Mollie Katzen was named by Health Magazine as one of the five “Women Who Changed the Way We Eat.” In case you’re not familiar with Mollie, she burst onto the scene in 1977 when she wrote The Moosewood Cookbook, a wonderful collection of vegetarian recipes that were developed at the Moosewood Cafe in Ithica, NY, which she helped to create. Five years later in 1982, Mollie wrote The Enchanted Broccoli Forest, another classic vegetarian cookbook.
For many of us in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, these books were the gold standard for vegetarian food preparation. I first became a vegetarian in 1973 after my freshman year in college. I really didn’t have any dietary plan; I just decided not to eat meat anymore. So, lot’s of fruit, veggies, yogurt, and of course, tofu. It didn’t take long for this diet to get a little old. But I stuck with it, and when The Moosewood Cookbook appeared, suddenly there were some wonderfully crafted recipes available and being a vegetarian no longer seemed like self-deprivation. Not only did the food now taste great, it looked incredibly interesting, and the actual names of the recipes may have been the coolest part. These were good times in vegetarian land.
After the Moosewood Cookbook was published, it seemed like suddenly there were natural foods restaurants everywhere. If you were a vegetarian – no problem. Plenty of choices for dining out, featuring some of the most creative and innovative recipe development I have ever enjoyed.
Fast forward to 2010, and I’m sure I will sound like an old hippie longing for the good old days, but . . . hey, what happened to the good old days? Vegetarian cusine wasn’t looking to mimic standard American fare. Quite the opposite. Vegetarianism was looking to distinguish itself from typical cuisine. Now, I actually find it pretty challenging to find what could be called natural foods restaurants. There aren’t nearly as many any more, and I write this even as I live in Asheville, North Carolina, a town that is frequently described as being filled with granola-heads.
Now, it seems like when I go out to eat (particularly when I travel), sure there are plenty of no-meat options, but typically what has evolved is cuisine that doesn’t include meat, but is trying really hard to look and taste like meat. Restaurants need to understand that people choosing not to eat meat aren’t necessarily looking to be reminded of meat with every bite of their non-meat meal. That’s not what they’re after. And, I write this as someone who is not a hard core veg-head at all. As a matter of fact, I now only exclude red meat from my diet, but that’s beside the point.
It seems like the options have become leaner for vegetarians looking to eat out. It’s a bit deceptive because pretty much wherever you go (even if it’s a steakhouse) you can now have a fine meal without meat. But for true, innovative vegetarian cuisine, prepared by those who care and truly understand the craft, the options are actually quite slim. I think that restaurants, and even those that consider themselves of the Fine Dining ilk, must understand that vegetarians are not looking for meals that resemble a steak and potato dining experience. That may actually be what they are looking to avoid. Vegetarians, not surprisingly, are looking for true vegetarian dining.
Oh well, it’s an interesting shift that we have seen over the years. When eating in and shopping for meals, we have come a tremendous distance from the 1970’s – no doubt! But when it comes to eating out, I think we need a bit of an attitude adjustment, or at least a little bit more creativity.