Thursday, September 29, 2011

Menus Stand Still

I had occasion to take a meal to someone, and I decided to see what it was like to be inside Mollie Katzen’s head. I got out her Still Life With Menu Cookbook and opened it to somewhere in the middle.

Menu #21 is a tribute to southwestern cooking: eggplant relish with roasted peppers and ground pepitas; lentil chili; corn and red pepper muffins. (And, randomly, chocolate chip peanut butter cookies for dessert.) The food sounded simple, comforting, unfussy. It would be easy to reheat, would hold up well as leftovers, and would do OK in the freezer. I could double the batches and feed myself, too.

The food did everything it was supposed to do: taste good, fill the belly, comfort and nourish. The startling part was my recognition of the meal as a snapshot of food trends past. I don’t mean this as a slam, but I can’t think of a nice way to phrase it: this food is out of date.

I realized that the cookbook and the menu were put together at a time when the flavors of America’s southwest were new and unusual. Chiles, especially, were novel. Katzen’s recipes specify bell peppers and crushed red pepper, especially for cooks who are not “lucky enough to have access to fresh chiles.” Now it is not unusual, or even worthy of comment, to find dozens of kinds of fresh, dried, or canned chiles in grocery stores all over the nation. One recipe introduces pepitas as an exotic ingredient. Now I can buy them in my local big-box grocery store.

It’s just so... brown
Thinking a little more, I considered how this meal still has a foot in the vegetarian cooking of the 1970s and 1980s—which defined food in a context of meat. Meat’s conspicuous absence was everywhere. Menus still had a main dish and supporting sides. Dinner items had a protein-rich substitute for meat, often intending to echo its taste or texture. Chefs defined their food not by what it was, but by what it wasn’t: recipes titled “meatless” and “dairy-free” abounded. These things do still happen, but vegetarianism has evolved. Vegetables do not need to play supporting roles to a bowl of something brown.

The fact that I can, in 2011, call a menu unremarkable is a tribute to Mollie Katzen and the Moosewood Collective. Katzen’s adaptable and conversational approach to food, coupled with the reach and appeal of her bestselling cookbooks, made vegetarian cooking accessible for cooks across the nation. The fact that southwestern flavors are not news simply means that everyone has tried them and liked them well enough to cook and eat them all the time. And just because they are commonplace doesn’t make them any less delicious.