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Reviewing The Vegetarian Epicure

If you wanted to throw a bougie dinner party in mid-twentieth century America, the references you would rely on were pretty well established. For inspiration, you might flip through the pages of Gourmet, the first magazine in the U.S that was dedicated to food and wine; or take a look at the restaurant reviews of Craig Claiborne, the New York Times’ first male food critic, who revolutionized the newspaper’s food section by bringing fine dining trends and ethnic cuisines into greater focus. If you needed to take a cookbook down off the shelf, it might be by James Beard, who channeled his work as a sought-after caterer for fancy New York parties into a prolific food writing career; or you might always depend on the unfailing classiness of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

The work of these publications and writers helped turn cooking into an aspirational pastime in the United States, worthy of research and practice and purchasing of high quality, often foreign, ingredients. When young people of the ‘70s counterculture started trying to eat their politics, they were surrounded by these epicurean influences. Chefs like Mollie Katzen of the Moosewood Restaurant and Deborah Madison of the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center and later its restaurant Greens were picking up the same books and magazines that suburban housewives were using to impress their social circles—but they had the task of sorting through all these recipes to cobble together vegetarian meals. 

Enter Anna Thomas, author of The Vegetarian Epicure. A film student at UCLA in the ‘70s, Thomas grew up immersed in her parents’ expert cooking and entertaining, attending the massive dinner parties they threw for the Polish immigrant community in Detroit. As an adult, she found she just wasn’t that into meat, but that didn’t dampen her love of cooking. She cultivated this talent by visiting markets in Los Angeles’ immigrant neighborhoods; subscribing to Gourmet; and studying Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the books of James Beard, and Italian and Middle Eastern cookbooks that were becoming more available at the time. Her own dinner parties became as opulent as her parents’, and her friends encouraged her to write a cookbook. 

True to its title, The Vegetarian Epicure is a text for people who know food and cooking well and want to have elegant, rich meals without meat. The book is clearly intended for having people over: where most vegetarian cookbooks I’ve encountered from the period open with an introduction to unfamiliar ingredients (like “the 3 T’s,” tamari, tahini, and tofu), this one provides tips for entertaining and an in-depth guide to the architecture of a vegetarian menu, including over 25 ideas drawn from Thomas’ recipes. She works to open readers’ minds and boost their confidence, quipping that “Very few people dislike good food it seems, and if you give them just that, chances are they won’t even notice they haven’t consumed their usual ration of meat.” 

Although Thomas worked at a Los Angeles health-food store in college, she is clearly not interested in brown rice, soy beans, alfalfa sprouts, carob, or any of the other stereotypical ingredients of that scene. She has a French sensibility—the bread chapter starts with French bread before offering a recipe for white bread; the sauces chapter includes mother sauces like béchamel, velouté, and hollandaise; and there are nine soufflé recipes. But the French meal, and most Western cuisines, are centered on meat and so Thomas looks much further afield to offer enormous variety to the reader. A quick flip through will uncover dishes from Italy, Greece, Morocco, Mexico, and more; as well as plenty of recipes from her own Polish heritage and a chapter dedicated to Indian curries. 

Thomas sardonically mentions in the section on specialized tools that “this is not really a book for those who have never seen a kitchen before,” but honestly that’s barely enough warning for how confident you need to be with cooking to tackle some of these recipes. The instructions are sometimes vague—for example, often the exact oven temperature is left out (you might get a description like “moderate” or “hot” instead) or the size of pan you should use isn’t specified. I suspect that there’s a baseline expectation that you have been taught to cook by your mother or grandmother and can call her if you need help figuring something out; in contrast to mainstream cookbooks today which seem to assume you have, in fact, never seen a kitchen before and proceed from there. 

At any rate, I was able to build a well-balanced and exciting vegetarian dinner party menu from this book, which is what I think Thomas would have wanted. The dish that stuck out to me the most on my first read-through was the Asparagus Pastry, a tart filled with béchamel sauce and steamed asparagus, so I started there, and then tried to follow Thomas’ sage menu-building advice:

...the parts should contrast and complement one another in a lively way, but the result should be a harmonious whole. There are basic aesthetic considerations: The food presented at the table should be appealing to the eye. The palate should find variety in rich and light, sharp and mild. 

To balance the richness of the tart with some acidity, I picked the Potato Salad Vinaigrette and the Hearts of Butter Lettuce with Citrus Dressing. For dessert, I went with the Apricot Mousse, mostly because I knew we had a ton of dried apricots in the cabinet and I wanted to try it. I’ll admit that this menu didn’t really follow Thomas’ other advice:

...consider time. Preparing a meal should be a pleasurable experience, and nothing can spoil it more neatly than overwork. Simplicity is desirable from an aesthetic point of view, particularly if you are doing the preparation alone. 

Since I was having this dinner on a weekday, I had to start a couple of days in advance to prepare all the components—making the pie crust and béchamel for the tart; and preparing the mousse. Many of the recipes were more difficult than they needed to be—the béchamel, which is normally just butter, flour, and milk, includes aromatic ingredients that had to be strained out; the pie crust recipe has no liquid in it making it very crumbly; the potatoes for the salad are soaked in milk after boiling; and the mousse recipe lists “3 egg whites, stiffly beaten” as an ingredient rather than telling you how to accomplish this. I ditched the pie crust recipe completely and went with Julia Child’s version instead for a period-appropriate substitution (though I didn’t have the shortening hers calls for) and turned to Claire Saffitz’s Dessert Person for a reference on the appearance of stiffly beaten egg whites and building the meringue correctly for the Apricot Mousse. Ironically, I made the simplest recipe—Hearts of Butter Lettuce with Citrus Dressing, which is literally just lettuce with parsley and lemon and lime juice squeezed over, passing olive oil at the table—more complex by making a three-citrus dressing from another cookbook and adding shavings of a cucumber I wanted to get rid of. 

In the end, the challenges and the time-consuming nature of the recipes were worth it. The complex béchamel highlighted the tart’s peak season asparagus perfectly; the potatoes in their white wine vinaigrette with sliced scallions brought an acidic bite; and the crisp salad added a new texture to the mix. The apricot mousse felt like a luxuriously fluffy and sweet treat of an ending. All in all, a beautiful and delicious meal fit for a dinner party meant to impress.  

It was clear that the gloss on The Vegetarian Epicure that I had come across in chef Deborah Madison’s memoir was still accurate: 

[Thomas’] recipes were the ones we made for special occasions. They took more time and used richer and more expensive ingredients than those we used every day, but they were always well received. They made people happy and they inspired me. They also provided an avenue to more possibilities, for other ways to think about creating vegetarian dishes and building a menu.

It’s easy to write this book off as intimidating, but perhaps a more fair read is that it’s aspirational: a text to look up to as proof that you can create glamorous and exciting meals without meat. After all, we all consume plenty of food media that we might not feel ready to cook from immediately, but that shows us what we could do with time and dedication, motivating us to get in the kitchen. From that perspective, it’s easy to see how Thomas inspired a generation of young vegetarians and helped lay the groundwork for the well-loved vegetarian restaurants that would pop up all over the country in years to come. 

For today’s vegetarian epicure: Since I haven’t exactly recommended you buy this book, I wanted to provide some other contemporary suggestions that are as aspirational but with recipes that are easier to follow:

  • In My Kitchen by Deborah Madison: A contemporary of Anna Thomas, Deborah Madison has written 13 cookbooks, including the classic reference book Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. In My Kitchen represents how she was cooking by 2017, with updates on some of her older recipes for modern preferences. The Yellow Coconut Rice with Scallions and Black Sesame Seeds, which is baked in a pan and then griddled in coconut oil for crunch, is a unique dinner party treat, and the Olive Oil, Almond, and Blood Orange Cake always impresses.

  • Plenty More by Yottam Ottolenghi: Ottolenghi never met a recipe concept he couldn’t make five times more complicated, but the investment is worth it. The photography in this book is eyepopping and inspires you to buy that third spice you’ve never heard of. Favorite recipes of mine over the years include the Brussels Sprout Risotto, which includes deep fried brussels sprouts as a topping; and the Sweet Potatoes with Orange Bitters. The Ricotta and Rosemary Bread Pudding is a brunch showstopper.

Next issue: Homier cooking from a vegetarian restaurant that was a political hangout in Vermont with the Horn of the Moon Cookbook.