In 1977, when Mollie Katzen received a call from Doubleday expressing interest in acquiring her self-published vegetarian cookbook, the author jumped at the opportunity.
It had been three years since Katzen, founder of the hippyish Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, N.Y., first recorded the restaurant’s popular recipes in a spiral notebook. The aim was to standardize them for the kitchen staff, and also to offer eager patrons a chance to try cooking at home some of Moosewood’s then-exotic fare—like hummus, and moussaka.
It wasn’t long before word about the oddball meatless recipe collection, The Moosewood Cookbook, spread. By the time Doubleday contacted Katzen, she had already sold 5,000 copies on her own, and was finding the task of distributing the $4 book increasingly onerous.
Then Doubleday offered Katzen a $2,000 advance, which felt like “a ticket out of hippiedom.” But before signing with the New York house, Katzen received another inquiry about the book, this time from Phil Wood, the now-legendary founder of the then-fledgling Berkeley, Calif-based Ten Speed Press.
Wood wanted to publish Moosewood very badly—so badly in fact that he doubled Doubleday’s advance and granted Katzen complete editorial control.
Katzen accepted, and a 37-year-long collaboration with the publisher was born. Katzen produced seven cookbooks for Ten Speed, including Still Life With Menu (1994), The New Enchanted Broccoli Forest (2000), and a reissue of Moosewood with lightened-up versions of its original dairy-rich recipes. “I’ve never gotten over how wonderful it was to have [Moosewood] happen at the very beginning of Ten Speed,” she says.
To honor the 40th anniversary of Moosewood’s original, self-published release in 1974, Ten Speed, now part of Random House, has reissued the cookbook, spiffing it up with a hardcover binding, but otherwise leaving Katzen’s original handwritten recipes and illustrations, untouched.
“With the resurgence of interest in vegetarian cooking, it felt like the right time to reintroduce Moosewood and call attention to its iconic status,” said Aaron Wehner, senior v-p and publisher at Clarkson Potter, Ten Speed Press & Harmony Books, who became Ten Speed’s publisher in 2008, two years before founder Woods died. “Moosewood was the book that legitimized a whole toolkit of vegetable cooking, not just as a side dish, but as the main attraction.”
For Ten Speed, the publication of Moosewood was a seminal moment in its history. It took a few years for the cookbook to catch on. But now, the company sells about 20,000 a year, totaling three million copies in print. Moosewood is one of the top ten bestselling cookbooks of all time, according to the New York Times, and has been inducted into the James Beard Foundation's Cookbook Hall of Fame. “It was the foundational book in the [Ten Speed] cookbook program,” Wehner said.
As for Katzen, she expresses some discomfort with her status as vegetarian visionary. For one, she occasionally eats meat. She also believes she gets too much credit, and other less well-known meatless cookbook pioneers, like Anna Thomas author of The Vegetarian Epicure (Vintage, 1972), get too little for their contributions to the vegetarian movement.
So why is she so renowned, and they less so? “I was at the right place at the right time,” said Katzen.