Top | The Culinate Interview

Deborah Madison

(article, Roz Cummins)

p(blue). Deborah Madison's Local Flavors column is a monthly feature on Culinate.

[%pageBreakSettings maxWords=950] A champion of cooking that's both healthy and tasty, Deborah Madison got her start cooking macrobiotic food at the San Francisco Zen Center in the 1970s. She later cooked at Chez Panisse in Berkeley and became the founding chef at the seminal vegetarian restaurant Greens in San Francisco. Madison is widely credited for helping to make vegetarian cooking both accessible and delicious.

Once upon a time, going to a food co-op and buying hummus was a cultural and even political statement. Now, it seems, veggie options are everywhere. What’s your take on this?
In the 1960s, if you didn’t eat meat, people questioned you and you ended up defending a lifestyle. It was like having a beard, or so my husband says, as he had to defend his beard as well as his vegetarian choices back then. 

[%image reference-image float=right width=250 caption="Deborah Madison" credit="Photo: Patrick McFarlin"]

These days, there are some people for whom ordering a vegetarian meal is part of a commitment to following a vegetarian diet or lifestyle, but for other people perhaps it’s just for a change of pace, the chance to eat more lightly, or even a chance to eat something more interesting. Cooking vegetarian dishes or ordering a vegetarian meal doesn’t need to set you apart from other people any longer, and that is wonderful. 


h1. Deborah Madison's cookbooks

[%amazonProductLink asin=0767908236 "The Greens Cookbook: Extraordinary Vegetarian Cuisine from the Celebrated Restaurant"], written with Edward Espé Brown (first published in 1987, reissued in 2001)

[%amazonProductLink asin=0767901665 "The Savory Way: High-Spirited, Down-to-Earth Recipes for Savory Vegetarian Dishes"], (first published in 1990, reissued in 1999)

Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone (1997)

[%amazonProductLink asin=0767904192 "This Can’t be Tofu! 75 Recipes to Cook Something You Never Thought You Would … and Enjoy Every Bite"] (2000)

[%amazonProductLink asin=0767903498 "Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America’s Farmer’s Markets"] (2002)

[%amazonProductLink asin=0767916271 "Vegetarian Suppers from Deborah Madison’s Kitchen"] (2005)

[%amazonProductLink asin=076791628X "Vegetarian Soups from Deborah Madison’s Kitchen"] (2006)

[%amazonProductLink asin=0743284399 "Williams-Sonoma Mastering: Vegetables"] (2006)


One of the reasons that I wanted to write Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone was to get everything under one roof without any stigma. Being a vegetarian now doesn’t have to mean that you’re off on some weird little isolated island.  

What ingredients that were new to you then have changed your cooking the most? 
There are so many new ingredients I saw and was a part of introducing in the 1970s. We grew arugula at Green Gulch Farms, fingerling potatoes, many, many kinds of lettuces, different herbs, lots of varieties of cucumbers, the list goes on and on — things that our customers had never seen or tasted before. 

I remember when sun-dried tomatoes were introduced in San Francisco. It was a big deal! Younger people are surprised that there was a time not so long ago when there wasn’t arugula and goat cheese or golden beets and strange and marvelous little potatoes.

I grew up in a family that was somewhat enlightened about food. We made many trips to San Francisco’s Crystal Palace market and, after it closed, to Greek delis where my parents bought bulgur, lentils, olive oil, and phyllo dough. My dad loved good cheeses, wine, and little gourmet treats from Europe, and he was a great gardener.

What are some of your favorite ingredients?
I love vinegars and oils: nut oils, pumpkin-seed oil, argon oil (a Moroccan oil), and mustard oil. I really like aged red-wine vinegar with a little bit of oak on it. These intense, flavorful ingredients can take vegetables and grains so many places. 

I don’t chase after many new ingredients anymore, but I’m always on the lookout for ingredients of good quality. For example, I grew up on good, fresh Japanese tofu that had to be used in 24 hours. Now you can get it in a sealed box and it has a shelf life of several months! So I do chase down good tofu if I know I can find it somewhere. I always make a special trip on my way back from the airport in Albuquerque to pick some up at an Asian market, or some other favorite ingredient. 

I never go anywhere that I don’t come back with bags of fruits or vegetables from farmers' markets. I grew up in California, which was like the Garden of Eden, and now I live in New Mexico where the variety and abundance of produce is very different, but I’ve adjusted.

Do you have any advice about tackling new ingredients?
If you’ve eaten Jerusalem artichokes in a restaurant, then you’re more likely to find a way to cook them at home. People do find it hard to buy something they’ve never eaten before and don’t know how to use. For example, I don’t know how to cook tropical roots. It’s not intuitive for me in the least. If I wanted to cook yucca, I’d go to a cookbook.


h1. Recipes

Deborah Madison has a recipe collection on Culinate.


I once cooked and served 12 gallons of Jerusalem-artichoke soup at the Greenmarket in New York City. At the end of the day, all the farmers who were selling Jerusalem artichokes told me that they had sold out. People tasted it, they got a recipe, and then they bought the ingredients. 

One thing I find is that if I’m in the market and I’m looking at the eggplant or picking out a celery root, people come up to me and ask me how to cook it. This happens a lot. I guess I look as if I know what I’m doing. One of the things that I really like about farmers' markets is that they are communal in that people are eager to share information and experiences about the foods they’re buying.

One of my intentions in writing Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone was, in fact, to introduce readers to vegetables — how they behave, how to work with them, what flavors they’re good with — and to lead them by the hand to something they might be interested in and know nothing about; a beet, parsnips, potatoes.

What cooks or cookbooks have been influential in your life?
There are so many! Madeleine Kamman’s When French Women Cook, Jane Grigson’s book on mushrooms as well as her classic book on fruits and vegetables, books by Richard Olney, Diana Kennedy, Paula Wolfert, Elizabeth David: these were my influences when I was starting out. 

Today I’m inspired by authors like Lynne Rossetto Kasper, Clifford Wright, and Judy Rodgers. Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s dishes are often simple and always very special. I also really like Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid’s travel and exploration cookbooks. They’re culturally dense.

You wrote This Can’t be Tofu! What was writing that book like?
I like tofu and think it’s a perfectly good food on its own. I happen to think that it can stand on the merits of its taste and the harmony it shares with Asian flavorings. 

I know it can be useful to people who don’t eat eggs, and in that way it is sometimes useful as a food substitution, but I wanted people to find a way to enjoy tofu instead of treating it like a meat substitute or a medicine, so that was my intention in writing this little book. 

We treat foods strangely in America. If there’s something good about it, we latch onto it in strangely compelling ways. I was hoping to free tofu from some of those strange ways.

What has been your greatest epiphany about food?
Recently I had an odd epiphany. It was odd because it was about something I already knew.

I was in Italy for the Slow Food Terra Madre conference and afterwards I traveled to Milan. I looked out the window and saw a bright yellow truck with bright red letters that said “General Foods.” 

I thought to myself: That exactly encapsulates the problem of modern foods. No legacy, no tie to tradition, the ingredients aren’t connected to a farmer or a place. They’re general, not specific. They’re indistinct and have no connection to culture, so apart from the impact of the taste, which is usually heavily influenced by sugar and salt, they have no meaning. 

Whereas food that’s specific to a site, tradition, or plant has enduring qualities. It’s food we can care about.

Is there any conventional wisdom about food that you've found to be true or false?
I don’t agree that faster is better. Why should we want to cook a meal in 30 minutes? That so limits the way we can think about food. Of course there are good, honest foods that can become a meal in a very short time, and that’s good. I’ve nothing against such foods and I enjoy them myself. But the rush-rush approach to cooking I find rather sad. People have their reasons, of course, but I find that making the meal a valued pleasure outweighs a lot of other things.

What advice would you offer to people trying to cook and eat in a way that's healthy for them as well as the planet?
Eat locally. Eating locally and organically, regardless of whether it’s vegetables, meat, grain, or whatever. Local foods are good for the planet and great for us. Shopping from your farmers’ market helps create a community and a culture that are satisfying to live in. 

Eating locally is a spotlight that shines on a lot of different actors; the enrichment of community, healthier, more vital food, more flavor, more joy, lowering the use of fossil fuels, and bridging the urban-rural divide, for starters. 

But sometimes when I am not writing a cookbook and my eating isn’t dictated by the needs of the book, I grapple with this issue on a personal level. I ask myself  “Who am I? What do I eat?” In Italy, where there is an existing tradition, we wouldn’t find ourselves wondering what to eat. Here we have nothing but choice. We don’t know what to eat. 

I think that people need to pay close attention to which foods make them feel good and then try to eat according to their observations. We each have to figure it out for ourselves.

Do you think everyone should make food a central part of their lives?
That’s a difficult question, and one I think about a lot. Food’s not the only thing. The central spot in our lives can be shared by many things.

Without doubt, paying attention to how and what we eat, and making food central in the sense that we really look forward to our meals together, can bring other areas of our lives into focus, as opposed to “Dinner in 20 minutes!”

But to focus only on food can also feel somewhat ridiculous. I find it embarrassing, sometimes, to say, “Yes, this is what I spend my time on.” In other cultures, it’s possible for people to pay a lot of attention to what they eat, but they also write plays, play instruments, build homes — you know, live a life. You can eat well every day, but it’s not the only thing you’re doing. But it is important, especially in America, where the experience of the shared meal has declined so much.

I am always telling my husband that I am trying to cultivate a healthy indifference to food so that I can pay better attention to the other things in life and not be too food-centric. It’s happening bit by bit, but even so, I still look forward to cooking and sharing meals with others. 

I love coming to the end of the day and going into the kitchen to make dinner. It’s a pleasure.

p(bio). Roz Cummins is a food writer based in Boston.

Elsewhere on Culinate: Deborah Madison discusses local food and whole-grain breakfasts.

reference-image, l