Infuential cookbook author Mollie Katzen discusses her newest book, aging, vegetarianism, taco trucks, and the evolution of the American dinner plate.
Photography by Robert Mackimmie
This fall, Mollie Katzen celebrates the 30th anniversary of her legendary Moosewood Cookbook, a collection of recipes from the vegetarian cooperative restaurant she helped found in 1973. Katzen’s work signaled the start of a culinary movement in which vegetable and whole grain dishes went from nose-scrunching hippie fodder to innovative creations relished by the most discerning gourmet. The Moosewood Cookbook was inducted into the prestigious James Beard Cookbook Hall of Fame in May, and in October, Katzen, a long-time Berkeley resident, released her 10th book, The Vegetable Dishes I Can’t Live Without.
What are the most remarkable food trends you’ve noticed in the three decades since you wrote the Moosewood Cookbook?
I think the most remarkable thing is how the American dinner plate used to be a huge chunk of meat and potato, and a very, very incidental vegetable. That was the only dinner people could picture. Anything healthy was considered bizarre and kooky. There were a lot of notions of healthy food being pretty depressing—that it would be gray or beige or mushy. I see it as my mission to erase that misconception altogether, and I think there’s been tremendous progress.Now, people are much more open. They’re having their meat be smaller, their vegetable bigger. There’s more openness to produce; there’s more interest in ethnic food. The mainstream perceptions of healthy food and gourmet food and everyday food have all converged.
How has your own approach to cooking and nutrition evolved in that time?
Protein has become more important to me. I’m someone who needs to have protein in every meal because of my own metabolism. It might be a slice of turkey, a piece of tofu, or a scrambled egg.
Is there confusion around your definition of vegetarian?
I’m not a strict vegetarian at all. Most people have come to define vegetarian as a negative statement about meat. It’s an anything-but-meat kind of thing. If you define vegetarian that way, I’ve never been one. On the other hand, if vegetarian is a positive embrace of eating a lot of vegetables, fruits, grains, seeds, and legumes, then that’s what I eat.
Would you call your books vegetarian?
[Most of] my books don’t have any meat, and there’s always an emphasis on vegetables and whole grains. It’s no wonder that people would assume that I’m on a mission, or used to be on a mission, to get people not to eat meat. In fact, I never was. Some vegetarians feel betrayed. I just care about people eating well.
Tell us about your new book.
It’s called The Vegetable Dishes I Can’t Live Without. I’ve been asked, Is it a vegetarian book? Sure, it is. There’s no meat in it. But you can also serve the dishes alongside meat dishes. It’s largely about the feeling that everyone needs more vegetable side dish options. They need vegetables every day regardless of where they get their protein.
What’s your favorite recipe from the book?
Right now in my fridge, I have a batter for croquettes with zucchini and mint. It has parmesan cheese and egg, and you fry it. It’s really, really nice. I learned it at a cooking class in Italy. I also love to roast butternut squash at a very high temperature. I roast it in squares, and when it comes out of the oven, I drench it with toasted walnut oil and sprinkle it with pomegranate seeds.
What will you work on next?
I want to do a series of children’s picture books for little kids. They’re going to have agricultural themes. There’s also a book I really want to write, and that my [23-year-old] son really wants me to write, for young people getting their first apartment and how they should set up their kitchen so they’re healthy. No books address how to do whole grains and whole vegetables as a beginner.
What are you eating for breakfast these days?
I’ll have a café au lait in the morning, which holds me for an hour and a half while I do some work early in the morning. Then I’ll eat breakfast in the midmorning. I really believe in breakfast. I wrote a whole book on it, Sunlight Café. I’ll eat whole grains with fruits and nuts. Sometimes scrambled eggs and toast and a handful of nuts. I eat a lot of nuts. Then I exercise. I’m really lucky. I live in the Berkeley hills, right on the ridge over Tilden Park. For my break every day, I hike down into the park. I snack on fruits and nuts during the day so I’m not hungry.
Do you have a sweet tooth?
I like chocolate, but I’m not crazy about any sweets. I’m indifferent to cookies and cheesecake. I’m indifferent to dessert. Sometimes I don’t even want any. Isn’t that crazy? I love bread, though. I love artisan bread and bagels and pretzels. But I try to avoid starch and processed white flour, so they’re like a special treat for me. A special treat is to go to an Indian restaurant and have basmati rice.
What are some of your favorite culinary finds in the East Bay?
These days I eat out very little. I used to love it. I’m such a home cook now, because I have a very big garden that I keep growing all year. If I do eat out, I like to go to hole-in-the-wall ethnic places. I like International Boulevard on East 14th Street in Oakland and the really authentic taco trucks. But I would say my major hangout in the Bay Area is Monterey Market in Berkeley. I’m there four or five times a week. I go down there to do my thinking—what am I going to cook, what am I going to write about? I love food markets. That’s my idea of leisure.
You’ve been in the nutrition field for over 30 years. Do you have a philosophy on aging?
I think you shouldn’t fight it. People should stay as healthy as they can. But it’s important to remember to let yourself look old enough, so every time you look in the mirror you’re reminded of your mortality. You’ll waste less time grumping around. About 15 months ago, I stopped dyeing my hair. And now I have white hair. It’s so liberating. I have a lot of women coming up to me and saying they wish they had the nerve to do that.
What was it like to win the James Beard award?
Wonderful. I’ve never been part of the, how should we say, “in crowd.” There’s a certain category of chefs that I’ve always been an outsider to. I’ve been a maverick. That world had pretty much ignored me, so to get the award was really thrilling. I felt I was accepting it for the food, for a way of eating. Eating out of the garden, eating off the tree. If I did anything to bring about garden-based eating, orchard-based eating, then that award is for peaches and apples and spinach and almonds. That’s what was getting honored that night.