Deborah Madison has been called the Julia Child of vegetarian cooking (Lynne Rosetto Kasper), a "wizard with fresh produce" (New York Times), and "one of very few people responsible for reinventing and furthering the cause of American home cooking" (Mark Bittman, author of How to Cook Everything). In 1979, she opened Greens, a vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco that was a joint venture with the San Francisco Zen Center — a legendary eating experience and one of the first major vegetarian restaurants in America. In 1987, she published her first book, The Greens Cookbook; it was the beginning of a revolution in vegetarian cooking. Over the last 20 years, she's published five more cookbooks, which have won three James Beard awards and twice been named the Julia Child Cookbook of the Year by the IACP.
What's her secret? Details that have now become standards of gourmet cooking: a focus on seasonal, fresh ingredients grown as locally as possible; a focus on classical simplicity; and, perhaps most importantly, a willingness to take vegetables on their own terms. Consequently, her recipes have garnered devoted fans among herbivores and omnivores alike. Molly Katzen describes Madison as "an intuitive, intelligent, and passionate cook who presents her broad knowledge in a lovely, lyrical writing style," and Alice Waters praises her "refined taste and style and consistently critical and good palate." This fall, the tenth anniversary edition of the bestselling Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone has just been released, along with the paperback edition of Vegetarian Suppers from Deborah Madison's Kitchen; if you haven't yet had the pleasure of trying Madison's cuisine, these are both excellent ways to begin.
Jill Owens: In an interview with Judith Jones that we recently published, she said that no recipe is simply a formula, that every recipe has its own story. Do you have a favorite story behind one of your recipes?
Deborah Madison: That's a hard one, because I'm sure that they all do in one way or another, but I can tell you a recipe that produced a story.
At Greens, I used to make a lentil salad. I probably got the idea for the salad from working at Chez Panisse, or maybe I just made it up. We used to do the salad with these little le puy lentils — they were brand new to America then — and roasted peppers and goat cheese. There's kind of an association between lentils and vegetarian food that is stodgy, but these were really bright because of all the other flavors and textures. After a San Francisco lawyer had this salad, he came into the kitchen and said, "You've done for lentils what Kennedy did for the presidency." [Laughter] I always have to smile to myself when I make that salad, because I felt that was an incredibly high compliment.
In trying to create recipes that aren't using fish and fowl and meat, I look to traditional recipes for inspiration, including tasting them made the way they should be made. Then if I have to withdraw a major ingredient, like fish, I know it's not going to taste the same, but I'm thinking of the elements that remain.
One of my favorite recipes which would be perfect for today, in this cold wet weather, is a stew with potatoes and roasted peppers and tomatoes. It's based on a Spanish recipe, and it probably would have had salt cod in it, and chickpeas. I couldn't use the salt cod in a vegetarian dish, but I could certainly look at the rest of the elements in the dish and see that they were very good. I was very fond of this way of thickening Spanish stews with a mixture of fried bread crumbs and garlic and thyme, called piccata, which, if your stew is very thin, it absorbs the stew, and if not, it makes it kind of crunchy. And then romesco sauce. So I was tasting and thinking of elements that were around this dish but not necessarily at the center of it.
I do have lots of recipes with personal stories and family stories that I've used over time, but mostly in trying to come up with dishes I've had to look at cultures and what I've tasted when I'm travelling, and then fill in the hole that that big protein leaves. But that's been fun, and challenging to do.
Jill: You're not a vegetarian, as you mention in a few of the introductions to your books. Did you feel like a niche needed to be filled when you began writing vegetarian cookbooks?
Madison: I was a vegetarian for years and years, about twenty years. I did start Greens restaurant; I've cooked all this food. This is what I know. So that came out of my life at the time in particular. Partly, I've always said, "I'm not a vegetarian," not because of eating meat or not eating meat, but I'm not out to be on a vegetarian soapbox. I think vegetarian food can be really good, and very healthy and delicious. But I've found that if that's the hat that I'm wearing, the questions I get tend to be, "Do you get enough protein?" [Laughter]
Jill: Or, do you get enough iron?
Madison: Right! Which I didn't really want to talk about my whole life. It hasn't been my driving interest. My interest has always been in food and diversity, how things are growing and where they come from, the culture of ingredients and particularly plant foods. I'm more interested in that than promoting vegetarianism.
Also, I feel sometimes that the word "vegetarian" kind of closes the door for people. For example — this was so crazy — I had this man come up to me in Minneapolis once, and he said, "I just saw you on morning TV. Your food looks really great, but unfortunately I'm not a vegetarian." [Laughter] I said, "Does that mean you don't eat any vegetables?" He said, "Well, yes, I guess I do." I told him, "This is for everybody."
I'm not talking about precluding meat unless you want to. It's not for me to say. So I'm trying to sidestep the word "vegetarian" and open the door to produce and to plant foods for everybody to feel free to dive into, because we all need to do that whether we eat meat or not.
Jill: Hence the title Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.
Madison: Ironically, it's the "For Everyone" that gets lost. People say, "I've got your big book. What is it? Vegetarian Bible?" No. "Vegetarian Joy of Cooking?" Uh-uh. "Vegetarian Cooking for Everybody"? That's close enough. [Laughter]
I think it's actually reached an audience outside of a vegetarian audience: people who simply want to learn to cook better-tasting vegetables and include them in their lives on a regular basis. That's what I was hoping it would do.
Jill: What's changed about the concept of vegetarian food between the time the first edition came out and the tenth anniversary edition now?
Madison: I think it's much freer now than it was then. People used to be so nervous about having a vegetarian meal or serving one or going to a vegetarian restaurant; they'd be afraid that it would be kind of a wasted experience. I don't think that's true now. Lots of restaurants have come up with something good to eat that's not based on meat, and I think people feel very comfortable ordering those foods without confusing it with a lifestyle decision.
Just because you ordered the vegetarian entree doesn't mean you've chosen a lifestyle. Or maybe it does, but it doesn't have to. I always like to think of a situation where everyone can eat at the table, and I think that that has happened, at least certainly more now.
From the time I'd started Greens, which was before this book, till now, we know we can cook much more simply in the vegetarian realm, and that's good. I felt like I had to make up for the lack of meat when I was cooking for a nonvegetarian restaurant, so my food started out as very rich and complex. Now it's more simple. But now what's different, also, is that we have 4,000 more farmers' markets in this country. That makes a huge difference. Ten years ago, it was getting underway, but it's nothing like it is now. We have much more produce available, much more variety, and the fact that it can be more local and seasonal, that it's growing where you live, means it has far more flavor. There's much more awareness of that now. I think any of these recipes made with the produce we have today would probably taste better than it did ten years ago.
Jill: You've been at the forefront of the sustainable, local, organic food movement throughout your career. I'm curious what the farmers you work with say has changed over time.
Madison: Well, we do have farmers who are now able to make a living, which wasn't always true; it's really still a struggle in lots of communities. It is where I live. I always joke that Los Alamos National Laboratories supports the farming community in ways it can't imagine, because a lot of people who have been farming work at the lab, or have worked at the lab, in New Mexico. I mean, you have to make a living. But now, farmers have gotten better. They've learned to extend their seasons. I see some pretty robust farmers.
Other issues come up, too; it depends on where you're talking about. I live in a desert that's going through a period of ultra-dryness, so water is at a premium. It's not like Portland, where there's all this luxurious rain. So having farmland that comes with water rights, and keeping those water rights, is always a struggle. It's not easy to do. But certainly there are more farmers than there were, small farms serving local communities.
Jill: The number of small farms in Oregon has skyrocketed over the past ten years.
Madison: I'll bet it has. It has come up all over the country, so that would certainly show that there's demand. And now I know that there are lots of institutions, like universities, hospitals, and cafeterias for companies, where there's a real demand for organic food, and sometimes local as well.
The real question I think we're going to start to see, and probably have seen already in some places, is can they grow enough? Can there be enough eggs, lettuce, whatever it is, to have local and seasonal salad bars at a school? The demand is there; now the question will be can it be fulfilled? Outside of big organics, which to me don't count.
Jill: It seems to me that vegetarians or people that eat a lot of vegetarian food almost have to learn to cook, or they'll get very bored very quickly.
Madison: They get really tired of steamed vegetables.
Jill: Or Asian takeout. But does it seem to you as though more people these days are trying to cook well at home in general? Among my friends, at least, it seems that almost everyone at least dabbles in cooking, or has a partner who does. That didn't so much seem the case for my parents' generation.
Madison: That's great to hear. I'd like to interview you about that. [Laughter] I'm very interested in that. I have met a lot of young people who go off to college and they're cooking! They're asking for pots and pans and cookbooks. They learned, I think, because their parents are somewhat involved; they go to the farmers' market as kids, and this starts to be part of their experience.
That's one of those questions where on the one hand it's getting better and on the other hand it's getting worse. I think it's moving in two directions at once. There are pockets of people who tend to inform themselves about their own health and taking care of themselves and connecting to what they eat and how they nourish themselves. They're going to be interested in learning to cook because it's pretty clear that the other options aren't particularly beneficial or affordable.
I think you're right; if you are cooking vegetarian food, unless you're prepared to be super-bored and happy about it, you are going to be pushed a little bit to learn; you're going to become curious. A lot of people have told me, with regards to Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, "I didn't know before I had that book that there were so many things you could do with vegetables besides steam them."
When was the last time I just steamed a vegetable? I can't even remember. And if I did, it would have some interesting oil or dressing or something on top, or seasoning or herbs and spices. But for a lot of people, that's where they begin — they think that the healthy thing to do to vegetables is steam them or boil them, and there's a price.
Although certainly they've encountered vegetables in restaurants, too. Wherever you have a town that has good Indian restaurants, or all kinds of restaurants where they put some attention into the vegetables... like Nostrana, here in Portland. I've had the pleasure of eating there, and they have a number of little vegetable dishes where it's like, "Ooh! Artichokes with Pinot or little sweet and sour agridulce onions." It's not necessarily complicated to make, but it suggests some other ways of combining flavors and using your raw materials that goes beyond steam.
Jill: I had Thanksgiving last week with 25 or so friends, and everyone brought side dishes. Probably 85% of the food there was vegetarian. We had the turkey, of course, but then we had everything else as well.
Madison: Thanksgiving is a great meal for vegetarians. I always get a million calls from people asking, "What should we serve that's vegetarian?" I say, "Don't worry about it. Have all the side dishes, and forget the turkey. Have all your favorite traditional dishes; this is a time for that." When that plate is all filled up, the turkey's just a little part of it. There are all these other things to eat. Of course, you could make a constructed menu. But personally I think people love the side dishes at Thanksgiving, so why not just have them?
Jill: I made the Dried Porcini Mushroom Tart from Vegetarian Suppers, which went over well.
Madison: Oh, good! I'm glad.
Jill: How did you come to start writing cookbooks, making that transition from cook to writer?
Madison: I'd been cooking for about 20 years, including the years of cooking at Greens. I kept thinking, I think I could write a cookbook; I've actually done quite a bit. I was living in Italy, and I came up with this book I wanted to do, which was approaching food through all the senses, like color, smell, hearing, touch — which somebody has actually done, recently. I was sketching out recipes, and I got a call from the States from this man I knew, and he said, "Bantam Books is thinking of doing a cookbook line, and they'd like to start with a Greens cookbook. Would you be interested in it?" I said, "Yes!" So I came back from Italy and I did that book.
As I did it, I realized, "Gee, this could be fun. I'd like to be free of the constraints of the Greens Cookbook." I started realizing, Wait a minute. Here's this recipe I love to make, but it wasn't a restaurant one, and so I started setting some things aside, and making another book, and that led to the second book, and so on and so forth.
With a book like Suppers, for years I felt the hardest question for anybody but the most hardcore vegetarian to answer is, What's for supper? Because usually that's answered by, Let's have chicken. Let's have a steak. Let's have a hamburger. But you can't do that in a vegetarian way — you can't say, Oh, broccoli! Even though you might have those things in your dinner, you may be thinking, Let's have polenta with some vegetables on top, or let's have a vegetable stew. It's the name of a dish, not the name of one ingredient. Even for me, because I don't cook vegetarian all the time, if you stray too far, it gets hard to answer that question. I know that's hard for people. I wanted to put together a collection of supper, or dinner, main dishes.
Jill: And some of the dishes in that book are somewhat easier, if you've been working all day and you're coming home to cook, somewhat simpler to throw on the stove.
Madison: Some are, and then some are a little more complicated and involved.
Jill: The mushroom tart, actually, is a bit involved.
Madison: Sure. And that's an expensive dish, too. It's a party dish, for something really special. You chose a good time to make it.
Jill: You have all those wonderful easy dishes like eggs and smoky potatoes, and the gratins...
Madison: My favorite in this book are the supper sandwiches. You sauté vegetables or you braise vegetables and you get a little bit of juice and you toast a really good piece of bread — everyone has access to good bread now; they didn't necessarily ten years ago — rub it with garlic, pile that broccoli rabe on top, or kale, or whatever it is, maybe shave on some nice parmigiano. I think that makes a perfectly reasonable dinner.
Jill: It's healthy, it's filling, it's comforting...
Madison: And it's not a taxing thing to make. It's just enough time, smelling food and handling it and cooking it to be satisfying.
Each book I've done has kind of suggested itself in this way. With Local Flavors, I ran my farmers' market. Of course, I'm terribly interested in where food comes from, from farmers' markets and farms and all that. Greens started with a relationship to a farm, and so for years, I wanted to do a farmers' market cookbook. But I didn't want to do just my own farmers' market, I wanted to do a portrait of the United States through farmers' markets. I had that idea working, and it took a long time to visit all those markets. It was great fun.
Jill: Several critics and readers have remarked on what a pleasure your prose is to read, as well as the recipes themselves. Is that a part of the process you enjoy?
Madison: I love the writing. In fact, in Local Flavors I tell a lot of stories, and that's the part that I was relating to more than the recipes. I think my publisher was relating to the recipes. I still meet people who say, "Oh, I never read your little stories." And I always say [disappointed] "Oh, really?" [Laughter]
But yes, I love to write, and I'm actually working on a book right now that isn't recipe driven. It will have some, but that's not most of the book.
I just did think of a recipe story! My quinoa chowder, in Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone...
Jill: I've made that. It's really good.
Madison: Have you? Isn't it good? It's one of my favorite recipes. I read a version of that recipe in a Peruvian cookbook. I could not understand it. I thought, That sounds horrible! Chopped egg on top of quinoa in broth... I couldn't figure it out. It made me want to make it. Sometimes it's fun to do something that you just can't imagine how it will be. So I made it, and it was so delicious. I can't remember if it was a vegetarian recipe; I'm pretty sure it wasn't. I think there was meat or chicken in it, or in the broth. So I fiddled with it, and, for example, it turns out that the quinoa water has tons of flavor. By the time you add the cumin and this and that and put it together — oh my gosh, it just became one of my favorite recipes.
So guess what? There are the elements of it in the stuffed pepper recipe in Suppers. It's quinoa, it's spinach, it's cumin, chile, and a little bit of sharp feta cheese. It's the same flavor elements, and I thought, just because it's in a chowder form doesn't mean you can't take that and put it in another form, where you lose some of the liquid but add some moisture with something else so it doesn't dry out. You put it in a pepper, and the peppers are in there anyway. That was starting with something that was incomprehensible, that didn't make sense, to Boy, is that really good, and what other ways can I use those flavors? Cooking is really fluid, and that's what I like about it, the way you can move things around.
Jill: I like that fluidity in your books. In Suppers in particular, but even in Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, you offer a ton of variations; you say, you could do this, or add this instead, if that's what you have on hand.
Madison: Actually, that's a big problem for me. Maybe it's because I'm a double Gemini, but I look at anything and I always see a hundred possibilities. You could do this or you could add that, you could make it wetter or drier, you could turn it around... I could do that easily. I have to force myself to only pick two alternatives. Don't give twelve!, I tell myself.
Then again someone will often say, "I love that you have all these suggestions," because in fact, being that this is vegetarian, these aren't necessarily classical recipes that you really want to respect. I like classical things, including foods, and I don't want to mess with something that's been worked out and proven over time. But since I'm kind of messing with it anyway to come up with vegetarian main dishes, I'm free to do a lot of things like make suggestions.
Jill: You have that flexibility, but one thing that I really appreciated about Cooking for Everyone, which I was using when I was just beginning to cook, is that it's also incredibly specific in some of its instructions. What size garlic clove or onion you're assuming, for example.
Madison: The reason for that is that I was a cooking teacher for a long time. Also, my staff at Greens were not necessarily in the kitchen because they wanted to be. They were assigned to me, and they didn't necessarily know how to cook. So I had to be very specific with everybody, and say, "This should be a half-inch wide," and really show them what that was. I had to help them to make the dishes work, because we were all figuring it out together, basically, so I can't help but do that. I know if I wander into a culinary territory that I'm not familiar with, I can easily feel lost if someone hasn't given me that kind of instruction.
There's another side to that that's kind of interesting. Sometimes I'll have one of my dishes that someone else has made, and they've been totally heedless of my recommendations, and for example, instead of doing everything in fine dice, they've just made big bold chunky pieces of things. I look at the dish, and I don't recognize it at all, and then I taste it, and I do recognize it. Then I think, What a great idea, to have cut everything in these great big chunks! It's a totally different dish, because of the way your idea relates to it. I, like anybody, get into my own habits and grooves; I tend to cut things small because I just do, for whatever reason. So it's good to be jolted by other people into some other possibilities.
Jill: The wine pairings in Vegetarian Suppers are a nice touch. Is that something that comes up a lot, that people aren't sure how to choose wines for dishes without meat?
Madison: It does, because I think vegetables present their own challenges. They can tend to be really sweet; there's a lot of sugar in peppers and squashes and onions and cabbage and so forth that can be a little challenging for wine. Or grassiness in certain vegetables. I think it can be challenging if you're into wine, if you want to make a good pairing. But if you're opening a bottle of wine and just say, hey, whatever, it's going to be fine, too. [Laughter]
I had help with this, because where I live in Galisteo, New Mexico, my neighbor is a real wine expert, though not a vegetarian. But I asked him advice. We tried a lot of wines together. He was very good about saying things like, "For this, you want a fruit-forward wine, or you want a more earthy, French-style wine, or you definitely want acidity." His wine vocabulary is much better trained than mine, and he was able to really make some nice pairings.
Like that mushroom tart. I brought it over to his house one night; I'd made it in the summer with some fresh porcini from the mountains. I went over, and he had opened a bottle of Bandol rosé — he was already drinking it with something else — and he said, "That's perfect for this tart," and it was. Not only Bandol but other rosés would be really nice too. Now, at this time of year, you could probably have a lovely Oregon Pinot with it, and be just as happy if not happier, because it's a little more chilly right now.
I think wine notes can be really helpful. Wine with vegetables isn't quite like falling off a log for most people. And wine is so good. It's such a good and important thing in our lives, and I would hate to just leave it out.
Jill: Or stick with the same one or two for vegetable dishes all the time.
Madison: Yes. Most people will say, "With vegetables, you can have Sauvignon Blanc." Well, that's true, you can, but you can have other things, too.
One of my favorite pairings in Vegetarian Suppers is a fried egg sandwich with a glass of champagne. I love that. My neighbor and I came up with that together. I said, "Gee, I'd just love a glass of champagne with that," and he said, "You're right. The scrape of the bubbles against the richness of the egg would be really nice." Here you have something that is utterly home food, a fried egg sandwich, with something that's always kind of special, an effervescent wine, and it's magic. It's also a little bit goofy; it's kind of fun.
Jill: What sort of food did your parents cook when you were growing up?
Madison: It was pretty pedestrian on a day-to-day basis — fish sticks, iceberg lettuce, Wish-Bone dressing, maybe some vegetables — nothing very special. My parents did like to entertain; they started doing that a little before the Time Life "Books of the World" came out, and they were academics. There were a lot of curry parties, and fondue parties, and Provencal parties, like a lot of their friends were doing.
My dad is a Midwesterner, and when my mother would go away to visit her family, which was usually in August — I grew up in the central valley in California, so it was like 110 degrees outside — my dad would cook roast beef, and chicken and dumplings, and pie. He'd cook all these hearty, meaty dishes. [Laughter] He was a good gardener, too, so in the summer we had lots of melon and all kinds of fruits and vegetables.
But food wasn't emphasized too much in our house. It felt more like an afterthought. Of course, I understand the reason: My mom was really busy, and there were four of us children. She was trying to do her own work, and my dad was doing his. You have to make it a priority to care about food, if you're going to eat well. It doesn't matter if it's simple or complex or cheap or expensive, but it has to be in your mind: What are we going to do tonight? You think about it a little bit, and maybe you start it earlier in the day.
Anyway, I wouldn't say that I was inspired to cook because of the food that I grew up on.
Jill: Like your dad, you garden now. What's in your garden?
Madison: Right now, snow! I've been such a fierce farmers' market supporter that I've resisted having my own garden. But now I live 25 miles from town, so I thought, I'm going to try this and see what it's about. I want to learn. This summer I grew leeks, chard, potatoes, beets, peas, some different kinds of pole beans. Some things didn't work out like onions, carrots — really basic vegetables, like zucchini — and a wonderful heirloom winter squash, which unfortunately was attacked by squash bugs, but it looked so fabulous in the garden that I only last week threw it in the compost. But other things worked, other squashes, tomatoes, and lots of lettuce. Herbs, of course; I always have an herb garden.
I have very heavy, dense clay soil. I mean, I live next door to clay mines. And this was the first year of doing a big vegetable garden, so it was really hard. I'm hoping that next year will be a little bit better. You have rain and soil here in Portland, so you're ahead of the game. We have dry, windy weather and clay. It's really discouraging. But I have to grow something — and I still spend tons of money at the farmers' market, so it doesn't really matter how much or how little.
Jill: Who are some of your favorite chefs working today?
Madison: I feel a little out of the loop, partly because I don't travel quite as much as I used to. I always eat at Chez Panisse when I go to Berkeley, and I always enjoy what I eat. That's the standard. It's a lifelong habit that I have, and now I have nieces to take with me when I go, which is really fun. I haven't been to Portland that many times, but I think you have really good food here. Like I said, I love Nostrana, and Higgins. I've loved some of the farmers I've met here. I think Anthony Boutard is just fantastic; his food ends up in the restaurants that I've been to.
I don't like being overwhelmed by the chef when I go to a restaurant. I don't want to be his game for five hours and have all these tiny little things trotted out. I can't bear that. It's too much. I really like a meal that has some rhythm to it. You start with a little something, and then you have something bigger, and then you have something like a salad — a really classical meal that's about honest food and good quality food, where the food is really speaking for itself. I love classical dishes, whether they're French or Italian or from elsewhere, but I like riffs on them, too. I love Rick Bayless's food, at Topolobampo and Frontera Grill. He's excellent. I'm sure there must be more I'm not thinking of, too.
Jill: Are there other cuisines that you don't know as much about that you'd like to learn?
Madison: There are a lot of cuisines I don't know much about, but I'm not sure I want or need to learn them. I'm thinking about and working on other things than cooking lately. It would be great to know how to cook any Asian food, like Japanese food, which I love, or great Chinese food, one of the Chinese cuisines — but you know, I know myself now, and I'm just not going to learn that. I'm not going to get around to it, and I'm really happy to find a good example of somebody else doing it. It's like learning a language. To really learn it and understand it, you need to immerse yourself in it. I sort of know that's not in the cards.
From living and eating in Italy, Italian foods, and foods from different parts of Mexico, where I've travelled — those are flavors I love and I like, and have a certain kind of familiarity with... I think at a certain point you find the way you like to eat, that your body likes to eat, and there's a certain comfort in the ease of cooking the kinds of foods you cook every day. It's where I'm at now, I think, in my life. I don't feel a huge compelling need to go out and try to master new things. I do like changes, and I do like challenges — I just got this amazing book on Syrian-Jewish cooking. There are some really interesting-looking dishes in there that I would like to try. I love eastern Mediterranean food; I love those flavors. If I were going to spend time going into something more deeply, I think it would be food from that part of the world, and then up into Italy.
Jill: I've always appreciated your interest in Southern cooking, making Southeastern American recipes vegetarian, which can be quite difficult.
Madison: My husband's from Arkansas, so I've been motivated. It's hard; it's hard to get those flavors because pork is such an important element in Southern cooking. I've learned there are things you can do with brown butter and sesame oil, not to replicate the taste of pork but to give a kind of meatiness, a background flavor, to the greens or the vegetables or the black-eyed peas. But I would never pass it off as authentically Southern. It's more like, "How do you cook those vegetables and find ways to give them the strength that Southern food has?"
Jill: What are you reading these days that's not related to cooking or food?
Madison: I just read The History of Love; I finished it on the plane today. I also recently read The World without Us, by Alan Weisman, which was a fascinating, fascinating book. I got a little depressed at the end of it.
Those are the two most recent books I've read, but I also read the New Yorker, which is a fairly constant endeavor.
Jill: And you mentioned a new book project earlier that you're working on?
Madison: It's called What We Eat When We Eat Alone. I'm doing it with my husband; it actually started out as an idea he had. We were going on all these trips to Europe awhile ago with Oldways Preservation Trust, along with lots of chefs and food writers. We were going to taste and experience foodstuffs, and my husband's an artist, not a food person, so he was not particularly captivated by that. So he started interviewing people, asking them "What do you eat when you eat alone?" This was ten years ago, and I kept saying, "You should write that book; you really had some interesting answers." We were up here a couple of years ago, and I laid into him again, because he was complaining, and I said, "Why don't you write that book? Or at least do the drawings for it." So he said he would, and while I was interviewing somebody, he went off and did a bunch of drawings, and when I saw them, I said, "These are great. I guess I'd better start writing."
So that's the book we're doing together. And it's fun, because it's amazing what people say. It's like unlocking the underbelly. It doesn't matter what we know about food, what we know about nutrition, or what we should eat or shouldn't eat — any of that. It all goes out the window. Except for breakfast. Everybody says they have oatmeal with skim milk. Everybody claims that. But when you get to the other meals, it's really fun.
I spoke with Deborah Madison in the library of the Heathman Hotel on the cold, blustery afternoon of November 28, 2007.
Books mentioned in this post