On a showery, late fall morning, Mollie Katzen's kitchen is warm and
inviting. It's just a wide galley really, with unadorned white cabinets
and laminate counters in a lavender blue. At one end, a built-in wooden
booth surrounds a table that holds a plate of cheeses and figs, a dish
of scones, an apple or two. It's the kind of kitchen your neighbor might
have, not the culinary showplace you'd expect for a woman whose
vegetarian cookbooks from The Moosewood Cookbook in 1977 to Sunlight
Café in 2003 have sold millions of copies and changed the eating
habits of two generations.
And Katzen looks like she might be
your neighbor. Petite, with cropped brown hair, she wears jeans and a
black sweater and little makeup. She talks quickly and familiarly, as
though, indeed, she's been living next door to you for years. As her
mind darts from one subject to another, she passionately shifts the
conversation. Beginning with, well, the beginning.
up in a kosher home in Rochester, New York, and that Jewish background
spurred her interest in vegetarian cooking. It wasn't that she had
anything against meat "I loved meat when my mom cooked it," she says
"but when I wasn't at home, my way of keeping kosher was not eating
meat, and that led me to look for other vegetarian options."
Beyond the kashrut laws, her excitement about food came from watching
her grandmother "an intuitive cook who did everything by feel" in the
kitchen. "She had a certain joie de vivre about food, not just eating,
she loved being around it," Katzen says. Stuffed derma, challah from
scratch, strudel stretched on the dining room tableŠher cooking made an
impression on the young girl, whose mother was more apt to make dinner
with convenience foods.
Around the holidays, food took on a
greater significance: "It was what differentiated the sacred from the
mundane. The Jewish observance in my household dovetailing with the
way it was expressed through food was absolutely formative. The fact
that a meat phobia turned me into a vegetarian maven was secondary."
And though religious observances have faded in importance for
her, Katzen still cooks for the Jewish holidays. She ticks off her
favorites: kugels, matzoh ball soup and matzoh brei at Pesach, and
potato pancakes in oil "lots of oil, they need to be crisp" at
Chanukah. "I want my kids to have Jewish food in their taste
Katzen's own taste experiences soon expanded to a
wider world. Aspirations in painting, music, and literature took her to
college at Cornell, then art school in San Francisco, where she helped
support herself with a job at a trendy new eatery called Shandygaff. "I
was going to school from 8 to 4, painting," she remembers, then every
day at 4:30, "I'd show up at the restaurant and stay until midnight
cooking. I was garnishing strawberries and avocados, which I'd never
worked with before. I was so smitten with food work. I saw it as a way
of supporting my art like an opera singer who waits on tables."
After a couple of years on the West Coast, she was invited back
to Ithaca to help start the vegetarian Moosewood Restaurant, where her
collection of hand-lettered, charmingly illustrated recipes eventually
turned into a word-of-mouth best-seller. The reasons for its success may
have had less to do with a meatless philosophy than the fact that her
dishes simply tasted fabulous.
Regina Schrambling, a food
writer and editor, calls Katzen's first cookbook revolutionary. "She
made her recipes every one is great seem like food you would eat for
fun and pleasure, rather than politics and suffering. And the format
made it feel like using hand-me-down recipes."
filled an obvious need," acknowledges Katzen, who attributes its
popularity to simple language and an accessible style. Three decades
later, the cookbook's influence is hard to overestimate.
Barbara Fairchild, editor of Bon Appetit, says, Katzen "brought
vegetarian cooking into the mainstream." It's hard to remember that
supermarket staples like tofu, tamari, and fresh ginger demystified in
Moosewood were once exotic and unfamiliar. "Thirty years ago not
putting meat in pasta would have been considered radical. Now, it's just
a way we eat," says Fairchild.
In 1981 Katzen returned to
California, and since then there have been two marriages and two
divorces, a son, Sam who recently left for college and a daughter,
Eve, now 12. Katzen lives in the same house she's had for 18 years, full
of light, with wood floors and windows that look out to the unbroken
greenery of a regional park. There's a music practice room at the rear
and a painting studio upstairs, and her still lifes and landscapes hang
on the walls.
In that congenial space she's written and
illustrated (both in black and white and mouth-watering color) a number
of follow-up cookbooks The Enchanted Broccoli Forest; two children's
cookbooks; Vegetable Heaven, a tie-in to her cooking show on public TV;
and a recent volume devoted entirely to breakfast as well as revised
editions of the early works, with lighter more streamlined recipes.
Ironically, Katzen herself is not a strict vegetarian. "I see
my job as defining a healthy diet for people in a realistic way," she
says. She's anything but doctrinaire, urging her audience to tinker with
her recipes to make them their own.
Her realization that
"people are pressed for time, they're pressed for money, and they're
pressed for space in the kitchen" is helping shape her next cookbook:
How To Love Vegetables, to be published in January 2005. It will be a
smaller book, she says, with illustrations in Japanese brushwork. But
she hopes it will have an inspirational effect.
that they should eat vegetables," she says. "Some people like them, and
some people don't. But even people who like them tend to leave them out
of their meals. I meet sophisticated professionals, and they eat a nice
cut of meat, or a roasted organic chicken, but they won't serve
The problem starts, she says, with stocking the
kitchen: "If you want to serve the recommended 5 fruits or vegetables a
day, for a family of 4, over 7 days, that's 140 servings of vegetables a
week. If you only shop once a week, that's overwhelming." So she plans
to deal with the basics of how to shop, then inspire her readers with
quick but irresistible recipes.
"I'll make a balsamic glaze,"
she says, "or a fruit glaze for roasted vegetables. You just brush it
on, and they take vegetables over the top. Five ingredientsŠ and in ten
minutes you're done."
It's crucial, she feels, that her readers
relate to her cookbooks not as souvenirs of a Mollie Katzen experience
but as guides they can use from someone they can trust. Even her TV work
"I was the Mr. Rogers of the cooking show" had that down-to-earth
quality. "We didn't do a lot of camera tricks. It wasn't ŚLook at me.'
It was, ŚCook and enjoy this food.' That was my message."
it's one that she continues to preach in as many ways as she can
imagine. "TV chefs are all about entertainment. I want to talk about
food in our lives and how food fits into a context."
fascinates her, for example, that food packaging is such a recent
innovation. "TwoŠno, three generations ago, all food was cooked by
someone at home," she points out. "There were no midnight snacks. You
couldn't just flip on a switch and get food from the fridge." Her
observations from what we should be eating to be strong and healthy,
to the politics surrounding the procurement of food and its history in
our culture make up the kind of "food literacy" issues she addresses
in an increasing number of speeches. "Food used to be quantitative," she
says, "how much fuel do we need to get us through the day. But now it's
qualitative which foods do we eat and why."
mission broadened in 1998, when Dr. Walter Willett invited her to join
the Harvard School of Public Health Nutrition Round Table. Willett, the
man behind the new "food pyramid" of dietary recommendations, "thought I
had a good following of old and young people who weren't just foodies.
He wanted me to help translate his scientific findings to the language
of everyday." Recently she added a new connection with Harvard
University's Dining Services that extends from planning special dinners
to talking to students about what they want to eat or don't and
taking that information into the practical realm, changing menus, adding
some creative choices.
Katzen is also working on a second web
site, www.molliekatzendesigns.com, for her non-cookbook projects, such
as planning food for business events. "Conference food is really
boring," she says. Invited to be the guest chef for a meeting of 500
people, "I designed the food, starting with the taste and the colors,
and including meat and fish. The food became important, a conversation
And soon to reach your pantry is her line of food
products, beginning with several versions of a high-protein, low-carb
natural baking mix, with improved soy flour "an organic version of
Bisquick, so people can make pancakes and muffins and pie crust and
cookies and bread." The high nutritional profile will ensure that a
slice of banana bread or a croissant holds someone from breakfast to
lunchtime. Most important the Katzen hallmark "it will be absolutely
One bonus is that Katzen gets to design the
packaging. The prototype containers are covered in bright colors, with
hand lettering and the same kind of "I want that on my table" drawings
that fill her cookbooks.
Of course, juggling it all testing
and developing new cookbooks, writing, speaking, planning products,
finding time to read and think is a challenge. More and more she
craves time in her studio. There under a lofty peaked ceiling, four tall
windows frame a view of trees receding into the distance, a scene that
reappears in several paintings in the house. Pieces of art are tacked up
everywhere, self-portraits from a decade ago, figurative studies in
charcoal. Here, too, in this private space, she's beginning to reach out
to a wider audience.
"I'm starting to do commissioned artwork,"
she confides. Though her drawings have always appeared in the cookbooks,
"not as many people as you think know I illustrate my work." When the
wife of a dot-com entrepreneur asked to buy one of her still lifes,
Katzen painted a new one instead, using the woman's own talismans the
first gift from her husband, one of her baby's toys, a piece of favorite
jewelry. "We had a little opening. It was a wonderful experience." And
one she wants to repeat in the months ahead.
So painting is
bringing Katzen to a new crossroads or perhaps returning her to one
she was at long ago, when she was a student hoping to support her art
with her cookbooks. For the rest of us, meanwhile, she's still a
neighbor we can look to for help, encouragement, and if not a cup of
sugar, well, maybe a tomato or two.
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