BERKELEY, Calif. – Cookbook maven Mollie Katzen is in her Berkeley kitchen whipping up a little dinner for her daughter, who is home visiting from college.
“Steamed artichoke and mashed parsnips,” Katzen says, describing the contents of the two pots on the stove. “Last night was eggplant in sesame miso sauce. She’s a real vegetable hound.”
That’s not surprising.
Before Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” before Alice Waters and California Cuisine, there was Katzen, whose 1977 publication of “The Moosewood Cookbook” shifted vegetarian cooking to the forefront of America’s food consciousness.
Working from recipes developed at the Moosewood Restaurant, a largely vegetarian eatery started by a collective of friends in 1973 in Ithaca, N.Y., Katzen introduced a generation of home chefs to exotica such as tofu, tamari, alfalfa sprouts, and brown rice – “increasingly available,” she wrote in 1977, in the “health foods sections” of certain supermarkets.
That first cookbook and its 1982 follow-up, “The Enchanted Broccoli Forest,” posited meatless meals as a viable, delicious choice at a time when dinner meant steak and potatoes, and vegetables came more often from the freezer than from the garden.
Now 60 years old and working on a new project — trying out recipes for an upcoming book on comfort food — this Jewish Californian woman is a big name in the world of foodies. She has more than 6 million books in print, was named by The New York Times as one of the best-selling cookbook authors of all time, and is a member of the James Beard Cookbook Hall of Fame. Katzen is a syndicated columnist, a contributing editor, and a food consultant, as well as co-creator of Harvard University’s Food Literacy Project.
Although Katzen is not known as a Jewish chef and has no Jewish cookbooks to her name, she says her approach to food is deeply rooted in her upbringing in an observant Conservative home in Rochester, N.Y.
“Kashrut is the beginning,” she says. “Keeping food sacred is real important to me. Even a bowl of popcorn in front of the TV, I love to ‘behold’ the popcorn, and not just mindlessly reach in and eat it.”
On Friday nights when she was growing up, dinner was served in the dining room, not the kitchen, Katzen recalls. The scent of her grandmother’s fresh-baked challah would waft in, and as the family sat down and said the prayers over the bread and wine, she “felt the house transformed” for the Sabbath.
“Being grateful for food, slowing down around food — that’s what was sacred for me, and this was all in kashrut,” she says. “I’m not observant now, but the infrastructure of sacred and profane stayed with me.”
That notion of consciously showing gratitude for food influenced her cooking style as well as her diet, according to Katzen. Despite her vegetarian cookbooks, she is not a strict vegetarian, nor does she promote the lifestyle. However, she says, she’d always choose plain chicken and some fresh vegetables over a bowl of fettuccine Alfredo swimming in its own cream and butter.
“I’ve met many self-labeled vegetarians who eat terribly,” she says. “I’ll eat a little meat, if it’s sustainably raised and nicely prepared, but I want my plate to be mostly vegetables and whole grains.”
Judaism also colored her approach to meat. Meat, she says, was “a big focal point” in her childhood meals, and although her mother couldn’t always find kosher meat in their local grocery stores, she would buy kosher cuts and always the best quality she could get.
“I grew up with the attitude that meat must be high quality; it must be sustainable,” Katzen says. “I was never categorically against eating meat. You have to be mindful about it; you have to talk about it consciously, seriously. To this day, I’ve never tasted a fast-food burger.”
So much of what she expresses is textbook California foodie doctrine: eating lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains; slowing down and respecting the source of one’s food; focusing on sustainability; and using fresh, simple ingredients. Jewish dietary practice has a lot in common with the new food movement, she says – they’re both morally based, spiritual disciplines.
When she left home for Cornell University in the late ‘60s, Katzen says, she shied away from the “mystery meat” on her college meal plan. Part of that was political. At the time, she had an ethos of avoiding meat as a statement against the Vietnam War and corporate America in general, she notes, as well as a desire to annoy her parents – but much of it came from her religious background.
“I didn’t trust meat out in the world. That was my Jewish upbringing,” she says. “Kashrut gave me a sense of: What’s the origin of my meat?”
Katzen travels widely to speak about her books, and she takes part in fundraisers for local Jewish causes in the San Francisco Bay area when friends ask. Her brother and his family live near Tel Aviv, so she visits Israel often. And although she is not a member of a synagogue now, she was when her children were growing up. Her son became a bar mitzvah at a Conservative synagogue in Berkeley, and her daughter attended Jewish day school.
So yes, she very much looks at food through a Jewish lens, Katzen says.
“My upbringing in kashrut,” she says, “plus my sense of environmentalism and commitment to sustainable food equals where I am now.”