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‘The Vegetarian Epicure’ Extolled the Joy of Vegetables

Anna Thomas’s 1972 cookbook taught us that vegetables should taste like themselves, and that vegetables are delicious

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The cover of The Vegetarian Epicure, superimposed over a background of fruit and vegetables. Lille Allen/Eater

Back in the early 1970s, I’ve been told, American vegetables came in two varieties: the canned and frozen stuff that were found at the supermarket and boiled into oblivion, and the lentils, brown rice, and tofu from the health food store that were molded into solid and tasteless imitations of other foods. (See: the scene in Laurie Colwin’s 1978 novel Happy All the Time, where diners at a restaurant called the True Life Inn sit cross-legged on the floor and eat strange-looking vegetables out of a communal pot. “Don’t ask what it is,” one character advises another. “Just chow it down. It’s great for you, man.”)

Maybe there were a few 1970s people who knew how to cook vegetables without leaching all the flavor and texture out of them. Maybe they even had access to something other than the tough, pink tomatoes and tasteless iceberg lettuce of the supermarket produce aisle. But these were the days before CSAs, Whole Foods, and farmers markets in every town and city neighborhood, so a good vegetable was hard to find unless you had access to a farm or could grow it yourself. Anyway, according to all the cookbooks, vegetables were only good for side dishes, not entire meals.

Now imagine being a vegetarian in this environment. Is it any wonder that many vegetarians at the time embraced the practice out of a sense of moral duty or religious fervor, which allowed for — and even encouraged — a sense of martyrdom at mealtime? Some were even willing to die before eating meat again: at least, one young woman in New Jersey died of malnutrition after adopting the brown rice-based macrobiotic diet.

This was the world from which Anna Thomas’s 1972 cookbook, The Vegetarian Epicure, emerged, and I approached it with a great deal of trepidation. Sure, the term “epicure” implies an embrace of sensual pleasures, and art on the front and back covers features a line drawing of a couple lying in a garden plot staring in wonder at the lettuce, carrots, and radishes that are poking out of the good earth (frankly, they a little stoned). A dove of peace flies overhead, bearing an olive branch. But to me, this all looked a bit hippie-dippie and carried the promise of lentil loaves and bean sprouts and maybe a few carob chip cookies. Perhaps also Cat Stevens and macrame.

True to stereotype, the book begins with a polemic: “Good food is a celebration of life, and it seems absurd to me that in celebrating life we should take life,” Thomas writes. “That is why I don’t eat flesh. I see no need for killing.” There are references to “gifts animals give us painlessly, such as milk and eggs.” There is a condemnation of processed food and a warning about the dangers of DDT, a pesticide outlawed in 1970. It’s just as you’d expect from the era that gave us Earth Day.

The first pleasant surprise of this book is that all of this is a decoy. Not that Thomas didn’t care about human and animal life, and not that these things aren’t important, but preaching to the already converted was not the raison d’etre of her cookbook. Perhaps this first page and a half was just to convince her readers of her mission’s sincerity. She was just 20 years old when she began assembling and testing recipes; maybe she felt she needed to start out by facing grim facts in order to be taken seriously. Whatever the case, she finally gets to her point eight paragraphs in:

“But this is a book about joy, not pollution. I hope that even if you are still in the habit of eating meat and fish, you will try some of the different ways and means of cooking suggested here. You might find yourself gradually and happily seduced.”

And, true to her promise, death and pollution are never mentioned again.

The second surprise of this cookbook is that there is no tofu or even a lentil loaf. Lentil soup and two lentil salads, yes, but no loaves. There is brown rice, but there is white rice, too; Thomas offers a gentle reminder that brown rice contains more protein and vitamins, but advises her readers to follow their personal preferences.

What there is is a lot of is butter. Also cream. And an entire chapter on cheese! It’s really a good thing that Thomas believed that cows give their milk painlessly because otherwise The Vegetarian Epicure could never have been written. The book may be devoid of meat, but it’s by no means free of earthly indulgence.

That was the genius of Anna Thomas. Many other writers and nutritionists at the time, particularly Frances Moore Lappé, author of Diet For a Small Planet, were making convincing arguments for the importance of a vegetable-based diet, which was healthier both for individual people and for the world population as a whole. Unfortunately, they didn’t provide any good recipes. The early-20th century anarchist Emma Goldman famously said that if she couldn’t dance, she wanted no part in the revolution. Similarly, what was the point of a food revolution if there was nothing worth eating?

In interviews from later in her life, Thomas would confess that she became a vegetarian not so much for political reasons, but because she simply didn’t like the taste of meat. “I wasn’t about self-denial,” she told Portland Monthly in 2016. “I wanted everything to be the best version of itself.”

She’d learned to cook as a child growing up in Detroit, and her recipe writing has the authority of someone who has spent so much time in front of the stove that the act of cooking feels almost innate. Her Polish immigrant family taught her that hospitality was a pleasant duty, not a chore; that homemade soup and bread give a kitchen a soul; and that the individual courses of a meal should be designed to form a harmonious whole. When she went off to study film at UCLA, Thomas took these principles with her. In LA, she worked in a health food store, but she found the food uninspiring. Instead, she read Mastering the Art of French Cooking and James Beard and Gourmet magazine and visited Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and Indian restaurants, where cooks had more respect for vegetables than the average American. Gradually, she stopped eating meat, but then discovered there were no decent vegetarian cookbooks, so she began cobbling together her own recipes, adapting what she’d read and tasted, along with her family’s traditional Polish dishes.

“My friends, who were also poverty-stricken students trying to make their student films would come over and we’d eat together,” she told Jonathan Kauffman in his excellent history Hippie Food: How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat. “They’d say, ‘Oh, Anna, your cooking is so good, you should really make a cookbook.’ This makes you feel like you’re a genius.” (She later realized that broke college students think everything tastes good.)

Selling a cookbook seemed like a reasonable solution to the problem of how to raise money to make a film in 16 millimeter instead of Super 8. A friend suggested she send it to the same agent who had represented Jaws. Even though the agent had never worked on a cookbook before, she agreed to take Thomas on. The manuscript landed on the desk of Judith Jones, who had edited many of Thomas’s cooking idols, including Beard and Julia Child. Jones wasn’t a hungry student, but she was still impressed. “Something clicked in me,” she told Publishers Weekly in 1996. “Vegetarian cooking seemed so drab then. Everything was brown, ersatz something or other. ​​I felt Anna had — and this is most important — a very individual voice and that she was speaking directly to her generation.”

(Most notoriously, Thomas recommended a “two-hours later course” for dinner parties at which a joint was passed beforehand “to sharpen gustatory perceptions,” because one never knows when the munchies will hit. Julia Child would never.)

Thomas got a $3,000 advance, which was enough to make her movie. And that, she thought, was the end of it.

It was not. No one had anticipated how much Americans — and not just vegetarians — truly and sincerely wanted to eat more vegetables, if only someone would show them how to make them taste good. The royalty checks began pouring in. The Vegetarian Epicure would sell nearly a million copies. Thomas used the money to travel around the world to research a sequel, which appeared in 1978, before she started making movies full-time. (She and her then-husband Gregory Nava were nominated for an Oscar for Best Screenplay for their 1983 film El Norte. Her food and film careers finally intersected in 2010 when she wrote the introduction to the critic Roger Ebert’s rice-cooker cookbook The Pot and How to Use It.)

Other young people began imitating Thomas’s style of cooking and the principle that meat was not necessary for high-quality food, notably the Moosewood Collective, which operated a vegetarian restaurant in Ithaca, New York, and would, in 1974, publish their own beloved vegetarian cookbook. “I consider [Thomas] to be the mother of Moosewood,” collective member Joan Adler told the Boston Globe in 2002. Charlie Trotter, owner of the eponymous Michelin-starred restaurant known for its vegetarian tasting menu, once informed Thomas that although he owned thousands of cookbooks, the two volumes of The Vegetarian Epicure were “the only two I can say I have cooked every single recipe from.”

And the book lasted. More than 50 years later, food writers continue to reprint the recipes as examples of great vegetarian cooking without bothering to mention that they originated in the early ’70s. It had appeal across generations: the LA Times reported that at a 1995 screening of their film Mi Familia at UCLA, Nava mentioned that Thomas was the author of The Vegetarian Epicure, and the students “ooooh”-ed in recognition (though it’s also possible that they were just impressed that the book had sold a million copies).

The idea of epicureanism has altered a bit, though, since 1972. Yes, butter and cream are actual foods and therefore an improvement over the cans of condensed soup that formed the backbone of so much of American convenience cooking at the time, but reading through the recipes, one after the other, I started to feel slightly nauseous, as though all the souffles and sauces had already congealed in my stomach. I had just bought a bundle of asparagus from the farmers market. I thought it might be nice to turn it into a tart, but did I really have to cover it with a cup and a half of bechamel sauce? Couldn’t I just nestle it on a thin layer of ricotta like a Smitten Kitchen recipe I had made recently? Finally, I decided to just pick something and cook it.

Thomas relied heavily on one recipe in particular: potato peel broth. Intended to replace chicken stock, it’s exactly what it sounds like. I was curious. While the peels and water boiled into broth, I turned the potatoes themselves in something called potatoes Gruyère en casserole that resembled gratin and was quite satisfying because there is still no better combination in the entire world than potatoes and cheese. The broth tasted earthy, like potato peels. I added a head of garlic and then used it as the base for tomato soup supreme. The tomato soup supreme not only required a large can of tomato paste, but also light cream, condensed milk, and a roux. (Also Worcestershire sauce, basil, brown sugar, lemon juice, and cognac for seasoning.) Did it need all these things? No, it did not. The spoon practically stood up by itself. The soup itself was so sweet, it was basically inedible.

But here’s the thing: the 1972 idea of epicureanism isn’t really the point of The Vegetarian Epicure. Forget the butter and cream, the souffles and the quiches and the tomato soup with too many ingredients. Even Thomas jettisoned most of that for the updated 1996 edition. What remains is how The Vegetarian Epicure taught us to cook.

Once I started thinking about it like that, I realized I’d been cooking from The Vegetarian Epicure for years, before I even heard of the book, even when I thought a vegetarian diet was all about molded seitan and Tofurkey and other poor imitations of meat. When I made that asparagus galette with ricotta cheese, when I learned how to roast broccoli with salt and olive oil, when I first made a garlic scape pesto and was dumbfounded by how good it tasted, that was all because of The Vegetarian Epicure. Not because those recipes came from the book, but because of the principles behind them did: vegetables should taste like themselves, and vegetables are delicious. That’s the mark of a true classic, that it’s seeped so far into the culture, we can’t even identify where it came from.

Aimee Levitt is a freelance writer in Chicago.