Photo by Lisa Keating
If you have had any serious or fleeting experiences with vegetarian cuisine, then you know Mollie Katzen. She made a splash on the cookbook and vegetarian scene with The Moosewood Cookbook, which will be celebrating its 40th anniversary next year. In fact, she has over six million cookbooks in print and has been named as one of the best-selling cookbook authors of all time by numerous organizations. Hot off the presses is The Heart of the Plate: Vegetarian Recipes for a New Generation, with 500 pages of recipes, illustrations and photographs – all created by Mollie. And now that we’ve used the word “vegetarian” three times, you must read on to learn why Mollie can’t stand the word and why this is the first time it has ever appeared in any of her book titles.
Bakepedia: Mollie, it is so great to speak with you. I feel like I have known you since 1979 when I bought my first copy of Moosewood! It’s the only cookbook I have bought twice because the first one fell apart from heavy use. I made that Cardamom Coffeecake so many times and I have scribbled variations in the margins. Apparently I turned it into a pumpkin version along the way (laughs).
Mollie Katzen: That’s what I hope for! That people will go to town with my books. One year from now we will publish a 40th anniversary edition; the original was 1973/1974 and it was self-published. It was just my handwritten notes and drawings that I took down to the copy shop. The anniversary edition won’t have anything new. It’s a celebration of the old. I like to say it will be “old-fangled.”
Do you have any recipes from that period of time that you still make?
Yes! I still love the carrot soup with ginger and cashews, the Hungarian mushroom soup, the tabouli, the brownies and the samosas. I still use all of these recipes.
When people ask, “what do you do”, how do you answer?
I am a cookbook author. It shuts them right up (laughs), because they don’t know what that means or what to say. I have to say, that honestly, personally – I know this might sound odd – I don’t like to let people know who I am. If they don’t know me, sometimes I even just say I’m a writer. I am not a self-promoter. I don’t like to talk about my work when I am off duty. Food is my day job. I am passionate about people eating well, but I don’t need to be at the center of my profession. When I am in the kitchen, that’s my lab. I am in the lab, but I also design the books so there is more to it than cooking. I don’t identify myself through this work, though.
When I hang out with friends, I am not the cookbook author. I am me. My group is made up of filmmakers and teachers and performance artists and musicians we talk about art and politics. I am not talking about broccoli (laughs)! That said if any of my friends have a food question, of course I am there for them. Sometimes interviewers ask me what I am making for Thanksgiving and I have to say I have maybe made two in my life. My friends and I have potlucks. I’m the veggie and pie lady for Thanksgiving.
What is your favorite part of what you do?
I love the early stages of sketching things out, the possibility stages; the closer it gets to the technical part where we have to make sure that all the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed, the less I like it. Like when we have to figure out which recipes will fit into the book because I always have many, many more. And when I say, “sketching” I mean that literally. I storyboard my recipes and recipe ideas. This is how I work out my ideas. The Moosewood Cookbook shows you my ideas in early stages (Ed. Note: The book is very graphic with nearly every page containing hand lettered notes from Mollie).
I make notes. I make lists. I draw out ideas. Actually, the end papers of The Heart of the Plate show some of this. I am a painter. My degree is in Fine Arts. As for cooking, I have never taken a class, although I have taught them! I can dish it out but I can’t take it (laughs). I can’t follow a recipe to save my life, but then again, when I put on my cookbook writer hat, I do test meticulously. It is completely different from the way I cook for myself or friends on a day-to-day basis, which is very casual. I do want to write a culinary autobiography.
How are you inspired to create recipes?
Usually if it’s a freestanding recipe I think about how I want to combine this ingredient with that one, my taste sense is triggered, or I will go and see produce in the market to get inspired. The food tells me what it wants me to do with it, there is an intuitive communication. I don’t think recipe, I think beautiful ear of corn, what do we do with it? Not “how do we turn it into something?” but rather “how can I help this corn be the best corn it can be?”
Do you have a moment, event or recipe from your career of which you are most proud?
It happened just the other night! It was the best (professional) evening of my life. It was amazing. I have been working on projects with the Harvard School of Public Health for 15 years with the nutrition department and they threw a launch party for the new book. I had also advised the Harvard University Dining Services over the last 10 years on re-vamping their approach and they catered the party. There were about 200 people, family, childhood friends, current friends, my publishers and colleagues. I gave a talk and they threw a dinner party. I have never felt so honored and connected, so validated and loved, with people I admire so much. They spoke about how my work had been so important to them. Maybe I am dense, but I had no idea, and it was so joyful. People who know me will tell you that I don’t sit around and add up what I’ve done, it doesn’t sink in really well. I am disembodied to an extent, it doesn’t sink in; but that night, it sunk in. It was like the biggest and best group hug of my life.
What are the three most important things that you think the home baker should know?
1. Do not trust the gauge in your oven. Just because you set it to 350°F, is it 350°F? It might be higher or lower. Part B of this is that you must know the geography of your oven. Use 2 or 3 oven thermometers in the different zones of your oven. Take charge! Know what your oven is. People wreck stuff all the time because of a miscalibrated oven.
2. OK, I say things I don’t do myself (laughs) so here it goes. I appreciate that many of my colleagues weigh ingredients for baking. I still measure; I think they are right, I concur that people should use a scale. If I upped my game I would weigh. Sometimes if I am working with my wet pizza dough I will weigh. I love those wet doughs.
What keeps you from fully committing to the scale?
I am baking funky for family and friends; my baking is casual. If I were baking something to be presented in a more formal setting I would follow a recipe, which I don’t usually do, and I would weigh. But my life has zero formal occasions. Even with pie crust, I don’t measure.
3. Number 3 is super important. Pay attention to the temperature of ingredients. Cold eggs and buttermilk won’t work. They won’t incorporate correctly. This is very important.
Tell us about what you are doing currently.
I finished the book in the spring; it was a three-year project. I had some assistance, but it’s me going through all the recipes. I test all my own recipes, so now I have to rest my hands. After 40 years of illustrations and all that cooking I need to take a break because of repetitive stress. Maybe a one-year break.
You did the photos for this newest book. Was that a new endeavor for you?
Yes! I am not a photographer or a blogger but I had created a slideshow that I was using for some talks and Rux, my editor, loved the photos. She insisted that I do them for the book. I wasn’t eager to do them. I was self conscious. I am a home cook, I don’t call myself a chef or a photographer. These were my home pictures. They are homespun, but it’s me being me. Now, if I were asked again to do it I would say yes because now I enjoy it! There was a learning curve. My Harvard School of Public Health friends are some of my closest friends and they came to stay with me for about a week. I was getting up early every morning and cooking and styling and propping and taking photographs and they would come into the kitchen in their jammies and slippers and I would be in my jammies and slippers and they were walking into a photo shoot! They would pick up a fork and want to eat what I was photographing, and I would be saying, “not yet!” I struck it rich with Moosewood; I started over my head but as for writing and painting? That I take seriously. That’s where I feel professional.
You mentioned to me that you had written a book for your son and his friends about basics, like roasting chicken. Are you a vegetarian? How do you eat?
The word vegetarian makes me crazy! You will note that I have never used the word in any of my previous titles. I am trying to change the definition of it. I jokingly referred to myself as plant-forward omnivore in a talk I gave recently and everyone loved that! If I am served dinner and the plate isn’t 90% vegetables, I’m unhappy, but I am not anti-meat. I am pro-vegetable. I don’t like labels like “vegetarian” or “vegan” because labels create barriers. We have too many people in too many opposing camps. Are you this, or are you that, and then people line up here or there. Identifying yourself by your food choices limits you. It limits your friends and your life! I am against the “otherization” of people. We think, oh, a vegetarian is coming for dinner, what do we serve? And it ends up becoming about the meat. Keep the meat off the plate, instead of thinking positively about vegetables. I have been writing plant-based books without the word vegetarian in the title for years because when I hear labels, I don’t hear love. I hear judgment and restriction and I don’t want to encourage that. I want to be out there encouraging people to see what they can do in the kitchen. I prefer to use the word to describe the plate of food, not the person and when that happens the boundaries come down.
Let’s get the fence removed. People who love meat can be people who just love food including vegetables. I want them to feel welcomed at my table. The food in The Heart of the Plate can be used many ways. I recommend vegan options, but I look at it with a “small v.” Or there are ways that a lacto-ovo vegetarian can add eggs and cheese back in. Or maybe you use some of last night’s leftover strip steak with one of my side dishes. These days, many people want more plant food, whether they eat meat or not. The book is there for you all.
Talk to us a bit more about your approach to baking.
Again, take good care of your oven and know how it works. I love to bake. It’s a special treat for me since most of what I do is cook.
What are your favorite things to bake?
Pies! I am often baking for others. I don’t have a huge sweet tooth, but my friends will put in their orders. They love my apple pie, which I have never published. I use tons of apples and pile then high since they cook down and it has a top crust. I add a dash of apple cider vinegar to give it an acidic edge and a small amount of cinnamon. I also get requests for my chocolate pecan pie. The Pear Tart with Olive Oil–Cornmeal–Pine Nut Crust you are featuring is really good, too.
If you don’t have a real sweet tooth, what’s your secret for your chocolate pecan pie? Those are often so sweet.
I will use 70% chocolate and make it really bittersweet. I am the pie lady for Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve parties. I like to use minimal sugar, not because I am principled or dogmatic about sugar, but just because I don’t like extremely sweet things. For me, it hits the spot if it has an edge.
Do you try to use whole grains in your baking?
No, I don’t try and make my desserts healthy, although I have been using olive oil more and more. I would rather have a small piece of a classic dessert than a big piece of a “healthy” dessert. I am not a Tofutti person or a low-fat cheesecake person. If I am going to eat cheesecake, I want the real thing, or maybe if it is cheesecake with strawberries I will flip the dessert, meaning that I will have a large portion of berries garnished with a small slice of that cheesecake. I love to play with reversing ratios.
What do you hope to do next?
I don’t know. I am going to be promoting the book, but then taking a hiatus to rest my hands. I will continue to jot things down in my journals, but I am taking a breather, an idea sabbatical and I am looking forward to it.
But if you are launching the 40th anniversary edition of Moosewood next year, isn’t that going to be a lot of work?
Yes and no. There is no original content, other than the new introduction. It’s more curatorial. I will be going over all my original notes, collating, redesigning the book. It’s a look backwards revisiting old material. The publisher, 10 Speed, is local, so we will be going through things together. It will be an enjoyable, creative process
It’s so funny to think that when you self-published in 1974, it was out of necessity. Now authors self-publish out of choice. The cookbook world has really changed!
Mollie, thank you so much for your time. This has been a real pleasure and I look forward to seeing you again sometime soon!
Same here, Dédé. Thank you.