Classic Cookbooks: The Moosewood Cookbook By Mollie Katzen

The mere words Moosewood Cookbook feel like a time portal back to the '70s, the age of long-haired hippies in overalls and bell-bottoms and clogs who cooked up large pots of vegetable curries and brown rice to feed everybody in the co-op. Dinner would be followed by a leisurely passing of the joint and then cleanup by the person designated on the chore wheel.

For me, it's also a time portal back to college and the years immediately after when my friends and I were moving into our first apartments. These apartments were filled with castoff furniture and dishes, most of it probably left over from the era of The Moosewood Cookbook (our "colorways," as they say now, featured a lot of brown, rust, and goldenrod). When we had dinner parties, they were usually potluck, and they required people to sit on the floor or on the rust-colored couch and balance plates in their laps. Some of us were vegetarians out of conviction, but most of us were vegetarians by circumstance, because vegetables were cheaper and easier to cook than chicken and beef.

Just about every apartment I visited in those days had a copy of The Moosewood Cookbook sitting on a shelf somewhere. Most potlucks included at least one Moosewood dish. People spoke of it fondly, but as time went on, the fondness was more tinged with nostalgia. The Moosewood Cookbook was youth and idealism and freedom and a tiny, tiny food budget.

However—until I stumbled across a copy of The Moosewood Cookbook while browsing the cookbooks section of the library a couple of weeks ago, I had never actually read it. Somehow I had gotten the impression that it was full of recipes for virtuous-tasting crunchy and macrobiotic food, which did not interest me in the least. Still, it was a classic, and I was curious enough to check it out.

The edition I found was the 40th anniversary edition, released in 2014. The text was the same as the version published in 1992, which had streamlined some of the old recipes, added some new ones, and removed a lot of the excess butter and cream. But it was still hand-lettered and illustrated by Mollie Katzen, and there were still recipes for vegetable curries and bulgur salads and a sandwich called Broccoli & Friends. And, yes, it did recommend brown rice.

The story of the cookbook is what one might expect. Back in 1972, a group of friends in Ithaca, New York decided to open a restaurant in an old school building they were renovating. The only problem was, none of them knew how to cook. Fortunately, Mollie Katzen, the sister of one of the group members, happened to be visiting, happened to have professional cooking experience, and also happened to be at loose ends after graduating from the San Francisco Art Institute.

While she was in school, Katzen had worked at the Shandygaff, a vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco. She'd joined the kitchen with low expectations. She thought it would be similar to the joyless, beige health food restaurants she'd known back east. Instead, as she told the journalist David Kamp in his book The United States Of Arugula: How We Became A Gourmet Nation, she was stunned. "It was colorful!.... And the food was excellent, really the first time I'd seen a bridge between macrobiotic and gourmet."

This culinary aesthetic became part of the inspiration for the menu at the Moosewood Restaurant. The other part was international dishes Katzen encountered at parties after her folk dancing classes in Berkeley (oh, the early '70s!) and the borscht and kugel she grew up eating as a nice Jewish girl in Rochester.

The Moosewood Restaurant opened on January 3, 1973. The opening night menu offered diners a choice between ground lamb or mushroom moussaka. The restaurant wouldn't go fully vegetarian for another year, but, as Katzen wrote in her introduction to the 40th anniversary edition, the group was less interested in meat than in "creative preparation of garden- and orchard-sourced ingredients." Unfortunately, as Katzen told The New York Times in 2013, access to quality vegetables in and around Ithaca in those days was very limited. So by necessity, so was the Moosewood's menu.

Nevertheless, the Moosewood Restaurant was a hit. It was homey and friendly and unintimidating. The food seemed like the sort you could make at home if you were an especially creative cook. And so before long, customers were asking Katzen for her recipes. She got so tired of copying them out that she decided to compile them all into one volume. She did the hand-lettering herself, had the pages copied, and then hand-collated and spiral bound the book and offered it for sale at McBooks, an independent bookstore in Ithaca. The first printing of 800 copies sold out within a week. Word of the book spread through American college towns, carried by traveling hitchhikers (oh, the '70s!), and soon Katzen was taking mail orders. In 1977, Ten Speed Press, then a fledgling publisher in Berkeley, now a subsidiary of Penguin Random House, published the first professionally bound edition. Shortly afterward, Katzen left the Moosewood Restaurant; the other members wanted to change their business model to a collective and she did not. She retained the rights to The Moosewood Cookbook, which by 1981 had sold 250,000 copies. It continues to sell between 20,000 and 30,000 copies a year. (The split was, by some accounts, acrimonious, with accusations that Katzen had taken credit for recipes developed by others at the restaurant. Subsequent books published under the Moosewood imprimatur are by other members of the collective.)

It's funny to think about how strange some of the dishes in the cookbook must have seemed back in 1977: Lentil-Walnut Burgers, Zucchini-Crusted Pizza, Felafel [sic], Hummus, Pesto, the aforementioned Mushroom Moussaka. (Although it also had Popovers, Tangy Baked Beans, and Onion Soup, otherwise known as French onion.) At least I base this on my experience growing up in the '80s in a family that ate some form of meat for dinner every night and never got more adventurous than Old El Paso tacos. The mother of one of my friends made borscht once, which qualified her as the neighborhood gourmet. The Asian and Indian kids in my class always brought peanut butter sandwiches for lunch; they would have been brutally teased if they'd brought leftover samosas and curries and tofu, dishes prominently featured in The Moosewood Cookbook.

But now protein-based burgers and Meatless Mondays are a way of life. Cauliflower crust pizza is also a thing. We no longer have to scrounge for fresh vegetables. And just about everybody eats hummus and falafel and pesto and samosas and curry (even if it's marketed as a "Stew"). The world has at last caught up to The Moosewood Cookbook.

So how does it hold up?

Surprisingly well. There's a reason people still buy it. It's not an intimidating doorstop like Joy Of Cooking or How To Cook Everything. It doesn't require the commitment of Salt Fat Acid Heat. It's not hyper-specialized—it touches on all meals and many cuisines—and it's not glossy or "aspirational." Instead, it's warm and friendly and infinitely forgiving. As the headnote for Gypsy Soup explains, "The vegetables in this soup can be varied. Any orange vegetable can be combined with any green." Does it matter that carrots don't taste like sweet potatoes or green beans don't taste like green peppers? Not at all! Katzen encourages you to cook with what you have and use ingredients that taste good to you. You can add extra eggs and dairy if you want more richness, or you can go full vegan and eliminate the eggs and dairy altogether. You won't need any equipment more specialized than a blender or a food processor. The recipes yield enough to feed a family or a crowd of friends at a potluck dinner, or, if you're cooking for just one or two, they're solid enough to reheat and eat again as leftovers. Katzen suggests ways to turn extra dip or salad into a sandwich filling. Best of all, most of the recipes take less than an hour to throw together and seldom require any techniques more difficult than chopping and stirring.

Nothing I made was soul-stirringly great—the samosas and "felafel" were slightly bland, and the Wicked Garlic Dip was oddly glutinous—but they were good enough to keep eating for the next few days. This is a cookbook to feed people for very little money. For all the whimsy of its hand-lettering and drawings of cupids and eggplants, it's intensely practical. And that's what makes it a classic.