Thursday, October 13, 2011

Let Us Now Praise Mollie Katzen

Today is the birthday of Mollie Katzen, who has probably had a profound impact on your life, even if you're not a vegetarian, even if you think you could care less about cooking.  Mollie Katzen is perhaps most famous for writing and illustrating the very first Moosewood cookbook, although my favorite of hers is The Enchanted Broccoli Forest Cookbook.  To this day, almost everything I cook out of The Enchanted Broccoli Forest Cookbook pleases almost everyone who comes to my dinner table.  The Moosewood Cookbook has a good mix of recipes, but some of them take me back to some of the most unpleasant attributes of 1970's vegetarian cooking, with its flavors of soy and yogurt and undigestable grains.

For those of you who are scoffing at the idea of Mollie Katzen and Moosewood having a lasting impact on the culture, I'd point you to the proliferation of farmer's markets and fresh food in your grocery stores.  When I was a child/adolescent in mid-size Southern towns, we didn't have much in the way of produce departments.  That's changed, at least at the edges of the country.  The inner reaches of the continent may remain untouched, but I doubt it.

My vegetarian roots probably go back to the 5th grade, when our class mouse died, and as a class, we got to vote as to whether or not we buried it or dissected it.  We voted for dissection.  When my 5th grade teacher peeled back the skin, he pointed to the muscle and said, "That's what you're eating when you eat meat."  My relationship with meat has never been the same since.

In high school, my mom invited lonely seminarians over to our house for dinner--and those of you who know me or have read my blogs are probably saying, "Ah, that explains it."  Many of the seminarians were vegetarians, so we learned to cook vegetarian.  We experimented with baking our own bread, a process which bewitched me when I first attempted it during long summers in the late 70's and early 80's.

More and more I wanted to give up meat altogether.  My mom said I could if I learned about nutrition so that I could be sure I was getting enough protein.  I did.  For Christmas, she gave me The Enchanted Broccoli Forest Cookbook--what a treat!

I had a great family--they would gamely attempt to eat whatever I cooked.  My dad was not a meat and potatoes dad.  He ran 6-10 miles a day, so he was happy to eat healthy foods.  My mom was happy to share meal prep duties.  My sister made tacos during the week nights when it was her turn to cook.  It all worked out.

I'm happy that Mollie Katzen was there with recipes that my whole family would eat.  I'm happy that she illustrated her own books.

These days, I'm looking at her as a model of how to live a life that's not necessarily the one that society might dictate.  She always seemed to live by her own rules.  She dropped out of college when student protestors made it hard to get to class.  She came to the Moosewood Restaurant thinking that she'd only stay for a little while, and she stayed 5 years.  She self-published the first edition and the second edition of The Moosewood Cookbook (very small press runs), and it went on to become one of the top-selling cookbooks of all times.  She has always mixed her love of painting and drawing with her love of cooking.

Just imagine if Mollie Katzen had talked to you about her plan pre-Moosewood Cookbook plan:  "I'm going to take some of the most popular recipes from the restaurant and adapt them to home kitchens.  They're vegetarian recipes; yes, I know that most of the nation doesn't eat vegetarian meals.  I'm going to illustrate my recipes with pen-and-ink drawings that I'll create by hand, only me, all by myself.  I'll do this while I continue to work at the restaurant."

Most people would have told her that she was crazy, that her plan would never work.  It makes me wonder how many crazy ideas I have that I just discard because everyone around me says, "But what about health insurance?  But what about job security?  But what about planning for retirement?"

What Mollie Katzen like improbable books have been lost because of people who listened to the practical people around them, the scared voices in their own heads?

I'm also intrigued with the idea of cookbooks as architects of social revolution.  Again, we might scoff, but that's because we've been trained to look for social revolution elsewhere--and authored/created by men.  But think about the changes wrought by cookbooks. 

Mollie Katzen led a nation to better health because of her cookbooks.  Mollie Katzen started the movement that may end up changing American agriculture, as more and more people insist on fresh vegetables in a diversity that would have stunned our grandparents.

We could argue that our eating habits might even help save the planet, but that's a discussion for another day.

I see Mollie Katzen as offering a compelling example of a life spent doing what you love and how that can lead to so many amazing changes.  It's a good day to think about what that might mean for our own lives.

Or maybe that's too heavy a thought.  Maybe we should just spend some time making a pot of soup or baking some bread.  It's always a good idea to nourish ourselves, no matter what we face in the coming hours or days.


Kathleen said...

Loved learning all this about Mollie and you! I have tasted some wonderful recipes from that book, and I think my mom must now have it!

Kristin said...

Thanks! You're always so good to visit and comment.

Dave said...

I cook variations on her recipes at least several times a month -- just last night, for example, we had cauliflower cheese pie in a potato crust. Though Diet for a Small Planet was a bigger influence on me overall, Katzen's approach to ethnic fusion cuisine is also the one I tend to take (i.e. close is good enough, and don't worry about sacrificing authenticity in the pursuit of whole-grain goodness). Incidentally, I'm not a vegetarian. I just eat that way 90% of the time.