One of our most influential plant-based cooks was raised by a “fin-and-feather vegetarian” mother and a “pot roast-loving, botanist” father. She’s not into labels.
Over the past 30 years, Deborah Madison has become a widely celebrated authority on vegetarian cooking. Her 14 cookbooks starring vegetables—from her debut The Greens Cookbook (1987) to award-winning Local Flavors (2002) to best-selling The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone (2014)—have sold over 1.2 million copies. And they have found a place in the kitchens of cooks from every dietary stripe.
After a public declaration that she is done writing cookbooks, Madison’s newest release is the memoir An Onion in My Pocket: My Life with Vegetables (Knopf). Her personal recollections remarkably trace the transformation of American food culture, from funky-smelling hippie health food stores in the ‘70s to popularized plant-based everything, including steaks and seafood.
Madison describes herself simply as a “food person” who is apt to find a handful of seeds, amaranth leaves, or a stray onion in her pocket—the anecdote behind her book’s title. That humble description suits someone who began her food career in the “vegetarian trenches” at the San Francisco Zen Center. But it ended up being her portal to the forefront of an emerging California cuisine—first at Alice Waters’s Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse, then as the chef of San Francisco’s renowned vegetarian restaurant, Greens.
Madison grew up in California’s Central Valley, the daughter of a “fin-and-feather vegetarian” mother and a pot roast-loving botanist father. She describes herself as “a girl yanked between plenty and scarcity” due to her parents’ contrasting attitudes towards food, especially meat eating. She writes, “It’s hard with food, as it is in all realms, to find the middle.”
From her home in a small town outside of Santa Fe, Madison has advocated for organic and sustainable agriculture. Yet when it comes to cooking and eating, she rejects labels, and remains firmly planted in the middle of the road—not always the safest space. Madison’s book recounts how when Jim Hightower, the outspoken progressive author and public speaker, was the Texas Agriculture Commissioner, he told her, “…the middle of the road is where you’re likely to get hit.”
Still, she writes, “I believe that if we are paying attention to what we eat and how we eat, we can figure out what foods are right for us.”
At a moment when food choice is a hot-button issue and the question of what to eat is a significant source of polarization, her perspective on how to navigate a middle way seems particularly timely and essential.
This conversation has been condensed for length and edited for clarity.
Lynne Curry: You have long rejected the “vegetarian” label and even wanted to avoid using it in the title of your book Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. Why?
Deborah Madison: I have always seen my books as being about vegetables. If you want to put them in the middle of the plate, great, but you don’t have to.
I tried to clarify in this book that, to me, what’s really important is a deeper kind of nourishment, which has nothing to do with whether there’s meat on the plate or not. I’ve been labeled as a vegetarian and it’s not how I see myself. I like that kind of food. I gravitate towards it, but I’ve never wanted to get up on a soapbox and say, “This is the only way to eat.”
LC: Today, it seems hard to resist labels—vegan, flexitarian, omnivore. Why do you think these strict definitions do more harm than good?
DM: It’s really hard to resist because they somehow promise that you’re going to have a perfect life. But I think they’re harmful when they separate people, which they often do, because if you’re a strict anything, you won’t be able to break bread with others. I think it just throws up walls, you know?