Eating Green: Becoming Vegetarian is Nothing New, or, A Short (and Somewhat Personal) History of the Evolution of the Modern Vegetarian Cookbook in America

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen
Photo credit: C. Bertelsen


A crudely lettered flyer swirled to the floor as I opened my dorm door.

“Become Vegetarian! Sign Up Today at the Dining Hall! Be Healthy!”

Courtesy of the campus action group, the invitation to be green — long before that term stood for anything but the color, in all its myriad hues and tones — got me thinking, “Maybe this would be cool.” No longer having to choose between mutton with green mint sauce and spaghetti with meatballs appealed to me.

Getting my parents to sign the permission sheet turned out to be a battle of wills, though. Yes, I needed their permission, because they, after all, paid the bills.

“Why on earth would you want to eat that rabbit food?,” Mom asked. I knew she visualized limp lettuce and raw broccoli when she thought of meatless fare. And Dad? I could tell by his voice, the sounds of the baseball game he was watching loud in my ear, soft and indifferent. “Sure, whatever you want to do,” he said.

I sent the form, they signed it, and then sent it back.

And so it came to be that I became a vegetarian, following the mantra of the vegetarian version of the Bible, Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet, first published in 1971.

I lasted two weeks. By the end, I craved meat and dreamed of food. I longed for flavor and fat. The cooks in the dining hall had no idea how to cook or serve vegetarian food, believing it to be endless hard-boiled eggs, supplemented by sprinkles of raw oatmeal and mounds of mushy beans swimming in thin sauces, always spiked with a hint of ground cumin. Or horrors, lentil loaf.

A few years later, 1973 to be exact, Ellen Buchman Ewald published Recipes for a Small Planet, which really soured things for me, still an aspiring vegetarian. Most of the recipes smelled of cattle feed, or worse, illustrating the fact that the goal of combining proteins came first and taste a sad second. With all the hoopla surrounding Lappé’s book, Ewald’s took off and crowded out other, better — much better — vegetarian cookbooks. The brick-like lentil loaf deserved to be burned at the stake. Or should I say “steak?”

But the future burned bright for vegetarianism in America.

Enter Anna Thomas, with her stupendous Vegetarian Epicure, from 1972. Finally, someone had the chops to cook food that tasted good, looked good, and was good for you, though some modern-day detractors bitch about the fat content. Thomas followed up with a second volume, also called Vegetarian Epicure, Book Two. The fabulousness of both of these books, more so in the second one, comes from an exploration of vegetarian cuisine from around the world. Taste edged out the persnickety hysteria over the right protein combinations, now thought to be unnecessary by a number of experts.

Laurel Robertson’s Laurel’s Kitchen: A Handbook for Vegetarian Cookery and Nutrition appeared in 1976, as did Julie Jordan’s Wings of Life: Vegetarian Cookery. I loved the word “cookery,” and now wonder just why the authors chose it over the more pedestrian-sounding “cooking.” Renowned chef David Leibovitz talks about making hummus from Jordan’s Ithaca restaurant, Cabbagetown Café, where he worked before heading off to Chez Panisse in Berkeley. So things, as they say, were looking up.

Along about 1979, Deborah Madison — still a big player in the vegetarian world — opened Greens in San Francisco. That restaurant muscled out many of the small, hippie-inspired macrobiotic places still serving renditions of recipes based on the pallid Recipes for a Small Planet. It took Madison several years, but in 1987 she published The Greens Cookbook: Extraordinary Vegetarian Cuisine from the Celebrated Restaurant, with the help of Edward Epse Brown, a Zen priest and author of the famous Tassajara Bread Book from 1971. Brown lived and worked at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center until the mid 1980s.

While vegetarianism still appealed to me, I gravitated to Alice Waters’s philosophy, inspired, as she was, by the covers of Elizabeth David’s book on Italian and French country cooking. Waters, as anyone in the food world now knows, went on from her Berkeley restaurant to campaign hard for a realization that big food — or industrial food — needed a bit of a shaking up. The local foods movement began as chefs and cooks took a good, hard look at the ingredients coming into their kitchens, contrasted with the freshness of foods in local, open-air markets in Europe and other places where they traveled.

Deborah Madison recently reissued her 1997 bestseller, New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, with an addition of 200 recipes. Many other cookbook authors now claim a vegetarian title among their opus, like Mark Bittman with his How to Cook Everything Vegetarian: Simple Meatless Recipes for Good Food from 2007.

Some of the earlier cookbooks, Brown’s and Robertson’s mostly, reinforced the underlying religious element to the vegetarianism of the time, less overtly a concern for the well-being of the planet and more for one’s place in the cosmos. The impact of Eastern religions cannot be discounted. That said, the hippie movement, with its back-to-the-land mentality combined with vegetarianism and an increasing awareness of the benefits to be had from wholesome fresh food, laid the groundwork for the current food movement in America.

A “save-the-planet” attitude, as well as a personal agenda based on balance, drives the vegetarian movement these days. But that movement hammers on a singular message: the land, the animals, and the people who eat need balance, harmony, and this, I hold, comes most directly from the counterculture philosophy of the 1960s. But recall the Kelloggs and Sylvester Graham of the late nineteenth century, with their ideas about health and balance and wholesomeness. And cookbooks from even earlier centuries discuss food in terms of health and humours.

“ What has been will be again,

what has been done will be done again;

there is nothing new under the sun.”

Ecclesiastes 1:9

2014 C. Bertelsen

6 thoughts on “Eating Green: Becoming Vegetarian is Nothing New, or, A Short (and Somewhat Personal) History of the Evolution of the Modern Vegetarian Cookbook in America

  1. Great post. Its interesting as you say how non-veg writers are producing vegetarian books – one of my favourite UK vegetarian cookbooks recently is by the definitely not vegetarian Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (Veg Every Day). Rose Elliot is a fascinating British vegetarian writer too, as her books have evolved over the last few decades along with the changes in attitude.

  2. Interesting post. I still make recipes from Vegetarian Epicure, too. My daughter loves the wheatberry bread. (She’s been a vegetarian since she was in third grade. She’s 23 now.)

  3. Polly, I used Julie Jordan book for years. Must look at it again. Kitty, yes, the acceptance of ethnic cuisines helped a lot! That in itself could be another signal for the provincial and limited American palate at the time.

  4. Great essay. Still making soups from my Vegetarian Epicure, inscribed “Eugene, Oregon 1973.” I learned to cook using this book.

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