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Katzen's Kitchen
Joan Tapper
For Hadassah Magazine

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.

Katzen grew 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 experience."

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."

"Moosewood 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.

"Everyone knows 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 vegetables."

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."

And 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."

It 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."

Her educational 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 starter."

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 delicious."

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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