40 Years of Moosewood: Memories & Recipes from the Legendary Vegetarian Restaurant
The cookbooks that fed a generation—and sparked a vegetarian revolution—got their start at the improbable restaurant that became a legend.
Photo by Dave Burbank
Moosewood Cookbook—that cozy, hand-lettered, and charmingly illustrated collection of vegetarian recipes—is one of the 10 best-selling cookbooks of all time. But more than being a publishing juggernaut, the book has changed lives. Ask just about anyone about Moosewood, from New York Times best-selling food writer Amanda Hesser to Top Chef judge Gail Simmons, and they’ll launch into rhapsodies about their favorite recipes and the book’s impact on them—and on the planet.
But before there was Moosewood Cookbook, there was Moosewood Restaurant. Founded 40 years ago this coming January, the restaurant wasn’t just the origin of the legendary cookbook, but—judging by the thousands of food pilgrims who have turned it into a shrine—has benefited from the book’s success.
So there was Moosewood: a batik-curtained, mostly (but not always) vegetarian restaurant started almost by accident in the basement of a defunct junior high school in rural upstate New York by seven friends—most of whom had no experience in the restaurant industry.
Not the likeliest of recipes for a successful restaurant launch, never mind a 40-year reign that has spawned a dozen successful cookbooks; seen the restaurant named a James Beard American Classic in 2000 and lauded for bringing vegetarian food into the mainstream; and—the ultimate sign of icon status—inspired a question in Trivial Pursuit (What Ithaca, New York, eatery did Bon Appétit magazine call one of the 13 most influential restaurants of the 20th century?).
Sure, the world by 1973 was beginning to wake up to the benefits of eating fresh and even organic produce: Alice Waters launched her revolutionary Chez Panisse in Berkeley two years before, and Frances Moore Lappé had recently published the now-classic Diet for a Small Planet. Still, in the early ’70s, most people considered vegetarianism “fringe.”
Moosewood would change that.
Over several long phone calls and a few good Moosewood meals, founder and cookbook author Mollie Katzen, along with cofounder Judy Barringer, kitchen manager David Hirsch, longtime employee Sara Robbins, and faithful customer Mary Tabacchi, a professor of nutritional science at Cornell University, recounted how a little restaurant in Ithaca, New York, would forever change the way people thought about food.
MOOSEWOOD IS BORNMollie Katzen: They weren’t even sure what the business was going to be. Maybe antiques, maybe a restaurant. This was a biz started by a group of friends who just wanted to live an alternative lifestyle and be our own boss.
My brother enlisted me late in game. I had restaurant experience—I’d cooked my way through high school and college. Our original intent was to be a local business, run by local people, egalitarian, a place to hang out, on the neighborhood pub model. None of us was a dogmatic vegetarian. We didn’t have a mission to get people to stop eating meat. It was more about loving plant food. Healthy and delicious aren’t two separate categories.
Judy Barringer: In June 1972 we started building the restaurant. I took out library books: How to Finish Tables and How to Build Stairs. We bought our first stove from someplace in Syracuse and drove it back in my VW van. The thing was so big we couldn’t close the door the whole way.
David Hirsch: The name? There was a self-help author named Hugh Prather who had a dog named Moosewood. It sounded cute, and moose browse trees—they’re herbivores! And there’s a type of tree in the area called moosewood.
Mollie: It was January 3, 1973. We opened at six. The moussaka came out of the oven at eight. Moosewood moussaka—get it?
Judy: We forgot to get change for the register. I had to run up and down Seneca Street getting change.
Mollie: At one point, we looked out in the dining room and it was packed. And they weren’t just people we knew.
Judy: And it just stayed crowded.
Mary Tabacchi: I arrived for fall semester in 1972. By winter, the stores here had sort of depressing, wilted produce. Most vegetarian food then was awful. It was like you had to suffer. My students kept saying, “You have to go to Moosewood!” I’d been so depressed about food; then I saw Moosewood. It was the first place I ever had tabouli, and it was really good.
Mollie: We thought we needed to serve some meat. We had a meat entrée every night. We hated cooking it, and we were so inept at it. It was always what was left over at the end of the night. So we tapered it out.
Judy: People would come in and ask for a roast beef sandwich and couldn’t believe we didn’t have them.
Mary: The food was a little “rugged” and unpredictable early on. But they cooked with their hearts.
Mollie: People then were interested in other cultures. I was into folk dance, folk art. My first tabouli was from a folk dance party. So lots of people brought in their ethnic recipes.
Mary: Sunday was ethnic night. My husband was a big meat eater, but we came to the restaurant on Sunday nights to experiment. I think a lot of people got introduced to Moosewood on Sunday nights.
Mollie: We had no business plan. No formulas for making any profit. We thought: It’d be nice to have lunch cost a dollar! No metrics, no number crunching. So we had lunch for a dollar. Soup and salad for two dollars. The entire town came to us for lunch. We knew everybody. Lunch felt like family.
Mollie: We had no standardized recipes. Someone would come in looking for a soup they loved. We didn’t know what it was. “Who was cooking that day?” we’d ask. “What did she look like?” Oh, Linda. Well, Linda comes in from her commune on Wednesday to take a shower, so we’ll have to wait until then.
David: The cooks were like musicians. They improvised.
Mollie: We couldn’t provide our customers with a repeatable experience. And customers wanted to cook at home what we’d fed them. I’d sit down after my shift and write down on a paper napkin how I made the gazpacho. Pretty soon I thought: How many times have I written tabouli? Maybe I should print this out. We self-published it in 1974, ran it off on a Xerox machine. Then later, Ten Speed published it.
Mary: There were a few vegetarian cookbooks, but most of them were pretty bad. It was amazing: How’d the cookbook get so popular? In the early ’70s, I was on a plane somewhere and someone asked where I was from. “Ithaca, New York,” I said. “That’s the town where Moosewood is!” they replied. It was as if Moosewood was the center of the universe.
WE’RE GONNA NEED A BIGGER RESTAURANT
Judy: By late 1976 there weren’t as many surly people coming in to be disappointed. By then, people knew what to expect; locals knew what the restaurant was about. We did everything. Made lunch, cleaned up, made dinner, cleaned up. Did the pots, did the books, had meetings every night. The “owners” received a salary of 10 bucks a week, plus tips. Every decision we waited for consensus.
I cooked the bread on Thursdays. We ran out one time, and I had to come back in. There was no room in the kitchen, so I had to put the hot racks down in the locker room and I burned my arm. I got so mad I took the rack and threw it down the hall. Dozens of loaves of bread. After my tantrum, they hired a girl named Sue to do the bread. She and other members of her commune—pretty girls with long dresses—sold bread from baskets in town.
Sara Robbins: For my interview with Josh Katzen, I brought in a loaf of anadama bread. Josh took one bite and hired me.
NO OTHER TIME, NO OTHER PLACE
Mary: In some ways, this might be the only place it could have happened. Where else? Berkeley maybe? The locals here ate local before anyone knew the term locavores. It was pretty impressive: everybody eating together—students and counterculture and the business community—here at Moosewood.
David: There were 25 communes around town. That really helped define the culture and the energy.
Mary: It was a culture willing to try things. And these weren’t all necessarily hippies. It wasn’t Santa Cruz. But it wasn’t St. Louis, either. Then, there were all those students from Cornell and Ithaca going forth and spreading the word about Moosewood.
David: It never would have worked without all those owners. Everyone shared responsibility with so many other people. That’s a big part of the longevity. You could have a life.
Sara: What amazes me still is all the relationships among the employees. All the teamwork, young people connecting. We’ve stayed friends, had romances, marriages, children, some divorces.
Mollie: One universal group hug—that was the Moosewood ethos. Along with a nice bunch of creative people with good palates. It’s amazing to me that it’s been 40 years. I’m just so . . . grateful.
From the Cookbooks
Serves 4 to 6
1⁄3 cup olive oil
3 cups coarsely chopped onion
2 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon turmeric
1⁄2 teaspoon cinnamon
1⁄4 to 1 teaspoon cayenne
1⁄2 teaspoon paprika
1 cup sliced carrots
4 cups cubed sweet potatoes or butternut squash
3 cups cubed eggplant
1 green pepper, sliced in strips
4 cups sliced zucchini or summer squash
2 large tomatoes, chopped
11⁄2 cups cooked garbanzo beans, liquid reserved
Pinch of saffron
3⁄4 cup dried currants or 1⁄2 cup raisins
1⁄4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1. In a stew pot, heat the olive oil and sauté the onion for 2 or 3 minutes. Add the garlic and spices, stirring continuously. Add the vegetables in the order given above, so that the starchier vegetables will cook the longest. Sauté after the addition of each vegetable until its color deepens. Stir in the garbanzo beans, the saffron, and the currants or raisins. There should be some liquid at the bottom of the pot from the cooking vegetables. However, if the stew is dry, add 1⁄2 cup of tomato juice, liquid from the garbanzo beans, or water.
2. Cover the stew and simmer on low heat until all the vegetables are tender. Add the chopped parsley just before serving.
Reprinted by permission from New Recipes from Moosewood Restaurant (Ten Speed Press, 1987).
Serves 4 to 6
1 cup raw quinoa
2 cups water
1⁄4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon dried mint (or 1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint)
1 red, green, or yellow bell pepper
2 garlic cloves
11⁄2 cups fresh parsley
2 tablespoons lemon juice
11⁄2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and black pepper
1. Thoroughly rinse and drain the quinoa in a fine mesh strainer (rinsing removes the residue of the grain’s bitter coating). In a covered saucepan on high heat, bring the quinoa, water, salt, and mint if using dried to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer until the water is absorbed and the quinoa is tender, about 15 minutes. Fluff with a fork and place in a serving bowl.
2. While the quinoa cooks, finely chop the bell pepper, mince the scallions and garlic, and finely chop the parsley and the mint if using fresh. Add them to the serving bowl with the cooked quinoa. Pour on the lemon juice and olive oil and mix well. Add salt and pepper to taste.
3. Serve warm, at room temperature, or chilled.
Reprinted by permission from Moosewood Restaurant Cooking for Health (Simon & Schuster, 2009).
Six-Minute Chocolate Cake
Makes one 9-inch round or 8-inch square cake
11⁄2 cups unbleached white flour
1⁄3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
1⁄2 cup vegetable oil
1 cup cold water or brewed coffee
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 tablespoons vinegar
1⁄2 pound bittersweet chocolate
3⁄4 cup hot water, milk, or half-and-half
1⁄2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1. To make the cake, preheat the oven to 375°. Sift together the flour, cocoa, baking soda, salt, and sugar into an ungreased 8-inch square or a 9-inch round baking pan. In a 2-cup measuring cup, measure and mix together the oil, water or coffee, and vanilla. Pour the liquid ingredients into the baking pan and mix the batter with a fork or a small whisk.
2. When the batter is smooth, add the vinegar and stir quickly. There will be pale swirls in the batter where the baking soda and the vinegar are reacting. Stir just until the vinegar is evenly distributed throughout the batter. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes. Set the cake aside to cool, and if you choose to make the glaze, reset the oven to 300°.
3. For the glaze, melt the chocolate in a small ovenproof bowl or heavy skillet in the oven for about 15 minutes. Stir the hot liquid and the vanilla into the chocolate until smooth. Spoon the glaze over the cooled cake. Refrigerate the glazed cake for at least 30 minutes before serving.
Reprinted by permission from Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home, by the Moosewood Collective (Simon & Schuster/Fireside publishers, 1994).
Photo by Dave Burbank: daveburbankphotography.com