Spirituality & Health Magazine

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Photo by Dave Burbank
By:
Jamie Stringfellow

40 Years of Moosewood: Memories & Recipes from the Legendary Vegetarian Restaurant

The cookbooks that fed a generation—and sparked a vegetarian revolution—got their start at the improbable restaurant that became a legend.

Moosewood Cookbook —that cozy, hand-lettered, and charmingly illustrated collection of vegetarian recipes—is one of the 10 best-selling cookbooks of all time. But more than being a publishing juggernaut, the book has changed lives. Ask just about anyone about Moosewood, from New York Times best-selling food writer Amanda Hesser to Top Chef judge Gail Simmons, and they’ll launch into rhapsodies about their favorite recipes and the book’s impact on them—and on the planet.

But before there was Moosewood Cookbook , there was Moosewood Restaurant. Founded 40 years ago this coming January, the restaurant wasn’t just the origin of the legendary cookbook, but—judging by the thousands of food pilgrims who have turned it into a shrine—has benefited from the book’s success.

So there was Moosewood: a batik-curtained, mostly (but not always) vegetarian restaurant started almost by accident in the basement of a defunct junior high school in rural upstate New York by seven friends—most of whom had no experience in the restaurant industry.

Not the likeliest of recipes for a successful restaurant launch, never mind a 40-year reign that has spawned a dozen successful cookbooks; seen the restaurant named a James Beard American Classic in 2000 and lauded for bringing vegetarian food into the mainstream; and—the ultimate sign of icon status—inspired a question in Trivial Pursuit (What Ithaca, New York, eatery did Bon Appétit magazine call one of the 13 most influential restaurants of the 20th century?).

Sure, the world by 1973 was beginning to wake up to the benefits of eating fresh and even organic produce: Alice Waters launched her revolutionary Chez Panisse in Berkeley two years before, and Frances Moore Lappé had recently published the now-classic Diet for a Small Planet . Still, in the early ’70s, most people considered vegetarianism “fringe.”

Moosewood would change that.

Over several long phone calls and a few good Moosewood meals, founder and cookbook author Mollie Katzen, along with cofounder Judy Barringer, kitchen manager David Hirsch, longtime employee Sara Robbins, and faithful customer Mary Tabacchi, a professor of nutritional science at Cornell University, recounted how a little restaurant in Ithaca, New York, would forever change the way people thought about food.

Moosewood's Judy Barringer. Photo by Dave Burbank.

MOOSEWOOD IS BORN

Mollie Katzen : They weren’t even sure what the business was going to be. Maybe antiques, maybe a restaurant. This was a biz started by a group of friends who just wanted to live an alternative lifestyle and be our own boss.

My brother enlisted me late in game. I had restaurant experience—I’d cooked my way through high school and college. Our original intent was to be a local business, run by local people, egalitarian, a place to hang out, on the neighborhood pub model. None of us was a dogmatic vegetarian. We didn’t have a mission to get people to stop eating meat. It was more about loving plant food. Healthy and delicious aren’t two separate categories.

Judy Barringer : In June 1972 we started building the restaurant. I took out library books: How to Finish Tables and How to Build Stairs . We bought our first stove from someplace in Syracuse and drove it back in my VW van. The thing was so big we couldn’t close the door the whole way.

David Hirsch : The name? There was a self-help author named Hugh Prather who had a dog named Moosewood. It sounded cute, and moose browse trees—they’re herbivores! And there’s a type of tree in the area called moosewood.

OPENING NIGHT

Mollie: It was January 3, 1973. We opened at six. The moussaka came out of the oven at eight. Moosewood moussaka—get it?

Judy: We forgot to get change for the register. I had to run up and down Seneca Street getting change.

Mollie: At one point, we looked out in the dining room and it was packed. And they weren’t just people we knew.

Judy: And it just stayed crowded.

Mary Tabacchi : I arrived for fall semester in 1972. By winter, the stores here had sort of depressing, wilted produce. Most vegetarian food then was awful. It was like you had to suffer. My students kept saying, “You have to go to Moosewood!” I’d been so depressed about food; then I saw Moosewood. It was the first place I ever had tabouli, and it was really good.

Mollie: We thought we needed to serve some meat. We had a meat entrée every night. We hated cooking it, and we were so inept at it. It was always what was

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