook that followed.

I’m sure Greens is a great cookbook and the restaurant stellar. But revolutionary forerunner of the current vegetable vogue it is not. It takes the vegetable revolution exemplified by Moosewood and places it in a slick, expensive package for the successful and the upscale. (Greens was founded, and still is, in San Francisco.) Proof? When the founders of Moosewood looked back 10 years, it would have been difficult to find a progenitor saying that vegetables could be the centerpiece. When the founders of Greens did the same…they would have seen Moosewood, and also Tassajara, and the many restaurants in college towns that served that type of food. (And they definitely would have seen the latter, as its author, Edward Espe Brown, also helped found Greens.)

Coming soon…more on American (Food) Revolution.

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