The Moosewood Generation
It was hard to be a progressive lefty in the mid-eighties. We wanted to live simply so others could simply live. We wanted our food natural and authentic, but there weren’t many hippy guides around. Moosewood came to save us. The Moosewood Cookbook (1977) and its sequel, The Enchanted Broccoli Forest (1985) became our bibles. These books weren’t just about how to cut vegetables correctly or surprise surprise, beans and rice make a complete protein. That was important information, not readily available in the mainstream, but a bible is much more than a how-to manual. A bible tells the stories of its people. It codifies and transmits values. It guides the spirit. These flimsy paperbacks taught us the sacred from the profane; they taught the rituals and practices of vegetarian cooking; they taught us how to live a holy life.
I would curl up on a couch, the lavender cover in my hands, daydreaming about peanut soup. I could imagine the slow motion boil, the broth, viscous and shimmering in its own oil. Completely hand-lettered, the directions read like a letter from a friend, a friend who made the same type of jokes I did. The warning for not using walnuts in a casserole: “They might make it turn purple and taste bitter. (unless you happen to have a penchant for bitter, purple casseroles.)” Of course under the Vegetable-Almond Medley directions, a stalk of broccoli and a canning jar of almonds sing a duet. I thumbed through it giggling, and I learned.
The Sacred and Profane
I learned what was sacred. Carrot peelings. Full of vitamins, you can leave them on the carrots (lovingly scrubbed of course) or you can freeze them with the potato peelings, the tough mushroom stem tips, the brown and yellow layers of an onion. And when you have a full bag, boil these leavings for hours, the residue a gray amorphous sludge sent to the compost heap; the broth, a base; the steam sweet and fragrant, perfuming the house.
I learned what was profane. Strawberries in January. Out of season they might glisten, but they tasted flat. Out of season was out of the natural rhythm of the earth. So it violated ethics of daily living. And as Lappe taught us, multi-national conglomerates had people in poor countries grow luxury items for wealthy people like us, instead of subsistence crops for themselves. So, it violated our fundamental views of human worth and equity—one human should not live their life by abusing another. Profane indeed.
Rituals and Practices
Lesson one: Chop everything by hand with a big knife. I learned to keep the tip of my knife on the board and rock. I learned how bring the errant onion pieces back into the fold. With the book’s directions, I learned to trust my body–my hands, my muscles–to act correctly in this service.
Lesson two: Use tofu. When Nancy, one of my first housemates, decided to become a vegetarian, she disliked tofu. So, in order to train her palette, she made every dish in the tofu section of The Enchanted Broccoli Forest. And in the end, she liked it. And, luckily, since I was eating her meals once a week for a year, so did I.
Lesson three: Knead bread. Moosewood was so gentle with me, and I was so afraid. Even the step-by-step cartoon pictures with sound bubbles for thwap, couldn’t make me smile. Obviously, I needed a lighter heart about heavy bread. I know now that lefty bread is usually, shall we say, chewy. Nothing wrong with that. But for my first loaves, I clung to the directions.
I melted exactly one quarter cup of butter, found the honey in the back of the cupboard, and the yeast, my heart lifted with the glorious smell of yeast in our yellow kitchen. I made my dough exactly the shape of the Moosewood drawing, and I pushed. Then I looked at the next picture, the heels of my hands massaging. I went back and forth, pinching the dough and my earlobe, until they felt the same. I got flour in my hair (and thankfully no hair in the flour), but I made them match. I had faith that if I just followed the directions, I would create something.
Living the Holy Life
All those reports about Americans’ leisure time shrinking, all the prepared meals arriving in the grocery stores. That pressure was building. We chose to take time out for what matters—food of course. When a recipe says two hours to prepare and this is after the beans have cooked for two hours which is after they have soaked for five hours, well you know no one is in a hurry. On my cooking night, I’d leave campus early. It felt so luxurious to dawdle my way home and know I wouldn’t read any more Shakespeare or worry about hermeneutics for hours and hours.
I am a slow cook. This is not an ideological choice. I’m just an awkward kitchen dancer. It takes me forever to pull a bowl out of the cupboard. I often bang the glass measuring cup against the metal pan making a dreadful clang. My onion wedges fall off the cutting board. Moosewood reminded me I was engaged in the holy; it said to take my time.
My generation believed in taking time out for food, and we believed in doing it with the ones we loved. We made families from our friends. As the Passover seder says, let all who are hungry come and eat. So I got that value from my Jewish heritage and my parents who were constantly inviting the visiting Chinese grad student to Thanksgiving and the Turkish professor to Fourth of July, but we were still a nuclear family inviting others in. My friends and I created something else: new families. Moosewood helped us feed them.
Eric, one of those housemates, says we’re probably romanticizing that time. I’m sure he’s right. For heaven’s sake, he and I were in the slow agonizing process of breaking up a three year relationship and yelling at each other a lot. Some dinners we all read our books at the table and didn’t look up even to pass the butter. But not most days. Most days we did what the dream family is supposed to do.
We’d walk in the door and say “Hi Honey I’m home!” And we meant it as a spoof on the family of the fifties and we meant it absolutely. We were each other’s honey; we made a home.
And it wasn’t just the four of us. Almost every night, the doorbell would ring and there would be Sonke—just happened to be in the neighborhood. . ., or one of us would walk in with a few extras or the leader of Delaware Country Jobs with Peace would be crashing on our extra futon and be at the table. I loved visitors; they always did the dishes.
Over dinner, we told about our days. We discussed how the Blue Army of Fatima fit in a feminist analysis of religious movements. We gossiped. We told jokes and looked up words in the dictionary. We ate Chinese mushroom soup, rebaked potatoes, and entire meals made of dips.
My generation didn’t invent vegetarian cooking, and we certainly didn’t invent these values; there was a venerable hippy tradition before we came along. They passed their recipes to each other in hand-lettered mimeographed cookbooks like “Alex and Jane’s Favorite Meatless Meals.” But with Moosewood to guide us, we grew. I’m sure there are some dogmatic, purist Moosewood followers, but luckily I didn’t have to live with any of them. I’ve never been much for orthodoxy. My first house often bought ice cream and ordered eggplant pizza from the store around the corner. I cook vegetarian, but I often eat chicken and even steak when I’m out. Yes, I believe all the political arguments; I just choose not to be consistent in my belief system. None of my friends ever sicked the progressive police on me. We seem to have room for variation. I’ve also gotten lazier about pure ingredients and starting from scratch. These days I make my hummus from canned chickpeas, and I shop at the local grocery store as often as the co-op. So I’m not a strict follower of the beliefs I embraced so ecstatically twenty years ago, but they’re not gone. I still cook for friends who are my family. I still cook from scratch. Plenty of people find their way without a bible. I needed this one and it was so kind, so welcoming, so helpful to an acolyte like me.
Deborah Bacharach is the author of After I Stop Lying (Cherry Grove Collections, 2015). Her poems have been published in journals nationally and internationally, including The Antigonish Review, Arts & Letters, Calyx, Cimarron Review, New Letters and Poet Lore. She is a college writing instructor, editor, and tutor and lives in Seattle with her family.