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October 4, 2017

The Moosewood Restaurant Table

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On Saturday, Sept. 30, Moosewood Restaurant welcomed guests to its location on North Cayuga Street to celebrate the publication of its 13th cookbook, The Moosewood Restaurant Table.

A refreshingly quiet break from the bustling Apple Harvest Festival outside, the restaurant offered signings, tastings and an opportunity to chat with four of the cookbook’s authors.

In the entryway of the restaurant, two tasting tables boasted colorful realizations of six of the cookbook’s 250 new recipes: Roasted Winter Squash Agrodolce, Roasted Eggplant Salad with Chermoula Sauce, Walnut and Roasted Pepper Spread with Za’Atar Pita Chips, Easy Lemon Butter Cookies, Whole-Grain Blondies and Orange-Oatmeal Cookies with Dark Chocolate Chips. Each evoked different flavors and textures, cuisines and cultures, in a brilliant showcase of the book’s diversity and depth. The Orange-Oatmeal cookies were my favorite, the pungent tanginess of the orange mingling with the richness of the dark chocolate chips in a simple, wholesome bite. I helped myself to a second before venturing to the signing table.

At the table were four of the book’s authors and members of the Moosewood Collective. According to their website, the Collective is comprised of “nineteen people who own and operate Moosewood Restaurant and write cookbooks…some of [whom] have worked together since Moosewood opened in 1973.” The four representative members  Laura Branca, Ned Asta, Susan Harville and Wynnie Stein were exactly how I expected them to be. At book signings for fictional works, I’ve felt as though the book’s characters, morals and sense of humor are but a tributary of the author’s larger identity, and that identity makes sense given the content of the book. I wasn’t sure if it would be the same with a cookbook signing.

It was. I felt as though I had already met the four women in recipe form and was simply meeting their human incarnations. In The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake’s whimsical fashion, I had already gotten a taste of these women through their culinary expressions of themselves: quirky, colorful, warm, wonderful. In signing my book, one drew a talking moose. One etched a note with hearts. One asked me to show her how to take a panorama (“It’s good to have a millennial here!”), and the five of us then took one together.

In 1974, the original Moosewood Cookbook was written and hand-illustrated by Mollie Katzen, and self-published by the Moosewood Restaurant, in a groundbreaking introduction to vegetarian cooking. Twelve subsequent cookbooks have tracked the evolution of Moosewood from a time when vegetarianism was largely obscure to the restaurant becoming, arguably, the most well-known vegetarian cookbook producer in the world.

According to the Collective, The Moosewood Restaurant Table stands out from their previous cookbooks in that it focuses primarily on vegetable dishes. Though previous volumes have included pescetarian recipes, this one is entirely vegetarian.

“Vegetable, health-based food is our forte,” Harville explained. “Lots of other people do well with meat, fish, chicken and seafood, but we concentrated on what we really know how to do. We love vegetables, we love local we celebrate that.”

“And more people are rising up!” Asta chimed in, referencing the increasing trend toward vegetarianism and veganism.

Despite the rise in vegetarian and vegan eateries since its founding 40 years ago, Moosewood has continued to thrive because of its pioneer status, according to the Collective. It serves as a foundational model to up-and-coming vegetarian and vegan eateries, like New York City’s Dirt Candy. The Collective, in turn, gleans inspiration from “[their] mothers’ and grandmothers’ dishes,” as well as “other cookbooks, other restaurants,” and “people who have worked with [them] or co-owners from other parts of the world”  and their own heritages. The authors emphasized their multiethnic approach in incorporating flavors from their own backgrounds.

In harnessing this inspiration, a team of “visionaries” assigns each author types of dishes (appetizers, first courses, etc.) and offers suggestions according to the author’s culinary strengths. The authors then have the freedom to create their own recipes, while visionaries like Harville and food editor Stein ensure that the recipes ultimately form a diverse and cohesive collection. It’s a balance between individuality and collectivity: Each author aims to integrate her own identity, preferred ingredients and flavors, cooking style, ethnic and cultural background  while conforming to the larger Moosewood identity.

Sometimes, this balance is hard to achieve. “There was one year where everything had avocado in it.” “We can get carried away by the things we love that are in season.” “We went a little bit overboard with Za’atar in this one!”

Beyond recipes, the book features striking food photography, in a sleeker, more modern aesthetic contrasting with the original Moosewood Cookbook’s hand-drawn illustrations. The watercress toast-embossed cover encapsulates the simplicity and freshness of the recipes within, targeting a youthful yet refined crowd.

To someone considering vegetarian or vegan cooking, Stein would say, “they’re gonna have a great time.” Cooking vegetarian or vegan requires innovation and creativity that carnivorous diets don’t, she reasons. “It’s easy to make a piece of chicken or fish, but you get inspired by beautiful vegetables and greens.” This inspiration, in turn, encourages experimentation with a wider array of ingredients, styles and flavors. Time-crunched, inexperienced college students don’t have an excuse: “Our book has so many recipes you could make very easily.” If preparing an entire meal from scratch isn’t possible, Stein encourages students to buy a mix of prepared foods and fresh vegetables. Whatever the case, “We want people to cook!”

The Moosewood Restaurant Table can be purchased online and at the Moosewood Restaurant.