Moosewood turns 40, offers fresh take on veg life
In the bearded, Birkenstocked '70s, the Moosewood Restaurant in upstate New York was more than a vegetarian eatery. It was the standard-bearer of a movement, iconic of a lifestyle, an ethic and an ideal. And like so many hippies from that era, Moosewood has grown up.
"The image was definitely crunchy granola back in the day," says Mary Margaret Chappell, food editor of Vegetarian Times magazine. "It has a much more sophisticated image than it did then. Because vegetarianism has a much more sophisticated image than it did then. You don't have to be part of a commune and eating tofu. We have former presidents who are vegans. The world has changed and Moosewood has changed with it."
Since it opened in 1973, the Ithaca, N.Y., restaurant has evolved from a group of 20-somethings cooking for friends into a mature business with a line of cookbooks and an international clientele. The group's 40th anniversary cookbook, "Moosewood Restaurant Favorites" (St. Martin's Press, 2013), showcases a more sophisticated cuisine that is lighter, more diverse, and attuned to concerns about gluten, dairy and potential allergens.
Quite simply, today's Moosewood is not the vegetarian menu of four decades ago. Recipes for dukkah-crusted fish and Turkish borekas extend the restaurant's reputation for introducing international concepts and lighten the load on the obligatory tofu recipes; brown rice has been joined by trendy grains such as quinoa.
"The perception of Moosewood then and as it remains is authentic, honest food," says Wynnie Stein, co-owner of Moosewood Restaurant. "We've never changed that aspect of who we are. We're not interested in tiny little portions or overdecorated plates. That's not who we are. We serve generous portions of very satisfying delicious food."
The original "Moosewood Cookbook," published in 1977, was the point of entry for many of today's older vegetarians (though not all of the restaurant's dishes were vegetarian). Penned by cookbook author Mollie Katzen, a member of the restaurant's founding group, it had hand-lettered pages and whimsical illustrations. It was the book that introduced a generation of college students to meat-free cooking. And to cooking in general.
"The first recipe I ever cooked was from Moosewood," says Dana Cowin, editor-in-chief of Food & Wine magazine, who was a college student in the early 1980s. "It was all part of a scene. And it really introduced cooking to so many people who were young and had never cooked and that lifestyle really spoke to them."
Though Katzen has been gone from Moosewood for more than 30 years, she may still be its best-known voice. The cover of her new cookbook, "The Heart of the Plate" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), proudly touts her as "author of 'Moosewood Cookbook.'"
Which only speaks to the strength of the brand. Moosewood has survived an onslaught of gluten-free upstarts and celebrity vegans to emerge as a quiet stalwart of the movement it helped launch. That credibility, according to many food world observers, provides the foundation of its past -- and future -- success.
"As more people are trying to eat more and more vegetables, and reducing the amount of meat, some of the old school veg heads have found a new audience that finds their approach credible," says Joe Yonan, Washington Post food editor and author of "Eat Your Vegetables" (Ten Speed Press, 2013).
"Because it's not based in any fashion. It's just an honest approach to cooking that comes from a pretty rich background and lot of years in the kitchen," he says. "It's not a gluten-free cake pops in the slow cooker."