Writer Nava Atlas reflects on the (vegan) return of her cult-classic “Vegetariana” cookbook
In 1984 when a twentysomething vegetarian illustrator and graphic designer named Nava Atlas published her first book — the quirky, illustrated veg cookbook, Vegetariana (Amberwood Press) — plant-based eating was gaining traction in America, but still well outside the mainstream.
A 1985 Gallup Poll done for American Health magazine estimated there were 8 to 9 million vegetarians in the U.S., as more embraced the diet for animal welfare, health, environmental and, occasionally, contrarian reasons, according to a 1987 New York Times article. Yet ever-contradictory Americans ate more meat than ever that year — to the tune of 237.4 pounds per capita of red meat, chicken and fish, up more than 6 pounds from 1980. The NYT piece noted that many of those claiming to be vegetarian “continue(d) to eat fish or chicken” under the manufactured identifiers of “pescevegetarian” and pollovegetarian. The Vegetarian Times discovered this transgression while interviewing celebrities who dubbed themselves vegetarians.
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“It must be trendy to be a vegetarian,” then-executive editor Sally Hayhow told NYT‘s Trish Hall. “I can’t think of another reason people would fight to be called one.”
Atlas became a vegetarian in her teens, largely because she preferred eating plants. By her mid-20s she’d amassed a trove of colorful, satisfying vegetarian meals through years of cooking for her husband — which she decided to turn into a cookbook. Her quirky, hand-illustrated book chock full of sustaining recipes, literary wisdom and lore, appeared in the shadow of seminal veg-forward tomes of the time, like Mollie Katzen’s groundbreaking Moosewood Cookbook (1977) and Anna Thomas’s The Vegetarian Epicure (1972). To Atlas’s surprise, Vegetariana was instantly critically lauded. Publishers Weekly predicted it “should prove itself a classic” with its “savory recipes, witty anecdotes, delightful aphorisms and fascinating folklore.”
The book would spark a long career of producing cookbooks such as 5-Ingredient Vegan (2019), Plant Power (2014) and Wild About Greens (2012). Elsewhere, Atlas has explored topics ranging from gender roles to cultural bias and animal rights through her art and visual books, including Why You Can’t Get Married: an Unwedding Album (2013), Secret Recipes for the Modern Wife (2009) and Sluts & Studs (2008). She also built a website devoted to classic women’s literature called LiteraryLadiesGuide, and had two children. Regarding the latter, history would repeat itself when her youngest, then-10-year-old, son declared himself vegan. Atlas’s own enlightenment of the horrors of factory farming led her to fully adopt veganism soon thereafter.
Now some 37 years after Vegetariana‘s debut, Atlas published a new, entirely vegan edition. In addition to axing the dairy and eggs chapter altogether, she replaced some of the original illustrations and incorporated new quotations from more diverse sources. As she notes in the intro to the new edition, “too many male voices dominated the literary quotations and lore in the earlier editions.
The longtime author and artist sat down virtually with Salon Food to discuss the state of vegetable cooking in America, the challenges and joys of adapting her recipes to be fully vegan, and what it’s like to take a magnifying glass to your own work more than three decades later.
Maggie Hennessy: What was it like to revisit something you wrote so long ago and so early in your career? Did you cringe at all, as writers often do when we re-examine old work?
Nava Atlas: That’s a great question, and one I’m not asked too often! Yes, there were a few illustrations and recipes that made me cringe, and that’s the beauty of being able to revise and update a book, with the perspective of a long career in the rear view.
Back then even being a vegetarian was an anomaly, so I had to learn to do my own cooking. At the time the project was being pitched to publishers, I wasn’t very confident in my recipe developing skills. But apparently the recipes worked for a lot of people.
I began Vegetariana when I was in my mid-20s, and though I enjoyed cooking I wasn’t a recipe developer at all. I had a BFA, and was working as an illustrator (and) graphic designer. Back then even being a vegetarian was an anomaly, so I had to learn to do my own cooking. At the time the project was being pitched to publishers, I wasn’t very confident in my recipe developing skills. But apparently the recipes worked for a lot of people; even until recently, people would bring falling apart, stained copies for me to sign at my talks.
For this edition, I did end up jettisoning about a dozen or so illustrations that I no longer liked and/or whose companion recipe was also replaced. That said, doing new illustrations to match the detail and flavor (so to speak) of some of the originals was no easy task — especially when it came to drawing a likeness of a well-known personality. Sometimes I had to do a drawing three or four times before I was satisfied. Rosa Parks was hard to draw because I didn’t have the best reference photos for her; but I nailed Karl Marx on the first try.
MH: I loved that you wanted to incorporate more diverse voices, particularly women, in the quotations and lore. When and why did you have that epiphany?
NA: Back in the “dark ages” of the 1980s, the male default was still the norm, despite the emergence of the women’s movement in the 1970s. I’ve always been a voracious reader and nerd, so why it didn’t dawn on me sooner is a little embarrassing.
In 2011 I had a book published called The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life, and after that, I launched its companion website, LiteraryLadiesGuide.com. So I’ve been learning about and presenting classic women authors and their literature for more than 12 years. The site has grown tremendously, especially in the last four years. Being immersed in this niche was how I got the message. I wanted the new edition of Vegetariana to reflect that.
MH: Were any recipes particularly tricky to convert from vegetarian to vegan? Can you share the story of one, and why that was the case?
NA: There was a Cheddar-Garlic Soup in the original that I was thinking of letting go of, but in the end, decided to create a vegan version of it. The original was really almost like a fondue, very ooey-gooey and melted cheesy. Rather than try to recreate that mouthfeel and heavy consistency, I decided to base it on vegetables, using the vegan cheddar as more of a flavoring than a main component. So the base is made of butternut squash soup (the kind that comes in cartons), cauliflower, tomatoes, and silken tofu or cannellini beans. A generous but not ridiculous amount of vegan cheddar is melted in, and the soup is topped with green peas, parsley, and/or croutons.
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MH: Was it a struggle to drop the dairy/eggs chapter altogether? It must have also been liberating in a way, to feel we’ve come that far in our embrace of vegetable cooking.
NA: I did debate with myself about the Dairy/Eggs Chapter. For a while I thought I might do a vegan version of some of the dishes — for example, an omelet made with chickpea flour instead of eggs. But in the end, I decided to take that chapter out because it was becoming too complicated.
MH: By the way, how do you feel about the state of veg cooking in America?
NA: I feel like unlike the hard and sad things going on in the world, being able to see the phenomenal growth of the vegan/plant-based movement over the decades has been such an oasis of positivity and inspiration. When Vegetariana first came out in 1984, the concept of veganism existed, but wasn’t in the general atmosphere at all. By the ’80s, there were hardly more than a dozen of us who had broken into any kind of mainstream with vegetarian cookbooks; now, there are more vegan books, blogs, YouTube channels, Instagrams, etc., than can be counted.
A plant-based diet is more sustainable for the planet, as is well known by now.
As far as ingredients, whether produce varieties or packaged products, there’s no comparison. It makes it so much easier and more convenient to make great meals with ingredients available at most any supermarket.
In addition, I wanted Vegetariana to reflect my own evolution. I became a vegetarian in high school, before it was “cool” to do so, mainly because I didn’t like meat or the way it looked on my plate. I went vegan twenty years ago, with the primary motivation of compassion for animals. And a plant-based diet is more sustainable for the planet, as is well known by now
MH: In the first edition, you mentioned in one leek recipe that they’re a very underrated vegetable. I wonder, are there any vegetables that remain vastly underrated 37 years after the book first appeared? And on the flip side, have you seen any ingredient get its due that you never thought would?
NA: Bok choy and collard greens are two vegetables that made it into the new edition; I really learned to appreciate both of them immensely when I was developing my 2012 book, Wild About Greens. And on the flip side, that’s an easy one — Brussels sprouts! They went from being an often dreaded vegetable to a popular bar snack — in that case usually deep fried, but still, who could have predicted that?
MH: It feels like illustrated cookbooks have never made a full comeback — it remains all about aspirational, full-color photography. I get the value of depicting finished dishes. But there’s so much vintagey whimsy in an illustrated cookbook. Can you talk about the process of illustrating Vegetariana? Did the illustrations come before the recipes or vice versa?
NA: You’re right, I think especially in the age of the internet, cooks have come to expect gorgeous, full-color photography. I fought with my publishers for many years to have my books fully or nearly fully photographed, not just a measly 8-page insert — or no photos at all (I finally won that fight). But it sure is fun to go back to the era of illustrated cookbooks, like Mollie Katzen’s, which she also did herself. There’s something about the hand-wrought pages that makes us feel like we’re being pulled back to a simpler time. Of course, nostalgia can be an illusion.
When I was writing and illustrating the original Vegetariana, the literary quotations, aphorisms, and food folklore came first. I would then dream up the illustrations for them, and then finally the recipes, though it’s not like the recipes were an afterthought in any sense. That’s simply the order in which I built each page. So many people love food, and whether or not they like to cook, I’ve always maintained that this is a book that’s as much for reading in bed as for using in the kitchen!
Buy Vegetariana at Bookshop.org, Indiebound, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books-a-Million and wherever books are sold.
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