Interview with Deborah Madison

Deborah Madison

We recently sat down with Deborah Madison, winner of too many IACP, Julia Child, and James Beard awards for her vegetarian cookbooks to list. She has just added a new one: Vegetable Literacy. This book uses a unique approach, which she describes on her website: "Families are about similarities and relationships, and it's as true with plants as it is with our own human families.  Vegetable Literacy  is about twelve plant families, their names, their quirks and histories, their relationships to one another, and some 300 recipes for how to cook and use them-simply and often intuitively."

We posed three questions:

What was your first cookbook?

I wish I still had the first cookbook I owned. I've no idea what it was called, but it was not very large, it was French, and it had lots of pictures. I was probably twelve. My favorite picture was of an apricot tart, the edges of the fruit singed, and this before touch-ups with shoe polish. The food was so vivid looking it just made me want to cook. I started with crepes, which I made after school with a girlfriend, for about a year. Later I decided it was challah (not from that book, of course) and I learned under the tutelage of a neighbor. I made it every weekend for about two years. I guess I've always liked long-term projects.

What were your favorite and least favorite parts of writing Vegetable Literacy?

With Vegetable Literacy my favorite part was being in the garden with all these amazing vegetables that actually grew, for that's where much of the book came to me. I started to think differently about edible plants. (Why not eat the leaves of bolting chard, or make a soup from the radish leaves?) I was amazed at what the garden taught me; so much information just unfolded even though I'm pretty much a beginning gardener. Really, the garden taught to me to see, and the recipes and dishes were this added benefit that came right along.

My other favorite part of writing Vegetable Literacy was doing the research, reading botany books, talking to botanists and plant people, spending days in gardens and evenings with books I never thought I'd read, like The Naming of Names, The Search for Order in the World of Plants. I was still involved with food and cooking, but I also got to look behind the scenes, as it were, and it was quite a magnificent view. 

I also love the cooking and the recipe part. Timing and measuring not so much, but it has to be done. My least favorite part of writing a cookbook is being chained to the recipes, always making and remaking them when you might prefer to cook some of your old dishes or someone else's altogether

When the book is finally done there's this feeling of liberation. "What do I want to cook? Eat?"  You're suddenly free to choose and that's so uplifting. Then you can go back to your book refreshed, and cook from it and enjoy it.

Which one of your recipes do you think is most associated with you?

For a long time I think the Black Bean Chili from Greens (and The Greens Cookbook) was associated with me. It was on the menu when Greens opened and stayed there for quite a while.  Other authors put it in their cookbooks and chefs put it on their menus. More than any other recipe, it's the one that people would say, "Oh, your black bean chili!" Odd, because I'm not really a chili person. I still make it, but that was a long time ago. Now I don't think I'm associated with any particular dish. I've written too many cookbooks for that.


  • pagesinthesun  on  3/27/2013 at 8:49 PM

    I'm in love with this book! I pre-ordered and have been cooking from it from the day it arrived. I think that I love it even more since Deborah is from the desert SW, as am I. Although, my AZ is hotter! I appreciate someone who cooks with the same seasons as I do. Our seasons are so different from the rest of the country.

  • NaomiManygoats  on  3/28/2013 at 10:59 AM

    I have long loved Deborah Madison's books, starting with Greens back in the day. I was lucky enough to have a class with her out in Wimberley TX while she was pulling her hair out writing Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. She is such an amazing woman, she is my favorite cookbook author. Her new book is beautiful. When my pet goats die of old age, I hope to put in a veggie garden, her latest is so inspiring! But I remember that she was very interested in seeing local organic farms even way back!

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