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Ten years later

(article, Deborah Madison)

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This November marks the 10th year in print of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. It's hard to believe that it’s already been a decade, and even harder to realize that my first book, The Greens Cookbook, is now, at 21, a full adult — although in cookbook years, it’s probably about 90. 

Books in print that turn these corners do so much the way we have big birthdays. (At least if you’re the author.) In fact, there was a distinct matter of coincidence here, for I completed the manuscript for Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone on the eve of my 50th birthday, mainly so that I could really enjoy the party. 

As a result, I entered that particular decade insanely optimistic. Freedom and 50 were closely allied in my mind. Birthday aside, after seven years I finally had that book off my desk and I could cook what I wanted to without having to write down times or weigh and measure every little thing. Of course it would be another year before I would hold the book in my hand, then take it on a long tour around the country. But sending off a completed manuscript is, in my experience, the time for a celebration, and this was a big one.

[%image book float=left width=350 caption='Buddhist monks gave this copy of "Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone" quite a workout.']

When I was recently shown a first-edition copy of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone used by the monks in a Buddhist monastery, I realized the age of this book. The remains of the torn jacket were glued to the now-warped cover. The pages were so swollen with spills that the book was nearly twice its normal thickness. Pages were stained with ingredients and notes, and whole sections had come loose from the spine. Clearly this copy had had quite a workout. I begged to have it in return for a new one. The monks signed it and handed it over. It is a lesson in transiency, if nothing else. 

A few months ago I rewrote the introduction to Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone for the anniversary reissue. This felt fairly futile, as most people don’t read introductions, either old or new. But it was interesting to look back a decade to what first inspired me and how I (and we) live and eat today. 

I found that many things that were true for me then are true for me now. I am still most inspired by ingredients that have the most integrity: those well-grown foods from nearby farms, raised by people I know (even myself, now!), foods with stories, histories, and connection to culture as well as to land, hearts, and hands. This is still the level of ingredients that drives my best cooking. 

As now, I was a devoted farmers’ market shopper, and I urged people to seek out their farmers' markets so that they might find the same level of pleasure in their kitchens. I’ve always been a very seasonal and local eater and cook, but the difference between now and then was the vocabulary. Today, “local” and “seasonal” are important (though getting to be tired) words, much like “sustainable” and poor old “organic.” 

Who doesn’t write about food today without a million references to local and seasonal? In fact, “localseasonalandsustainable” now kind of runs together in a murmur, like a mumbled Latin mass. But that vocabulary wasn’t really in place 10 years ago the way it is today.

Health issues have shifted, too. A decade ago, I felt comfortable referring to diet-related diseases and why people might choose to include more vegetables in their diets. Now, in just a decade, we have a full-blown epidemic of diabetes, obesity, and heart disease, and everyone talks even more about the importance of the vegetable side of the plate — that it be heaping and high and daily. Clearly there’s still a need for helping people connect to their vegetables, especially those who rely heavily on meat for bulk (pretty much everyone). And that’s why the words “For Everyone” are in the title.  

Now as then, I am still uncomfortable with the word “vegetarian” for the way it seems to close doors rather than open them. Imagine this: A man rushed up to me in an airport and said he had seen me on TV, that my food looked great, but unfortunately he wasn’t a vegetarian.  

“You mean you don’t eat any vegetables?” I asked him.

“Oh, yeah,” was his weak reply. “I guess I do.”

The V-word had closed the door for this man even though he found my food appealing, and that was a shame. So, now as then, I take a relaxed view of vegetarianism, because there are lots of people who might be quite willing to work a vegetable dish or vegetarian dinner into their lives maybe one day a week, or one week a month, but aren’t interested in the label. They just want to eat more widely and eat better. So I view this collection of recipes as one that all might enjoy and use, regardless of lifestyle or identity. Truly they are for everyone — and, of course, a boon for vegetarians.

Ironically, though, it’s the “everyone” in the title that has given readers the most trouble. They forget it. Originally, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone was inspired by the thought, “I wish there were a vegetarian Joy of Cooking — a book that has everything important to know about the non-meat world tucked between its covers.” That wasn’t the title I used, but I can’t tell you how many people have said to me, “I have your big book — you know, The Vegetarian Joy of Cooking," or even "The Vegetarian Bible," along with other titles using variations on the word “everyone.” It doesn’t matter. When they say “the big book,” I know what they mean.

Finally, a change I find most interesting is that while farmers a decade ago were beginning to have champions, with few exceptions they didn’t, as a group, express their own voices. Today there are many farmers speaking publicly, writing their blogs and books, becoming known and being heard. And this begins to complete the picture, for cooking really does begin in the field or garden, and is only completed in the kitchen.

Today I have my own repertoire of recipes pretty well worked out. I know what I like to cook and eat, and when I’m busy, I’m likely to cook what I know and not go on a culinary adventure. Still, I find forgotten treasures in the pages of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, recipes that make me think, “Gee, that sounds good! I should make that!” 

And it’s nice to feel that way about a book that is, after all, as familiar to me as my own skin. At the rate I’m going, I’ll be using this book for another decade. I wonder what will have changed by then, what brave new world we’ll be cooking from?

p(blue). Announcement for our Portland-area readers: On December 1, 2007, Culinate will host a dinner with Deborah Madison in Portland to benefit Slow Food’s effort to help build school gardens.  We hope you can join us for an evening of Local Flavors and good conversation.

p(bio). Deborah Madison is the author of numerous award-winning cookbooks.

*Also on Culinate: A review of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone,_ including recipes.

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