Anna Thomas wrote her
first cookbook, The Vegetarian Epicure, while she was a film
student at UCLA, and followed it a few years later with The Vegetarian Epicure, Book Two. When she is
not cooking, she writes screenplays and produces films. Her screen
credits include My Family, Mi Familia and El Norte, both of which
were nominated for an Academy Award. She lives in Los Angeles and
Ojai, California. Anna has just released another cookbook, Vegan Vegetarian
Omnivore, which explores the difficulties
you can encounter when preparing a sit-down dinner for people with
different dietary concerns. (Enter our
contest for your chance to win a copy of
the book, and visit the World Calendar of Cookbook
Events for details on Anna's book
tour.) We asked Anna to elaborate on the premise
behind her new cookbook:
Years ago, I became an upstart in the food scene by writing
The Vegetarian Epicure while I was still a film student at
UCLA. Since then I've cooked a lot, entertained often, and
written several more books. (Good grief - now I'm the
O.G.) And yes, I believe that what I put on the table is
important. But there is one thing more important:
Who is at the table?
Gathering my friends around the table has always been one of the
joys of my life -- but I don't invite people over because they eat
the same way I do, and I'm willing to bet you don't either.
We invite folks because we love them, or want to know them better,
or they tell the best jokes! Or maybe simply because we're
So, can we all sit down and have dinner together?
The way we eat has been changing, and I've heard the laments
from people who are afraid to entertain because this one will only
eat that, and the other one won't eat this… We need to
find a way with food, I thought, that allows us to relax and be
flexible. To just have a good time.
But here's the thing -- our traditional food culture has a
default setting: meat in the middle, grains and vegetables on
the side. Those familiar meals could be adapted, of course,
but we'd immediately be taking something away, substituting
-compromising. Of course, we could prepare two separate meals,
but what a hassle! And let's face it, then there would be an
A meal and a B meal, and who wants to be eating the B
We're doing this backwards, I thought. Why not start with
the food everyone eats?
Everyone eats the watermelon at the picnic. It's not the
vegan watermelon, it's just the watermelon. Everyone eats the
minestrone, the salad, the focaccia. Everyone eats my roasted
potato wedges withmojo verde. And they line up for the guacamole
and fresh salsa I serve with tequila cocktails.
It seemed so simple. Start with the foods everyone eats,
create a dish or a meal that works, then add and elaborate.
Expand the meal with cheese, fish, or meat… make it flexible.
Make one meal, but one that can be enjoyed in variations. It
became my holy grail: to design meals at which we could sit
down together, toast each other, and eat happily in my peaceable
kingdom. From that came my new book, Vegan Vegetarian
I made a savory chile verde with fat white beans, and
added chicken to half of it. I made Lebanese-style stuffed
peppers filled with aromatic rice and lentils, but added spiced
lamb to half the stuffing. I made meals built around hearty
pilafs of farro and black rice, surrounded by roasted vegetables -
and slices of pork for the omnivores. My easy fish soup became a
dinner party favorite. It begins as a robust vegetable soup
and the fish and shellfish are added at the last minute, so it can
easily be served in two versions.
One spring weekend, after my weekly visit to the Ojai farmers'
market, I made a lemon-perfumed risotto with sautéed fresh fava
beans. I offered large shavings of Parmigiano, and passed a
platter of sautéed shrimp for those who wanted it. With a
salad of the first tender lettuces, and a bowl of strawberries for
dessert, it was a perfect springtime meal. Is it a dinner
party? Start with Carrot Top Pesto, served with roasted young
carrots, crostini, and tangy goat cheese. For dessert, make a
compote of strawberries and tangerines in agave nectar.
And invite everyone you like, call them to the table without
We long for that social table, it is a place of sharing, of
stories and jokes, old friendships and new ones, a place where we
can become our best selves. Let's not give it up just because
we don't all eat the same way!