Moosewood Days

Cooking from Moosewood…was utopian.      – J. L. Newton

Moosewood Cookbook Cover

J. L. Newton’s well-used copy of the Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen

Just hours after I posted a call for stories and anecdotes about treasured family cookbooks, author J. L. Newton sent me a delightful excerpt from her forthcoming memoir, Tasting Home: Coming of Age in the Kitchen.

For me, nothing captures the essence of upstate New York’s lush, Finger Lakes farmland and local, fresh produce like the Moosewood cookbooks and the Moosewood Restaurant. I raised my kids on many a Moosewood recipe. Whenever we camped in Taughannock Falls State Park, we’d look forward to a meal at the restaurant in Ithaca.  Our boys always ordered the macaroni and cheese.

A few years back, during a month-long artist-in-residence stay at the Constance Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts, I enjoyed the home cooking of Judy Barringer, a Moosewood co-founder, who at the time was the Saltonstall chef and cook. Never in my life have I tasted such wonderful vegetarian comfort food. I didn’t know a hamburger made from polenta could taste so good.

So you can see why I was delighted when Judy Newton offered to share Moosewood memories from her “mini-commune” days. Here’s what she had to say:

In the summer of 1985, I was living with three men—-my first husband, Dick, who now had a boyfriend named Ed; my second husband, Max, whom I’d  married with many misgivings the year before; and Nigel, a longtime friend of Max who was doing research in Philadelphia.

A photo shows me sitting with Dick and Max at the table on our deck. Pregnant and wearing striped work overalls, I have long, curly hair. I’m resting my head on my hand and looking pleased, as if paradise had come again.

Dick’s honey-colored mustache droops seductively.  Max has a Jewish Afro and a wide, full beard. Pink flowers float above a green vase in the center of the table, and our plates are full of chicken, rice, and broccoli. It is a plain meal, with few ingredients, which means Max cooked it.

Dick took his recipes from gourment magazines, but Nigel and I had discovered Moosewood Cookbook. On the (separate) nights we cooked that summer, dinner consisted of our garden on a plate.

Excerpt from Tasting Home: Coming of Age in the Kitchen:

I never looked to Moosewood for two-star recipes. Indeed, many of its dishes squeaked by, in our rating system, with only a star above a check, meaning they were fine for everyday meals but not for guests.  “Swiss Cheese and Mushroom Quiche” fell into this category, though it involved a cup and a half of tangy gruyere cheese. My note in the margin said Julia Child’s version was better. Was it the Moosewood crust, partly whole wheat and made with buttermilk instead of water? Was it that Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking used heavy cream and nutmeg rather than milk and mustard? Was it that the mushrooms in Moosewood were innocent of shallots and Madeira?

Several Moosewood dishes earned only a check above a star, which translated as “not worth the effort.” We assigned “Vegetarian Chili” (with kidney beans, bulgur, celery, carrots, peppers, and tomatoes) to that category. “Don’t bother,” I wrote in the margin.  Was it the tomato juice? Did I under spice?

Going wrong with Moosewood recipes was a drag because they usually called for a ton of ingredients. It was great when the recipes worked because they allowed you to unload a basket of summer produce (after a good deal of chopping) into a single pot.“Vegetable Stroganoff” called for onions, mushrooms, and six cups of broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, zucchini, peppers, and cherry tomatoes.

“Vegetable Stew” featured potatoes, carrots, celery, eggplant, zucchini, broccoli, mushrooms and tomatoes. Both were tasty dishes in the check/star category.

But “Ode to Chang Kung” with its broccoli, mushrooms, bean sprouts, water chestnuts, bamboo, tofu and sesame seeds (plus cashews, scallions, and chopped green peppers on top) came out weird and bland. Was it the quarter cup of something called “taman?”

“Never again!” Nigel wrote at the top of the recipe.

At other times Moosewood recipes, with their cornucopia of ingredients, demanded additions that seemed designed to remind us of their hippie roots. Why else would “Spinach-Rice Casserole” (which featured brown rice, spinach, onion, garlic, eggs, milk and a cup-and-a-half of cheddar cheese) call for tamari and a quarter cup of sunflower seeds?

Why did “Vegetable Stew,” an otherwise straightforward dish, demand molasses? And why did “Broccoli Noodle Casserole” with its decadent three cups of ricotta, one cup of cheddar, and one cup sour cream even bother with wheat germ sprinkled over the top?

But it didn’t matter. I cooked from Moosewood that summer because I liked the idea of it. The book was produced by a collective, and we were a collective too. The restaurant had no “boss,” and despite Max’s alpha personality, our house had no boss either. We rotated shopping, cooking, and washing dishes, which made me feel heady, and slightly guilty, about having such domestic and culinary leisure.

I was also drawn to the Moosewood philosophy of “convenience and economy” which we certainly got to practice since our ingredients came from our garden outside the kitchen door.

Moosewood celebrated “health, lightness, purity,” a trinity I wanted to pursue, and I liked the homemade quality of the book itself – the hand lettering, the sparkly drawings.

Our favorite recipe, “Spinach–Rice Casserole,” was illustrated with a hairy unicorn encountering a large, strange bird. Hand drawn unicorns called attention to the creativity, love, and labor that, often invisibly, go into making the sweetness of the everyday.

Cooking from Moosewood, even with its imperfections, was utopian. Funny how small, utopian practices can make you feel, despite the deepest contradictions, that summer is everlasting and life is good.

Judith Newton’s memoir, Tasting Home: Coming of Age in the Kitchen, will be published by She Writes Press in February, 2013. Visit her blog at tasting-home.com.

Judith is Professor Emerita in Women and Gender Studies at U.C. Davis. She is the author and co-editor of five works of nonfiction on nineteenth-century British women writers, feminist criticism, women’s history, and men’s  movements. Four of these works will be reprinted as E-Books by Routledge and the University of Michigan Press in the fall of 2012.

More Moosewood

The November/December 2012 issue of Spirituality & Health includes a feature story, “40 Years of Mooosewood.” (Print version only.)  The restaurant is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

Do you have a tried and true Moosewood recipe? Tell us in the comments below.

Do You Have a Treasured Family Cookbook?

Between now and the New Year, my readers and I will be sharing our favorite family cookbooks. Please tell us in the comments below about special cookbooks meaningful to you and your family. Or, send your stories and anecdotes to valoriegracehallinan@gmail.com.

One response

  1. Moosewood was one of the first cookbooks I bought after getting married. It still gets pulled out after almost 30 years of cooking, especially for its Refritos (refried beans). For that one, it’s all about the freshest cumin.

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