Anna Thomas, whose 1973 The Vegetarian Epicure has become a modern classic of vegetarian cooking, is back with a new book, Vegan Vegetarian Omnivore (Norton, Apr. 18), that aims to get everyone eating together at the same table, no matter what their position is on bacon or quinoa.
The theme of the book is to "start with the food everyone eats" and then elaborate from there to create a meal that can include meat and dairy. Where did that idea come from?
When I cook food that is vegan, by design or by accident or whatever, nobody says no to it. Everyone eats it. When there's other [non-vegan] food on the table, some people eat it and some people don't, but everybody eats the vegan food. And I thought, "Let's start with the food that everybody eats" and get away from the label. Let's not say, "Let's start with vegan food." Right away people have a weird thing about it. It's not vegan watermelon, it's watermelon.
Food culture now looks nothing like it did in the early 1970s when you wrote The Vegetarian Epicure. So why this book now?
I do not think that gathering at a table to eat together is a detail of civilized life. I think it's the basis of civilization, and it really is the starting point for so much community. I didn't want to see that go away, and I thought we really have to change the conversation about this: What is the way we can have everybody come together, and sit down at a convivial table and raise and a glass and eat together and have a good time? And not have it be one of these things where there are two different meals served. As soon as there are two different meals served, there's an A meal and a B meal. Nobody wants to be eating the B meal.
You are known for your vegetarian cookbooks. This is not a vegetarian cookbook.
There may be some blowback, because a lot of people identify me so strongly with purely vegetarian food. I am mainly a vegetarian, most of the time. I have been a pure vegetarian at some times vegan. But basically I do what I do and I eat what I want to eat.
Would you say this book is more for omnivores than for vegetarians and vegans?
No. I would say it's geared for everybody. A huge number of the recipes in it are vegan. I would say it's probably one of the best vegan cookbooks on the market right now. How modest, right? It's one of the best vegan cookbooks around, and it has some recipes for pork and pine nut meatball and seafood soup, but that's part of the whole big picture of it: how to put menus together in a way that makes everybody feel comfortable and welcome, and nobody feels sidelined.
People can get really stressed out around cooking and entertaining. Your tone here is very calm and easy-going. Any tips to help home chefs keep from melting down while cooking a big family meal?
Sitting down together is wonderful. For people who are so stressed out about that, if I can just give them a little road map: here's an easy way to do it. Then, here's an elaborate way to do it. Just follow the roadmap and it'll be okay. I think people want to feel that they've got a friend in the kitchen who's giving some advice. [These recipes] work. They've been road tested in my kitchen.