Mollie Katzen Made Vegetarian Food Mainstream
Mollie Katzen is one of the pioneers of the lifestyle we now call "wellness." In 1974, Katzen hand-wrote and illustrated a collection of vegetarian recipes. She had trained as an artist and did all the pen-and-ink lettering, line drawings, and whimsical borders that surround each recipe. She arranged for 5,000 copies to be printed, spiral-bound, and published in Ithaca, New York. From that first, truly handmade project, Katzen went on to become one of the bestselling cookbook authors of all time, with more than six million copies in print. Yet her name is not nearly as familiar as the title of the book, which shares its name with a café she helped establish, as part of a collective: Moosewood.
Over the last four decades, the name Moosewood has itself been synonymous with American vegetarian fare of the 1970s and 80s. "The Moosewood Cookbook"was not the first book of vegetarian recipes (Frances Moore Lappe's "Diet for a Small Planet"and Anna Thomas's "Vegetarian Epicure",preceded it, among others). It was arguably the most widely appealing, however. Moosewoodbecame a handbook for the vegetarian kitchen, the most widely consulted manual for meat-free meal planning. In the decades following its publication, Katzen's book was the most well-worn cookbook you'd find in any off-campus apartment, student-run coop kitchen, health food store, or bookstore café. Its ingredients lists were never too long, steps never too many, or techniques too much of a reach-nothing more than any college student or novice cook could tackle.
Katzen's recipes borrow from the cuisines of the world: Brazilian black bean soup, eggplant parmesan, hummus, Chinese peanut sauce on noodles, Russian cabbage borscht, spanakopita, lemon mousse, and hundreds more. Her books are full of the dishes that we now take for granted on restaurant menus-favorites like grain bowls, smoothies, soba noodle salads, and veggie burgers- and many that are worth a revisit. (I'm sure I'm not the only one who'd love to see zuccanoes make a comeback!)
Much of Katzen's cooking seemed exotic at the time, yet today it feels as deeply comforting and familiar as 1950s favorites like meatloaf and chicken pot pie. She found a way to replace the meat in familiar favorites like lasagna, chili, even hamburgers, and along the way, she created a new comfort foods, with all the hallmarks of 1970s hippiedom: Think spinach lasagna, mushroom moussaka, three-bean chili, and lentil-walnut burgers.
Katzen's first book and the others that followed were friendly, warm, approachable, and affordable. (Alice Waters called her "unpretentious and homespun.") They appeared at a time when people were confused about how to prepare flavorful meals without meat, poultry, or fish. Over the years, they helped shift the idea of what a complete meal could look-and taste-like, as vegetables and noodles shifted from the side to the center of the dinner plate, and awareness of a plant-based diet moved from the fringe to the mainstream. As Katzen told The New York Times in 1989, "My attitude in writing Moosewood was to assume the reader knew little or nothing about vegetarian cooking, to make it as user-friendly as possible and to address the reader as if I were talking to a friend."
Beginning in 1977, the original Moosewood book was printed and distributed by Ten Speed Press. Katzen published 11 more cookbooks, plus three books of recipes for children. Among the bestselling (and most beloved) are "The Enchanted Broccoli Forest" and "Still Life with Menu." Katzen left the Moosewood Collective in 1978. (After a legal fight, the members of the collective retained the rights to the Moosewood name, and went on to publish several bestselling cookbooks, without Katzen's involvement.)
She has lived in Berkeley, California, for decades, is a founding member of Harvard School of Public Health's Leadership Council, and remains on the faculty of its Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives project. Katzen was inducted into the James Beard Foundation's Cookbook Hall of Fame in 2007, and included on Health magazine's list of "Five Women who Changed the Way We Eat." Mollie Katzen's books and recipes are rooted in a changing period of American history, borne of the 1960s countercultural revolution. They encouraged so many of us to consciously choose the food we put on our plates, to promote better health and longevity for ourselves and our planet. Surely, that's a message that never goes out of style.