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.

| May/June 1990

  • Moosewood food
    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.

  • Moosewood food

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.


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