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Embrace Your Vegetables!

Mollie Katzen, with over six million books in print, is listed by the New York Times as one of the bestselling cookbook authors of all time. The Moosewood Cookbook, which helped bring vegetarian cooking from the margins into the mainstream, is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.

How has vegetarian cooking changed?

I used to err on the heavy side, because I wanted to show that people would be satisfied by the sheer volume of what they were eating, since everyone seemed suspicious that they wouldn’t get full if meat wasn’t on the plate. So it used to be all about rice and noodles and cheese.

We want full disclosure here. What do you actually eat for dinner?

Good question! You know, I don’t usually get asked that. I guess in my kitchen I always start with the vegetables, that’s the basis of my dinner. You know, I’m not strictly a vegetarian… so sometimes I’ll add some sustainably raised meat; otherwise it’s tofu or tempeh, nuts, omelets, some kind of protein. The thing is, there are a lot of vegetarians out there who are eating tons of pizza, nachos, bagels, fake meat — and not a lot of vegetables. It really shouldn’t be about “let’s avoid meat,” but rather “let’s embrace vegetables.”

Where does being Jewish come in?

I was brought up in a culture where food in our house was taken seriously, given lots of respect, which I think came from Jewish culture. I first started avoiding meat when I left for college because I didn’t know if any of it was kosher meat or low-quality meat. Then after six weeks at college I realized, “I haven’t eaten any meat for a while and I feel fine,” so I decided to keep going with it. The other piece for me came from modern urban life, where I felt too separated from the sources of my food. I had a sort of vegetable illiteracy. When I finally encountered fresh veggies I was completely enamored of them. They seemed so exotic to me, so unlike the frozen vegetables I had grown up with. So it was the combination of leaving my parents’ Jewish home, and discovering the world of fresh veggies, that started me on my path.

You’ve included family recipes in your cookbook. How did your family actually shape you as a cook?

My mother and grandmother were the queens of the kitchen. My grandmother was a totally intuitive cook — she never used a recipe in her life. She didn’t even own a measuring cup! So I learned to cook from taste-memory. When I became a teenager and began baby-sitting, after I’d put the kids to bed I’d read through a family’s cookbooks. Because my grandmother never had any written instructions for cooking, I didn’t realize anyone cooked that way. To be honest, even today, writing recipes is difficult for me. I don’t use any cookbooks. I just cook. So when I write, I have to write very carefully.

You first wrote Moosewood by hand. Did its success surprise you?

You know, if I had thought it would be such a hit I probably would have made it more formal, typed it up or something! I really envisioned it at first just for personal use, friends and family, since I kept jotting the same recipes down for people.

Some people think of you as the vegetarian maven. What’s important now?

My mission isn’t to get everyone to be vegetarian, but to raise the line between healthy eating and good eating. In our culture people think that if you enjoy your food, it means it’s bad for you. We need to think of food as “healthy and delicious.” I want to show people that they don’t have to eat gritty, beige, awful food in order to be healthy. So I’m now teaching seminars on nutrition around the country. I’m doing lots of menu consulting for universities, including Harvard and Berkeley. I’ve also been writing kids’ books about food literacy.

My big new project is that I’m now making a series of films to use as teaching tools for families of obese children, called Food- Power. The videos will be distributed free in pediatrician’s offices around they country. The first video shows five healthy breakfasts, and then I demonstrate how to make them. I did all my research for ingredients in stores like Walgreens and Target, since so many low-income families don’t even have access to a good supermarket or farmers’ market. We show them how to make things like oatmeal with bananas and nuts — ingredients they could really buy anywhere.

So you incorporate food with social justice issues.

Well, one of the primary messages from Judaism in my life has been that food is a sacred territory. Not just on holidays, but all the time — if you say a blessing over it, food has to be respected, and you have to slow down and pay attention to it. The bottom line is, food is holy stuff.