In the summer of 1985 I was living with three men—-my first husband, Dick, who now had a boyfriend named Ed; my second husband, Max, a labor lawyer whom I married (with many misgivings) the summer before; and Nigel, a tall and pleasant British historian and long-time friend of Max, who was researching nineteenth-century labor relations in Philadelphia.
In the summer of 1984 Max and I had purchased a three-story, late Victorian, gray, stone house on a once fashionable avenue in Philadelphia’s West Mount Airy. I loved the fat round turret and the high arched windows that made up the left side of the house, and the old-fashioned porch that wrapped its elegant curve around the right. The house stood on a leafy corner where quiet trees filled the sky.
Despite the loveliness of the porch (and despite the ghosts that seem to beckon from it—-I imagined a genteel Victorian family in wicker rockers), we never graced it with a single chair, preferring the privacy of the newly built deck in back. The latter served as meeting place and summer dining room, offering us a view of the peach and lavender perennial border I had planted and of Max’s garden on a large swath at the side of our quarter-acre lot. We often lingered on the deck past twilight when a colony of bats winged their way through the deepening blue and lavender of the sky.
“Smile,” Nigel told us. “Say cheese.” Nigel was fond of taking pictures to send home, and he captured us that summer in our most familiar ritual. The photo shows me sitting with Dick and Max at the round, white table on our deck. Pregnant and wearing striped work overalls, I have long and curly hair. I am resting my head upon my hand and am looking pleased as if paradise had come again. Dick sits to my left in sandals and a tight blue-and-red-striped tee shirt. He is leaning toward me. His honey-colored mustache droops seductively. Max has turned his large square face and body directly to the camera. He is wearing shorts and sneakers and has a Jewish Afro and a wide, full beard. Pink flowers float above a green vase in the center of the table, and our plates are full of chicken, rice, and broccoli. It is a plain meal, with few ingredients, which means that Max had cooked it. Dick took his recipes from gourmet magazines— pork chops with wine reduction, say, and sesame green beans— while Nigel and I had both discovered Moosewood Cookbook. On the (separate) nights we cooked that summer, dinner consisted of our garden on a plate.
I never looked to Moosewood for two-star recipes. Indeed, many of its dishes squeaked by, in our rating system, with only a star above a check, meaning that they were fine for everyday meals but not for guests. “Swiss Cheese and Mushroom Quiche” fell into this category, despite the fact that it involved a cup and a half of tangy gruyere cheese. My note in the margin read that Julia Child’s version was better. (No surprise there.) Was it the Moosewood crust, which was partly whole wheat and made with buttermilk instead of water? Was it that Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking used heavy cream and nutmeg rather than milk and mustard? That the mushrooms in Moosewood were innocent of shallots and Madeira? Several Moosewood dishes earned only a check above a star, which translated as “not worth the effort.” We assigned “Vegetarian Chili” (with kidney beans, bulgur, celery, carrots, peppers, and tomatoes) to that category. “Don’t bother,” I wrote in the margin. Was it the tomato juice? Did I under spice?
Going wrong with Moosewood recipes was a drag because they usually called for a ton of ingredients. It was great when the recipes worked out because they allowed you to unload a basket of summer produce (after a good deal of chopping) into a single pot. “Vegetable Stroganoff” called for onions, mushrooms, and six cups of broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, zucchini, peppers, and cherry tomatoes. “Vegetable Stew” featured potatoes, carrots, celery, eggplant, zucchini, broccoli, mushrooms and tomatoes. Both were tasty dishes in the check/star category.
But “Ode to Chang Kung” with its broccoli, mushrooms, bean sprouts, water chestnuts, bamboo, tofu and sesame seeds (plus cashews, scallions, and chopped green peppers on top) came out weird and bland. Was it the quarter cup of something called “taman?” “Never again!” Nigel wrote at the top of the recipe, and, ordinarily, Nigel never ranked his dishes.
At other times Moosewood recipes, with their cornucopia of ingredients, demanded additions that seemed mainly designed to remind us of its hippy roots. Why else would “Spinach-Rice Casserole” (which featured brown rice, spinach, onion, garlic, eggs, milk and a cup-and-a-half of cheddar cheese) also call for tamari and a quarter cup of sunflower seeds? Why did “Vegetable Stew,” an otherwise straightforward dish, demand molasses? And why, for that matter, did “Broccoli Noodle Casserole” with its decadent three cups of ricotta, one cup of cheddar, and one cup sour cream even bother to make you sprinkle wheat germ over its top?
But it didn’t matter. I cooked from Moosewood because I liked the idea of it. The book was produced by a collective, and we were a collective too. The restaurant had no “boss,” and despite Max’s alpha personality, our house had no boss either. We rotated shopping, cooking, and washing dishes, which made me feel heady, and slightly guilty, about having such domestic and culinary leisure. I was also drawn to the Moosewood philosophy of “convenience and economy” which we certainly got to practice since our ingredients came from our garden just outside the kitchen door.
Moosewood celebrated “health, lightness, purity,” a trinity that I wanted to pursue, and I liked the homemade quality of the book itself—the hand lettering, the sparkly drawings. Our favorite recipe, “Spinach–Rice Casserole,” was illustrated with a hairy unicorn encountering a large, strange bird.
Hand drawn unicorns called attention to the creativity, love, and labor that, often invisibly, go into making the sweetness of the everyday. Cooking from Moosewood, even with its imperfections, was utopian. Funny how small, utopian practices can make you feel, despite the deepest contradictions, that summer is everlasting and that life is good.
(Adapted with permission of Mollie Katzen from Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen, Ten Speed Press, 1977)
4 c. cooked brown rice (2 c. raw cooked in 3 c. water)
2 lbs raw chopped spinach
1 c. chopped onion
2 cloves minced garlic
3 T butter
4 beaten eggs
1 c. milk
1 ½ c. grated cheddar cheese
¼ c. chopped parsley
2 T tamari
½ tsp. salt
Dashes of nutmeg and cayenne pepper
¼ c. sun flower seeds
Preheat oven to 350.
1. Cook brown rice on stove top.
2. Sauté onions and garlic with salt in butter. When onions are soft add spinach and cook two minutes.
2. Add all other ingredients with exception of sun flower seeds an paprika.
3. Pile mixture into buttered casserole.
4. Sprinkle with sun flower seeds and paprika.
5. Bake, covered, for 35 minutes.