Mollie Katzen has written seven cookbooks and has more than 6 million books in print. The New York Times named her one of the best-selling authors of all time, and in 2007 the James Beard Foundation, the prestigious culinary society based in New York City, inducted her into its Hall of Fame. Katzen's Moosewood Cookbook, and her subsequent vegetable-focused books, kindled a nationwide obsession with what Katzen calls “good, healthy, vegetable-based food.”
Mollie grew up wanting to be an artist, a musician, and a writer. Like other kids of her generation, she grew up on Velveeta, frozen vegetables, and instant pudding. But on Fridays, she watched her mom bake challah from scratch with a sense of fascination and excitement. When the teenage Katzen needed money she landed a job in a restaurant, frying fries and flipping burgers. Food for her at that time was just a way to make some cash.
Mollie continued to work in kitchens to help put herself through art school in San Francisco. Her discovery of fresh vegetables was an epiphany. She found a job in a macrobiotic restaurant, and soon her work was not just a source of cash, it was a source of inspiration.
“All I knew was that I loved cooking fresh from the garden and orchard and that I wanted to learn as much about this world as I could,” Mollie says. And so when she had the opportunity to move across the country to Ithaca, New York, and help open a vegetable-centric restaurant, she agreed to sign up for a three-month stint. A few years later, she was still happily inventing recipes and cooking her butt off in the kitchen.
Mollie, the artist turned cook, scribbled recipes on napkins for customers and guests. She began to keep a notebook of her most successful dishes. That notebook would become the influential Moosewood Cookbook, perhaps the most popular vegetarian cookbook of all time. Mollie helped move vegetarianism from the fringes into the mainstream consciousness.
“It’s gratifying to watch our relationship with food change,”she says, “We’re arriving at a critical mass.” More and more people are conscious about what they’re putting on their plates and in their mouths and how that food got there, she says.
Mollie never had a anti-meat agenda, but instead wanted to “deemphasize meat” and give people “other options.” In the early days of vegetarian cooking Mollie says people were happy with a big bowl of pasta—as long as it was free of meat. There were, and still are, plenty of “junk food vegetarians.” But the standards are higher, now. Mollie’s cooking has become increasingly veggie-centric. She developed, she says, “a deep love for vegetables and an understanding that people need them for their health.”
After Mollie left the Moosewood Restaurant, there were many more cookbooks: The Enchanted Broccoli Forest, Still Life with Menu Cookbook, and Vegetable Heaven. They shared a warm, friendly style, hand-lettering, and whimsical drawings created by Mollie herself. In 2000, Mollie released The New Moosewood Cookbook. Her latest book, Get Cooking, came out last year. Its goal is to get aspiring home cooks into the kitchen with accessible, beginner recipes.
Cookbook writing interests Mollie because it is a “multipronged creative effort and scientific effort… I like the balance of that,” she says. The technical work of making the measurements perfect and the recipes work counterpoises the “personal and poetic voice.”
The technical template comes first. Recipes have to work structurally. “You can’t wait until you’re struck by lightning,” she says. It's like building a house: “You need a foundation, flooring, walls. That's somewhat creative, but the real creative part is how to color the walls, how to finish the floors—playing with seasonings, experimenting with textures.”
Working on cookbooks doesn’t always add up to dinner. “You can be working all day on lemon tarts, and the evening comes around and there’s nothing in the house for dinner.” Mollie loves to cook dinner pretty much every night. It's a way for her to unwind, to meditate, and to reconnect with food.
It's a challenge, sometimes, for Mollie to stay inspired by food after all these years. “There's burnout from being around food all the time and wanting to still love cooking,” she says, so when she needs to reawaken her culinary muse, she takes time off, travels, visits gardens and browses farmers’ markets near her San Francisco home. And, she cooks dinner, rarely using cookbooks.
If there is a downside to the health, ingredient, and food mania, Mollie worries that food is being “fetishized” and is being cast as “too precious.” Food has become a “subject for entertainment,” she says. Something sacred is being made into a commodity, into “cheap culture.” There’s a “glut of food blogging, a sameness, a self-indulgence—it’s all about the self and the ego, but food is about other and about sharing.”
Mollie sits down to a beautiful lunch with people who love food. Instead of basking in the moment, the anticipation, the company, in the joy of the meal in which they are about to partake, everyone takes out their cameras and starts clicking away.
“We’re at a fork in the road,” she says. “We are in danger of taking a wonderful experience of sharing and making it into a self-definition opportunity.”
Even as a food blogger, I know there's a lot of wisdom in what Mollie says. Over your next mashed parsnips, Portobello pizza, or spicy peanut soup, put down the camera and take some time to connect.
Image credit: Lisa Keating