It's not so much that Mollie Katzen set out to change food culture. It's just that she fell in love. With vegetables. At a time when they were an afterthought on the American plate. Now, at 62, she discusses the evolution of cuisine in this country and her own culinary sensibility (the two are intertwined) since the publication nearly 40 years ago of her iconic "Moosewood Cookbook" to the release of her latest collection of recipes, "The Heart of the Plate." The heart of the plate, as you may have guessed, is veggies.
"I'm a profound vegetablist," Katzen says, soulfully. At a Washington, D.C., hotel for a book tour, Katzen looks like a testament to years of devotion to vegetables. With a crop of white hair and a small but strong frame, she's fit and sprightly – like a dancer or an exuberant yoga instructor. Wearing dark, comfy clothes and just a shimmer of jewelry, she exudes a sort of stripped-down passion on the merits of a veggie-driven life. They're "the ticket for health and vitality," she says.
But don't describe her as vegetarian, which sounds anti-meat; really, she's pro-vegetables. She dislikes the term "foodie," too, since humans are by nature "built to need and love food," she says.
Her love affair with food started early when, as a child, she played with her mother's discarded cooking tools. As young as 3, she helped prepare family meals; like on Friday afternoons, when her grandmother came over to their Rochester, N.Y., home and joined Katzen and her mother as they cooked a traditional Jewish Sabbath dinner. So she became very comfortable very quickly in the kitchen. While that dinner centered on fine cuts of meat – as did the rest of the weekly meals, except for Thursday (that was dairy night) – Katzen found herself most excited about the frozen green beans, the kind that you knew were cooked when the square block melted. They were topped with margarine and tasted delicious.
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But her favorite were the dairy meals (traditional Jewish dietary law prohibits mixing meat with dairy). And because her mother worried that the family of four children might be hungry after a meatless meal, there was a smorgasbord of everything on the table – eggs, cheese, two kinds of kugel (noodle casseroles) and more (but not a lot of veggies). These meals became the inspiration for her "Moosewood Cookbook," which offered "kitchen sink" dishes like casseroles to prove to Americans that they could enjoy hearty food without the meat.
But the food landscape has changed immensely since the days when Katzen and her brother founded the Moosewood Restaurant in upstate New York in 1973. (Although people still visit the restaurant seeking Katzen, she was only affiliated with it for five years after it opened, and her brother, even less.) At that time, she didn't think Americans on the East Coast would go for the kind of food she discovered in San Francisco, where she had been an art student. She was part of a folk dancing subculture that revolved around international dances, exposing her to the vegetable-based cuisines of other countries. Meanwhile, she worked at a then-exotic restaurant called Shandygaff. Exotic because it served dishes with unheard of foods like pesto and goat cheese – and was patronized by rock stars and beautiful people, with Crosby, Stills & Nash among the customers in the early 70s. It was the first time she'd ever held an avocado, she says of the food that would become known as "California cuisine."
These days, when you can buy any number of formerly obscure vegetables at farmers markets or supermarkets, Katzen says, "I want [people] cooking and cooking a lot of vegetables." The processed and packaged food that so many Americans rely on amid hectic schedules is "entertainment," not sustenance, she says, explaining that healthy, home-cooked meals require planning and commitment.
Her next mission is to help people use their time and space to do that. In the meantime, they can find inspiration in her latest cookbook, chock full of recipes that draw from her journey and continued exploration. Featured dishes include grilled haloumi cheese and blueberry rice, fattoush and gazpacho, kimchi stew, green matzoh ball soup and a lasagna for every season. These instructions are punctuated by Katzen's artwork, where sketches of leeks and radicchio, handwritten notes on ingredients and photographs of her culinary creations read like a love letter to the plant kingdom. Aptly, these are the elements that make up the heart of her plate.