Mollie Katzen is a chef, cookbook author and artist, and she is widely considered to be the world’s foremost expert on vegetarian cuisine. She has written (and illustrated) 11 (and soon to be 12) cookbooks, including the iconic “Moosewood Cookbook” (1977), “The Enchanted Broccoli Forest” (1982) and the upcoming “The Heart of the Plate: Vegetarian Recipes for a New Generation (2013).
Katzen, one of my personal food-writing heroes, and I are sitting in the sunshine at San Francisco’s Ferry Building and she is telling me about the time when, while dining at a nice restaurant, she put a freshly seared scallop in her purse.
“I just couldn’t bring myself to eat it! But I didn’t want to insult the chef — it had been brought to the table as an amuse bouche (a gift from the chef) — so I wrapped it in my napkin and brought it home. I still get teased about it.”
The issue, of course wasn’t that the scallop wasn’t fresh or beautifully prepared or otherwise unlikely to be delicious. It was that it was shellfish, and there had been no shellfish in the Katzen’s kosher-style household while she was growing up. “It wasn’t that I thought it was inherently wrong,” she says. “It just felt too weird to eat it.”
From an early age, food and Jewish culture and tradition were woven together intrinsically for Katzen. Her childhood experiences with food have contributed greatly to her chosen life path as a cookbook author. Her earliest food memory is of Shabbat dinner at what she describes as her observant family’s home in upstate Rochester.
Things were hectic during the school week when Katzen was growing up. With four kids (and four different Hebrew schools, homework and music lesson schedules), Katzen’s mother was busy and stressed Monday through Friday. Weeknight dinners were rushed affairs of Minute Rice and convenience foods. Her father worked long hours, and would often have to leave the house to go back to work after dinner. It was rare that all seven members of the Katzen family sat down together during the week.
But Friday nights were different.
The transformation would begin on Friday afternoon, when Katzen’s mother would mix fresh challah dough from scratch with Mollie’s grandmother, who lived just a few blocks away. Even as a very young child, Katzen was allowed to help the two women. As the multi-generational challah-making session progressed, her wonderment was palpable. “There was something so amazing to me about the fact that it was real bread dough transforming into real bread.”
After they kneaded and braided and egg-washed and baked, Katzen’s mother went about working on the rest of the meal and making the house ready for Shabbos.
She’d make juicy roast beef, and good, warm smells filled the house. She’d cover the dining room table (as opposed to the kitchen table where the family usually ate) with a white tablecloth and set out Shabbat candlesticks. Friday evening would be different from the rest of the week. “Once a week,” Katzen explained, “we would have magic.”
The whole family would eat together, which was a magic trick in and of itself. There would be no going back to work after this meal. No homework, no Hebrew school. It would be a multi-course, extended meal with singing and prayer and laughter and joy and it all felt deeply meaningful and special. This was about relaxation, delicious food and family togetherness.
Though Jewish culture permeated her family life, Katzen didn’t relate to Shabbat dinner as being a specifically Jewish event. As her mother lit the Shabbos candles, and her father, who sung with a beautiful vibrato, led the family in Shalom Aleichem and the Shabbat evening prayers, she felt moved by the sheer mysticism of it all. “In my child mind, it felt like an incantation of sorcery. I had no idea it was even a language — I wasn’t thinking about it that way. I found myself surprised what deep the meaning I felt within all that beautiful sound.”
And it was about food. Beautiful, homemade, special food. And not only was the food to be eaten, there were prayers to be said exclusively about the food!
“My earliest connection to God was saying thank you for food. I thought of God as a farmer, bringing food from the earth. I imagined Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic’ painting — ‘That’s God!’ I thought. It was perhaps my first Talmudic moment. I thought, ‘But wait! If God brings food form the earth, what is Mom doing with challah? Let’s discuss!’”
And discuss she has. Katzen has made a vibrant career of sharing her carefully tested, beautifully illustrated and thoughtfully described recipes. She’s driven by her desire to connect people with healthful and lovingly prepared food. For her, the magical space her family entered into together on Friday nights is the whole point.
“It made a huge impression,” she said. “I never lapsed from the sense that food is sacred.”