For reasons I have not always understood, The Vegetarian Epicure by Anna Thomas has always held a certain enchantment for me. More than a collection of recipes, there is something downright magical about it. If you are unfamiliar with it, it’s hard to comprehend. But open up a copy and spend some time with it. Cook from it, and soon it will work its charms on you.
Pea soup with butter dumplings, little vegetable tarts and chestnut soufflés sound like dishes from a children’s poem. A slice of milk-and-honey bread with a little butter or jam could romance even the most steeled pragmatist. Julie Maas’s whimsical illustrations of barefooted cookery lend an air of innocence. Like a novel written for its generation, it is a confluence of ideologies that defined the era in which it came to be. It is hippie meets Diet for a Small Planet meets California naturalist meets Gourmet magazine.
I first discovered The Vegetarian Epicure shortly after I decided to give up meat. I was in my twenties, and although it was the eighties, people still looked at you a little funny when you said you were a vegetarian. There weren’t a lot of options of convenience back in those days. There were no Whole Foods and nary a vegetarian entrée to be found in the freezer section of the local supermarket. Even tofu could be a little difficult to track down. Unless I was content with a diet of rice, beans and the occasional incarnation of a rubbery substance known fondly among veg heads as TVP (textured vegetable protein), I was going to have to learn to cook.
At that time, I was a culinary babe in the woods. I had never heard of Gruyere cheese. I didn’t know how to pronounce béchamel sauce much less how to make it. The extent of my culinary wisdom was my mother’s Betty Crocker recipe card library. (You know, the one that came in the two-tone plastic green box.) The Vegetarian Epicure was not only my introduction to vegetarian cuisine, but it was my first true gourmet cookbook. So instead of settling for veggie burgers from a box or cooking the customary lasagna made with said TVP, I was making things like honey wheat berry bread, gazpacho, ratatouille and zabaglione.
It is not surprising that the necessity that led me to this magical tome was the very same necessity that led to its creation. Anna Thomas was a struggling film student in the early seventies when she wrote the collection of more than 260 recipes. “I had to learn to cook,” she told me in an interview from her home in California. “I was on my own, broke and becoming a vegetarian. There wasn’t a lot around. I wanted to have wonderful, delicious food.” We spoke by telephone one Saturday afternoon last April. Her voice was warmly familiar, like that of an old friend.
Anna was barely out of her teens when she wrote VE (as she shorthands it in emails). So I was curious how she was able to amass so many delicious recipes at such a young age. “It was just natural evolution and youthful craziness,” she explains. Given the dearth of good vegetarian cookbooks at the time, Anna steeped herself in the ideas and values of the epicures of the time – Julia Child, James Beard and Elizabeth David – and applied them to vegetarian cookery.
She would often road test her recipes with friends. “They were equally penniless and happy to be invited over for dinner. They would tell me, ‘Anna you should write a cookbook.’ Of course, they were all hungry. They would have said that to anyone who had just fed them.” Spurred on by her friends’ encouragement, and a bit of youthful audacity, Anna packaged up her recipes and sent them off to a publisher.
The Vegetarian Epicure quickly found its audience, and it was a large and hungry one at that. “It was amazing how it all happened, just astounding,” she recalls. “It was in its moment. It was needed. I wanted to be a vegetarian and eat good food, and it turned out that I was not the only one who wanted that.”
Deborah Madison, chef and author of several renowned vegetarian cookbooks, echoes Anna’s sentiment. “I was already cooking at the Zen Center for a few years when Anna’s first book came out,” she tells me. “I was trying to break out of the ‘60s vegetarian mold — brown, stodgy food, mostly poorly cooked — and feeling somewhat alone in that pursuit. So I was delighted with The Vegetarian Epicure, because here was someone who was having fun cooking interesting, colorful and delicious food, too! It was a great boost to my spirits to see that book”
Anna infused the chapters with the ideals of her good food influences and encouraged readers to avoid “meat analogs” and meals centered around the standard meat entrée:
“The first thing to do in considering the vegetarian cuisine is to get free of these stereotyped ideas. Otherwise, you may find yourself falling into the trap of ‘substitutions.’ Many vegetarian cookbooks have done this, imposing the old structure onto the vegetarian diet trying to find “meat substitutes.” …Vegetarian cookery is not a substitute for anything.”
Anna was making the case to bring vegetarian cooking out of the closet and recognize it as a legitimate cuisine in and of itself, eschewing the confines of a meat-based cuisines without abandoning the principles of fine cooking.
Another important aspect of the book is its emphasis on entertaining, which imbued it with a strong communal sense. These are recipes meant to be shared, and to that end, there are plenty of of menu suggestions – a hallmark of all of Anna’s books – along with a chapter on creating vegetarian holiday traditions. (Her pineapple-glazed yams are standard Thanksgiving fare in my house.) The sharing of food was a large part of Anna’s upbringing. The daughter of Polish immigrants, she grew up in Michigan in a home where family events centered around home cooking. “We never went out to eat to a restaurant. It was a very tight immigrant community. We celebrated by eating at home. It might be very festive, but it was always at someone’s house.”
Anna believes that the book’s openness also played a part in its success, the veritable icing on the cake. “I’m saying this now in retrospect,” she explains. “I think because my emphasis was on good food, which anyone can eat, I didn’t moralize. That put it over the top; the fact that it wasn’t taking an ‘us and them’ position. It wasn’t divisive.”
Next year, The Vegetarian Epicure will turn 40, and although Saveur magazine named it one of the “most original and essential vegetarian cookbooks” of the 20th century, you might have a little difficulty locating a copy. You won’t find one on the shelves at Barnes & Noble, and Amazon is completely sold out. After 35+ years, the publisher, Knopf, discontinued printing the book just a few years ago along with Anna’s 1978 follow-up, The Vegetarian Epicure Book Two. A recent search on Bookfinder.com yielded several “new” copies, but the price can run as high as $170. Used copies of varying condition are still fairly plentiful and reasonably priced. Anna also told me that she has had offers for re-publication. Hopefully, both books will be back on the shelves some day soon.
In 1996, Anna released The New Vegetarian Epicure, a collection of 325 new recipes tailored for a more health-conscious mindset, which is still in print. More recently she published Love Soup, a collection of 160 vegetarian and vegan soup recipes. It received a 2010 James Beard Foundation Book Award and has proven quite popular with Anna’s devoted fans. She also informed me that she is already at work on a fifth book that promises to be as interesting as it is delicious.
As our conversation neared to an end, I recognized that familiarity in her voice again. Chat with Anna Thomas for more than a minute or two, and you can’t help but feel a connection. Here is a woman who loves people, loves cooking, and loves to cook for people. Afterwards, I realized that people cannot be that passionate about cooking without instilling a little of it in others, and that’s when it hit me. That’s when I figured out the secret ingredient of The Vegetarian Epicure — the source of my enchantment all these many years: It is the passion of Anna Thomas. Now I understand. My own passion for cooking is intrinsically connected to hers through that book; that one, very special cookbook.
Being that it’s spring, I thought I’d include Anna’s recipe for asparagus pastry from page 126. It’s a lot like an eggless quiche. Anna recommends using either a flaky pastry or her pastry brisee (p. 286). Both are good choices, but I prefer a basic flaky pastry. I’ve also included Anna’s recipe for béchamel sauce (p. 84), which melds perfectly with the asparagus and some good quality Gruyere cheese. For best results, try to get young tender asparagus.
Vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike will enjoy this dish. Anna recommends serving it fresh out of the oven. Serve the leftovers for breakfast with some scrambled eggs. It’s just as delicious the next day.
- Flaky pastry, enough for a 12 inch pastry dish (recipe follows)
- 2 lbs. asparagus
- 1½ -2 cups sauce béchamel
- 2-3 ounces Swiss or Gruyere cheese, grated
Prepare the pastry as described below, allowing enough time for the dough to refrigerate. Preheat the oven to 425° F. Roll the dough out, working quickly so as not to melt the butter. Line a 12-inch quiche or pastry dish with the dough and cut off any excess. Prick the bottom several times with a fork. This will allow steam to vent. Fill the dish with pie weights. If you don’t have any, you can line the inside of the shell with aluminum foil and cover the bottom with dried beans. These extra steps will ensure that the crust stays flat. Bake the crust for about 15 minutes.
Reduce the oven to about 375° F. Clean the asparagus well and discard the hard ends. Cut the stalks into 1-inch pieces. Steam until the piece are fork tender. This should take about 10 minutes for very young asparagus, longer for older ones. The only way to be certain is to taste them. This is a good time to prepare the béchamel sauce.
Spread the asparagus even into the pre-baked pastry shell. Pour the béchamel sauce over the asparagus. Shake the pastry pan along the surface of a counter top will help to distribute the sauce evenly. Sprinkle the cheese over the top surface, and bake for 15-18 minutes or until the top starts to brown and the sauce is bubbly.
Allow the dish to cool briefly, and serve hot.
Adapted from The Vegetarian Epicure by Anna Thomas
- 2 cups (10 ounces) all-purpose flour
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon sugar
- 6 ounces (1½ sticks), diced and very cold
- 1-4 tablespoons iced water
Place the flour, salt and sugar into the bowl of a food processor fitted with a blade, and give it a few pulses to mix the ingredients well. Add the butter and pulse several times until the butter is broken up into small pieces and the mixture looks like a crumb topping or course sand.
Turn on the processor and add the iced water one tablespoon at a time until the dough just starts to come together. Be careful not to add too much water. The dough should look like a shaggy loose clump.
Pour the dough onto a floured surface and knead it just enough to finish pulling the dough together into a ball. Wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour before using.
In the original recipe, Anna doesn’t specify the exact quantity of seasonings to use, allowing you to tweak them to your own taste. I have used what I think will give you a good starting point for a first try. After that, you can make this dish your own.
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- ½ onion finely minced
- 2½ cups hot milk
- 5 peppercorns
- 1 teaspoon fresh thyme, chopped
- 1 tiny bay leaf or part of a whole bay leaf
- ¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
In the top of a double boiler, or with a heavy clad saucepan over a very low heat, melt the butter until bubbly. Add the onion and let it cook for 3 or 4 minutes until translucent. Stir in the flour and continue cooking a few minutes more. Begin adding the milk slowly, stirring with a whisk while you do. The sauce will begin to thicken after a few minutes. Add the peppercorns, thyme, bay leaf and nutmeg and stir thoroughly. Let it cook slowly for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Strain through a sieve.
Adapted from The Vegetarian Epicure by Anna Thomas
If you have an old copy of The Vegetarian Epicure…
we want to see it! Take a picture of your time worn, food stained, tattered copy and email me the picture along with your first name and hometown. If you want to get in on the act, send along a photo of you holding up that treasured copy of VE. I’ll put together a special page and post all the pictures along with the many wonderful comments we’ve received as a sort of birthday card and send it to Anna!
The Vegetarian Epicure is copyright 1972 by Anna Thomas. Reprinted with permission. If you would like to know more about Anna Thomas, check out her website at www.vegetarianepicure.com. Her latest book, Love Soup, is a collection of 160 vegetarian and vegan soup recipes.
If you are having difficulty locating copies of The Vegetarian Epicure, leave a comment here, and perhaps I can help you locate one.
Special thanks to Patricia Parmalee for her help with this post.