The Joy of Cooking

An early dietitian set out to prove that vegetarian cooking was good for the body. Others who followed tried to show it could be tasty and even good for the soul.

By Hillary Mohaupt | February 6, 2017
Figues de Solliès by Mon Œil

“Figues de Solliès.”

Mon Œil

My dog-eared, grease-stained copy of The Moosewood Restaurant Low-Fat Favorites begins with an introduction that explains the benefits of healthy home cooking and the desire to do it well:

We often linger at the table and feel that the world is various and good. Our outlook is broader and more benevolent. And, yet, intruding on these warm comforting feelings is a growing concern about how food choices affect our health. We feel a nagging uneasiness that we ought to try to keep up with the latest clinical studies. We contemplate making sweeping changes in our diets in order to increase our chances of living disease-free. At times, we’re left wondering whether we’re informed enough to make dinner.

The Moosewood Collective, which has operated a vegetarian restaurant in Ithaca, New York, since 1973, published the first edition of their vegetarian cookbook in 1977. Its rich, butter-laden recipes changed the way people thought about vegetarian food, and the cookbook became a kind of bible for vegetarian cooking.

But Mollie Katzen, one of Moosewood’s co-founders, was hardly the first person to write a vegetarian cookbook, and later editors were certainly not the first to voice the need for food to play a central role in our overall health.

More than 60 years before Katzen set down her ladle and sat down to write, Lenna Frances Cooper penned The New Cookery, published by the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan, which was the brainchild of John Harvey Kellogg and the early Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Cooper invoked the food science of the early 1900s and promoted the scientific philosophy of Kellogg (who forbade the consumption of stimulants and meat), but also argued that “it is almost equally as important that food should be prepared appetizingly as that it should be well cooked.”

Kellogg’s philosophy was based on privation, not pleasure, and paging through Cooper’s cookbook it’s hard to find a recipe that seems like it would taste good. Cottage cheese sandwiches? Prune fritters? Asparagus loaf? I was most interested in the nut patties, what I imagine as Battle Creek’s version of a homemade veggie burger, which, in my experience, is hard to make flavorful. As a longtime vegetarian I’ve made lentil burgers and black-bean burgers from recipes scrounged from all over the Internet—all of them requiring huge quantities of cumin and onion and garlic and whatever other spices were on hand, because by themselves lentils and beans are pretty bland. Cooper’s recipe calls for equal parts Protose and Nuttolene—two of the first commercially available meat substitutes, created by Kellogg—along with onion and lemon juice. The patties are baked until “nicely browned” and Cooper suggests serving them with tomato sauce or chili sauce.

Peanut roast from New Cookery

Peanut roast

A peanut roast, just one of the epicurian delights devised by Lenna Frances Cooper in The New Cookery.

I didn’t grow up with Moosewood; instead my dad favored Tassajara Cooking, a vegetarian cookbook published by the San Francisco Zen Center in 1973. Like Cooper and Katzen, the writers of the Tassajara cookbook were interested in feeding the whole body: “Food is our common property, the body of the world, our eating of the world, our treasure of change and transformation, sustenance and continuation.” Written from a Buddhist perspective, Tassajara Cooking charmingly omits measurements from its ingredients lists, except when it comes to “Pastries for Stuffing.” “The Basic Recipe for Burgers” begins, “Burgers can often be started with leftovers. The first step is to grind, mash, or grate the basic ingredient. Whole grains need not be ground or mashed, as they add a marvelous chewy quality, barley especially.”

It’s hard to imagine Lenna Frances Cooper calling anything “marvelous,” especially not the texture of grain, which she said were “veritable storehouses of nourishment.” It’s no surprise that a Buddhist cookbook would have a different take on eating than a Seventh-Day Adventist cookbook; and I think there’s merit in finding a balance between a cooking philosophy dedicated, as the Tassajara cookbook is, to vegetables and “the Ground which gives Life” and the “established dietary standards” to which Cooper was devoted.

The 1994 low-fat edition of the Moosewood cookbook in my collection includes a recipe for a “nicely textured” chili burger that seems, I’m always relieved to remember, to be 98% “Tex-Mex seasonings” (onions, garlic, chili powder, cumin, mustard, soy sauce, ketchup, black pepper), followed by a calorie count and a paragraph of possible sauces and accompaniments. The writers of this edition want us, the eaters, to possess the “best of health and good appetite”—a wish that spiritual, secular, and scientific types can toast.

Look out for more about Kellogg and the early days of processed food and food science in the spring 2017 issue of Distillations magazine.