Monday, April 1, 2013

Cultivating Feral Intelligence with Deborah Madison

Last month, I went to Santa Fe for work, and thanks to a friendly introduction from Leafy Heirloom, had the pleasure of meeting Deborah Madison. Author of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone and founding chef at Greens restaurant, she's an icon to anyone vegetable-friendly. We talked about miner's lettuce in Golden Gate Park, scolding our moms for buying eggs at Safeway, and her newest book, Vegetable Literacy.

EK In your 10th Anniversary edition of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, you mention that it pre-dated Fast Food Nation, The Omnivore's Dilemma, and our current hyper-awareness of the obesity and diabetes epidemics. Now, with Vegetable Literacy, you've created a cookbook focused on the interrelatedness of plants — you're describing and cooking from botanical families. What was your motivation?

DM Well, I’ve cooked for a long time and I’ve gardened some. My brother is a farmer and my dad was a botanist. So I had some awareness of plant families for a while and I felt that if we were, as a people, more literate about plant and botanical relationships we might begin to engage on a yet deeper level.

EK How do you mean? Writing and thinking about food today, would you say that Vegetable Literacy is responding to a raised awareness, post-Schlosser and post-Pollan? Do you think we've made it to a point where we're less in need of coaching on the virtues of a vegetarian diet and have moved toward craving sophisticated vegetable knowledge? I know more than a few readers of The Omnivore's Dilemma who finished the book and thought, now what? Do you think that a deeper understanding of the plant world and a respect for biodiversity will stimulate home cooks in a new way?

DM Since I’ve been writing — or cooking, even, at Chez Panisse in the ‘70s — we’ve gone from buying a big head of lettuce, breaking it down and using just the little leaves, to bagged mesclun at Walmart. That's quite a transition. There are many more different kinds of plant foods and vegetables within view, but we don’t have any sense about how they relate. I think we need to deepen our knowledge — it’s not enough to see things as pretty. (And I'm the worst when it comes to that!) I think if you have an understanding of plant relationships, it gives you some confidence and a clue and a basis to cook from more intuitively.

EK I see this new book as an extension of your earlier foray into encouraging readers to learn their way around vegetables: you're saying we need to be armed with a little more information to be more comfortable in the kitchen and excited to cook, but is there a grander motivation? You seem to be digging into what we've lost, knowledge-wise, as our food sources have become more distant — or am I ascribing too much to your ambitions?

DM Well, gardening and observing plants gives us a kind of feral intelligence that I think is really fun. It’s not about just being smart about food, it’s about being in the world, seeing relationships in the plants we use, observing their characters. A full-blown leek has yards of greens that it waves like a flag and a lot of varieties are named to reflect that: Broad American Flag is one. Welsh soldiers used to wear them on their helmets, but that doesn’t make any sense to most people because they don’t see them growing. But when you do, you see all this amazing biomass that it takes to produce that leek and what a really impressive vegetable it is.

EK So you started to pick up this knowledge from your dad, while growing up in Davis, and did the rest come from working in restaurant kitchens, at places like Chez Panisse and Greens, where vegetables are treated with reverence?

DM I also wrote this based on my own experience in the garden. If you garden — and a lot of people are starting to garden — you begin to see all kinds of things. You ask yourself questions and observe patterns in plants that you'd never notice if you were just left to the grocery store, which is all about parts and not about whole plants. After you see plants growing, the supermarket is totally weird, like a butcher shop. In a butcher shop you see pieces: you don’t see the whole cow, you see pieces of meat. And in the produce aisle you see pieces of things, you have no idea how much it takes to produce a broccoli head or a cabbage. We’re just so ignorant, we have no idea. There are all these leaves, stalks, stems, and flowers that make up a plant — many of which are edible — but we only know one little bit.

EK Okay, so you're working to broaden our knowledge — to awaken instincts and channel the curiosity that comes with observation. Is there a particular vegetable or flower or leaf that you discovered as a gardener or during your research that you really love?

DM As far as the families in the book, some of them I really do love a lot, and others... well, the daisy family is really interesting to me: Asteraceae. It’s got all these thorny, thistly, prickly, cardoons and artichokes and salsify. This was really a particularly difficult family to access. One of my sourcebooks, written in 1943, implies that already a lot of those foods were considered beyond the pale, even back then. Then you grow them and you see why! Goat’s beard (or salsify) — it has a million roots on it and you have to cut all of them off, and I can see there may be some reason behind why they’re not common or familiar today. On the other hand, they're undeniably interesting.

EK Wait, so cardoons and artichokes are in the same family as daisies?

DM As daisies, as sunflowers as salsify as lettuce, yes. They’re in a different genus but they’re all related. They all have tendencies towards bitterness. If you cut a Belgian endive root, it bleeds this white milky sap, lactuca, as does lettuce, as do they all. So you put some on your tongue and you go Yo! That’s really not very good! And it’s how you learn. And then you go in the kitchen and maybe you bought something at a farmers’ market and you cut the root, and you see all this white sap come out and you go Aha! When lettuce gets old and bolts it turns bitter — the bitterness has been bred out of it for the most part but it reverts. I found that really interesting — the tendency toward bitterness in this family, the thorns, the prickles, plus the fact that a lot of them are considered to be good for the liver.

EK I happen to think cardoons are one of the most beautiful plants in the garden — eerie, regal sculptures — and you mentioned that you want to push people (including yourself) beyond buying food simply because it's beautiful. That said, did your time in the garden unearth some unexpectedly beautiful ingredients?

DM One of the old ways of telling how plants are related, that my father told me when I was very young, is by their flowers, or morphology. The umbellifers all share the quality of growing umbels for flowers. Carrots, parsnip, parsley, lovage, fennel, coriander — they all make these beautiful little lace-caps.

EK I love those! My friend Brooke called them robot paws. Sometimes they look like magic wands sprouting clusters of mini suction cups.

DM The only reason I did get attuned to them is that one year I didn’t pull up all my carrots and there they were. And then I noticed that red carrots made umbels that were sort of pink, and they opened eventually to become white. Then you look at all the herbs in that family, and guess what, they’re great with all these vegetables. That’s a family that has a lot of coherence. It's the first chapter in the book.

EK Which reminds me, I've almost forgotten that Vegetable Literacy is, first and foremost, a cookbook. Can you think of a recipe that's inspired by the interrelations and complementary flavors within a plant family?

DM I always like to bring members of the same family together — such as (from the daisy/sunflower/aster family) sunflower seed oil, sunflower sprouts, frisee, other greens, and calendula petals - a real showing from that family.

EK It's clear to me that this book is a love letter to gardening. Would you encourage somebody who doesn't have a garden to buy this book? Can a person cultivate what you called "feral intelligence" without committing to their own garden? How else might a reader become vegetable-literate?

DM You don't need to have a garden in order to relate to Vegetable Literacy. There are other ways to open your own eyes. Hopefully the book will help you see the plant world differently, whether it's in your own garden, a community garden, or a botanical garden. Go on a farm tour, or look at a photograph of a cardoon or some bolting chard. Or you might try growing a plant or two on your fire escape - that counts, too. Having a garden is great, but it's not for everyone. This is not a book about gardening, it's really a book about seeing and going beyond the pretty vegetable on the market shelf.

No comments: