Moosewood Restaurant: Vegetarian Cuisine from an Egalitarian Collective

This nationally-known restaurant in Ithaca, NY, is as distinctive for its collective ownership as for its globally inspired cuisine; plus, recipes for Zucchini-Feta Casserole and Mixed Vegetable Curry.
By Carol Taylor
May/June 1990
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Depending on who's cooking at Moosewood, the menu (which changes with every meal) may include Italian, Chinese, West African, Armenian, Middle Eastern, or any of a number of other ethnic cuisines.
PHOTO: IRWIN HOROWITZ, INC.


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When the restaurant closed at 9:00 on a sultry August night, Linda Dickinson ("L. D.") had been in the cramped little kitchen for eight hours. Her feet hurt, her back ached, her dark blond hair was plastered to the back of her neck. So when the Australians banged on the door at 9:10, she recommended a café down the street.

They begged. They would have arrived earlier, but they'd gotten lost. And they'd had a flat tire. And their cat had been carsick. "It's not that I believed them," L. D. says, explaining why she fired up the stove and cooked them a meal. "But when people tell you they've come from Sydney to Ithaca just to eat at your restaurant, you tend to feed them."

As shrines go, Moosewood Restaurant is unimposing. Its hometown of Ithaca (population 30,000), in the Finger Lakes region of New York State, is a gorgeous place, graced with streams, waterfalls, an occasional ravine and Cornell University. The restaurant itself (seating 56) occupies the former detention room of a renovated brick school building. The basement-level dining room is pleasantly ordinary: white walls with dark wainscoting, wooden chairs and tables, print curtains. In between the plants that line the high windowsills one can glimpse the legs of passersby and, here and there, a moosewood tree, a local species of maple and the restaurant's namesake. (According to folklore, the moose that once populated this area used to pull down branches and nibble on the leaves.)

In short, Moosewood looks like a popular neighborhood eatery (which it is), indistinguishable from thousands of others (which it isn't). Since opening its doors in 1973, Moosewood has managed to be a major influence on American food, to attract hundreds of tourists from around the world and to place its cookbooks on millions of kitchen shelves. How it's done that has something to do with politics, a little to do with luck and a lot to do with the people who work there.

In 1973 Susan Harville was a vegetarian with a problem. Three years earlier, she had dropped out of graduate school to move back to the land. In short order she had acquired 150 acres outside Ithaca, 30 beef cattle, 25 goats, five horses and assorted sheep, lambs, chickens, ponies, birds, dogs and cats.

"Living intimately with animals," she recalls, "was one of the most profound experiences of my life." Day in and day out, she fed them, watered them, cleaned their stalls, assisted at their births. She was fascinated. They had families, friends, personality quirks, good days and bad. In fact, they seemed remarkably like her. Harville lost all appetite for meat. She was now the owner of a hundred animals she didn't intend to eat.

Giving away your beef cattle isn't easy if you insist on a non-aggression pact from the new owners. With a hundred mouths to feed, Harville found herself in need of a paying job. The new vegetarian restaurant that had opened two weeks before seemed appropriate. She went to work.

Moosewood cuisine is primarily vegetarian (although fish is available on weekends). In 1973 vegetarianism had seized the American imagination. Two years earlier, Frances Moore Lappé had published Diet for a Small Planet, a ringing indictment of meat-centered diets as ecologically damaging and wasteful of the scarce resources of a chronically hungry planet. A raft of politically correct but aesthetically reprehensible cookbooks—some merely photocopied booklets—began to circulate. Steamed tofu and boiled soybeans were much in evidence.

Not at Moosewood. Then, as now, "Moosers" liked vivid colors, contrasting textures, complex tastes. They surveyed the great cuisines of the world and found marvelous dishes that required no meat. There was no preaching on the premises (most of the owners and customers are not strict vegetarians)--just an abundance of good food.

With the publication of The Moosewood Cookbook in 1977, the restaurant acquired nationwide fame. Mollie Katzen, a founding member of the restaurant, compiled and adapted recipes for its most popular dishes. The book spoke to a generation. in revolt against depersonalization. Hand-lettered and illustrated, it included such recipes as "Lovely Sesame Sauce" and such directions as "season it according to your nature, and stuff the shells generously and with love." Still in print, it has sold over a million copies.

New Recipes from Moosewood Restaurant, which appeared in 1987, went through three printings in nothing flat. Written in a more standard cookbook format, it presents the way Moosewood cooks today—a cuisine less grainy, less beany, less insistent on nuts and seeds. Few people who like vegetarian food—whether they're vegetarians or not—would be without it.

When Tony Del Plato was growing up in Brooklyn, his father drove a city bus and his mother operated a sewing machine in a neighborhood sweatshop. Neither had the slightest control over the conditions of their work. That was how it should be, his father taught. On the job, in politics, at home—one man has to be in charge.

Child rearing is chancy. The son grew up to become a passionate believer in workplace democracy, a founder of co-ops, a feminist—a man who invests enormous energy in living out his egalitarian values, in creating communities in which people do not oppress each other in large or small ways. He also grew up with his Italian-born mother's love of good cooking.

In 1982 Del Plato joined the Moosewood Collective. As a cook at a restaurant owned and managed by workers, he feels very much at home.

Now 17 years old, the Moosewood Collective has lasted longer than most. All 17 members work for an equal wage, share in the profits and lend a hand at whatever needs to be done. "We think if you're going to run a business," says Joan Adler, a longtime member, "you should know how to run all of it, from waiting tables to ordering supplies." There is no manager, no boss. Every three weeks the collective meets to discuss issues ranging from what to do about the grease trap to who is responsible for children in society.

"We struggle to find consensus, struggle to fully understand the other person's point of view, " says Adler. "As a result we get more ideas and better decisions. We also become close. We're not just coworkers. We're family."

When Bob Love finished his Ph.D. in anthropology at Cornell in 1977, he was offered one job, and that was in the Philippines. He didn't want to go to the Philippines. In fact, he didn't want to leave Ithaca. He turned it down.

The next morning he woke up, aghast. Most people don't have the nerve to do that, he thought, and neither do I. Now what?

A specialist in Southeast Asia, Love had already spent seven years in the Philippines: three in the Peace Corps, and four engaged in doctoral research. But programs in Southeast Asian studies, which had proliferated at universities during the Vietnam War, dwindled as the war wound down ("academics want to study a place only if we're fighting there"). Opportunities were few.

A thoughtful Love strolled over to Moosewood Restaurant to eat lunch. As he lingered over a cup of coffee, he gazed around. This, he thought, is where I belong. I'm crazy about cooking, I'm sociable and I know a lot about Southeast Asian food. Eventually, he talked his way into a job. To the members of the Moosewood Collective, a man who chooses to be a cook rather than a college professor has come up in the world. They have boundless respect for good food. It is worth their best intelligence, their most careful research, their boldest creativity. Inevitably, this quality of effort makes itself felt. From bread crumbs to mayonnaise, everything is made from scratch. Servings are generous, and prices are reasonable.

Maureen Vivino is emphatic: She did not go to Bulgaria just to have dinner. A student of classical ballet since the age of five, Vivino became captivated by the rhythms of Balkan folk dancing while in college. In the summer of 1976, she headed for Eastern Europe to study music and dance.

For three months she toured Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Hungary, attending festivals, weddings and anniversary celebrations, staying in small hotels or with families who had a room to rent. And for three months she ate some of the best food she'd ever tasted. Superb ice cream and yogurt, absolutely fresh vegetables from backyard gardens, dozens of different breads, wonderful new flavors: tangy in Hungary, spicy in Yugoslavia, milder in Bulgaria. Between dances she copied down every recipe she could find. Two years later she began working at Moosewood. And the restaurant started serving a lot of Balkan food.

The reason Moosewood Restaurant serves Italian, Chinese, West African, Armenian, Middle Eastern, Indian, Indonesian and Mexican dishes, among others, is that these are what the members of the collective like to cook. Sometimes there's a personal connection. Fouad Makki, from a province in Ethiopia, cooks North African dishes; Maggie Pitkin, whose ancestors sailed on the Mayflower, prepares New England food. So, depending on who's cooking, the menu, which changes with every meal, may include burritos and piroshki or Malay fried noodles and Moroccan stew. (The cooks are not doctrinaire. To a Balkan casserole of feta cheese, buIgur and zucchini, they will shamelessly add soy sauce and Cheddar if the combination sounds good.)

Between meals, the collective is working on a new cookbook, due out next fall: Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant, named in honor of the Moosewood tradition of devoting each Sunday night to an ethnic cuisine. The thought is that, out of the individual tastes and preferences and talents, a distinctive, unified work will emerge, better than any one author could have produced alone. Like the first two books, like the restaurant itself, the new book will speak very clearly about the people behind it.


Zucchini-Feta Casserole

3/4 cup bulgur
3/4 cup boiling water
2 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 cups sliced onions
4 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
6 cups thinly sliced zucchini rounds
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1/2 teaspoon dried marjoram
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
2 eggs
1 cup grated feta cheese (5 ounces)
1 cup cottage cheese
1/2 to 1 cup chopped fresh parsley
2, tablespoons tomato paste
1 tablespoon tamari soy sauce
1 cup grated Cheddar cheese (3 ounces)
2 medium tomatoes, thinly sliced
1 1/2 tablespoons sesame seeds (optional) 

Place bulgur in a bowl, and pour boiling water over it. Cover, and set aside until it has absorbed the water and become soft and chewable.

Sauté onions and garlic in oil until onions are just translucent. Add zucchini, dried herbs and black pepper, and continue to sauté on medium to low heat until zucchini is tender but not falling apart.

In a bowl, lightly beat eggs. Mix in feta and cottage cheese. Add chopped parsley, tomato paste and soy sauce to buIgur, and mix well.

Assemble casserole in an oiled 9" × 9" casserole dish. Layer first the buIgur mixture, next the sautéed vegetables, and then the feta mixture. Top casserole with grated Cheddar cheese, tomato slices and a light sprinkling of sesame seeds.

Bake covered at 350°F for 45 minutes. For crustier cheese, uncover casserole for the final 15 minutes of baking. This casserole can be more easily served after it sits for 5 or 10 minutes. Serves 4–6.

Mixed Vegetable Curry

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds (optional)
3 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 1/2 teaspoons ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground fennel
1 teaspoon turmeric
2 teaspoons grated fresh gingerroot
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (or more to taste)
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups chopped onions
2 medium carrots, sliced into half-moons
3 cups cubed sweet or white potatoes
1 medium cauliflower, cut into florets
3/4 cup water
2 medium tomatoes, chopped
2 cups green peas or 2 medium green peppers, chopped

Condiments 

2 cups plain yogurt
1/2 cup cashews, lightly roasted
1/2 cup raisins or currants
1 banana

Melt oil and butter in a skillet or wok. Add mustard seeds, and heat until they begin to pop. Add remaining spices, and cook on low heat for a couple of minutes to enhance the flavors of the spices. Be very careful not to bum them. Add chopped onions, and sauté until translucent. Add carrots, and cook for several minutes.

Add potatoes, and cook a few minutes more. Add cauliflower, and stir well to coat all vegetables with spice mixture. Add water, cover the pan and, simmer about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. When potatoes are tender but not completely cooked, add tomatoes and peas or green peppers.

Simmer covered 10–15 minutes longer. The vegetables should retain their bright color, and if you use sweet potatoes, they will soften and become part of the sauce, making it thicker and more interesting. Serve with condiments. Serves 4–6.


Carol Taylor lives on an old farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and is a frequent contributor to MOTHER EARTH NEWS. The recipes in this article are reprinted from New Recipes from Moosewood Restaurant © 1987 by Vegetable Kingdom, Inc. Published by Ten Speed Press. 


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