An Onion in My Pocket: My Life with Vegetables by Deborah Madison. Knopf, 320 pages.
When Deborah Madison published Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone in 1997, the New York Times wrote that the former cook at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, founding chef at San Francisco’s Greens, and ex-Buddhist priest “approaches vegetarian cooking with warmth, not rigidity.” The tome, a best seller, included fourteen hundred recipes for everything from soups and appetizers to salads, big entrees, and desserts. It has since taught many a vegetable-inclined eater how to cook, and it changed the way people conceived of a meal without meat by proving that it could be satisfying—that it didn’t have to be “rigid.”
But even in her rapturous mainstream reception, vegetarianism always occupies an oppositional stance in Madison’s output: a counterpoint to traditional meat-centered cooking, to an omnivore’s palate, to existing with ease in a world that insists you try a piece of bacon. This carries through into Madison’s new memoir of her “life with vegetables,” An Onion in My Pocket. Though she has written some of the most influential cookbooks on vegetables, she still seems to view vegetarianism itself as a limiting mode of eating. Madison has been a reluctant spokeswoman for a moral choice that she hasn’t chosen for the last forty years. Even as a vegetarian myself, I don’t blame her for the exhaustion.
With Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, the most successful of her fourteen cookbooks, Madison popularized combinations that are now commonplace and mundane but, at the time, felt revolutionary. To most Americans in 1997, the idea of vegetarian cooking that was truly centered on vegetables rather than proteins like tofu or seitan, and didn’t rely on meat mimicry in the slightest, was novel. Orecchiette with broccoli rabe, beans with extra virgin olive oil, scallop squash with saffron rice: the book’s recipes focus on simple techniques applied to high-quality ingredients, and there’s a constant focus on kitchen skills throughout, with short instructions for every preparation of staples like sweet potato and okra.
It wouldn’t become standard until more than a decade later to put produce first, when suddenly this kind of food lost its “vegetarian” label and took on an elevated stature as “vegetable-forward” or “farm-to-table”—at least, that’s what it got called when male chefs who also cooked meat embraced this style.
She does not wish to cut herself off from experiencing any possibilities in food, or to denigrate anyone’s labor, even the labor that results in slaughter.
That’s how Madison feels, anyway. An Onion in My Pocket follows her food curiosity from a not particularly gourmet childhood in Davis, California, through formative visits to Japan and France, life at San Francisco’s Zen Center, cooking at Berkeley’s iconic Chez Panisse, opening the still-kicking Greens restaurant, and her life, since the late 1980s, as a cookbook author. She recalls a summer while her parents were in Europe that she spent with their gourmand friends, who taught her the surprising fact that food can be good every single day, if you know what you’re doing. This was the big eye-opening moment of her life that became the organizing principle of Madison’s cooking. And though food motivated and moved her from an early age, she never anticipated it becoming her life’s work. While reading her recount that life, though, it’s clear there was never any other focus.
Madison refers to the time she spent as an ordained Buddhist priest as her “twenty missing years,” but they don’t seem, to the reader, to be missing at all. Instead, it’s a significant establishing moment, one that leads her directly not only to her first and only chef job, at the Zen Center-operated Greens, but also to the formative chant, “Seventy-two labors brought us this rice, we should know how it comes to us.” That chant, which she writes has gotten less specific to rice as time has worn on, made her realize “that I knew almost nothing about the labor food entails. . . . It wouldn’t take much to get to the seventy-two labors just for the basil in the salad or the zucchini in the soup.”
This mindful approach to food—which entails respect for and understanding of not just agricultural and food production laborers, but the soil itself—is what Madison has translated to the masses in her cookbooks. Her strained relationship with vegetarianism (and by extension veganism, which she dedicates even less time, space, or care to) could be charitably understood as another extension of this mindfulness, this focus on the “seventy-two labors”: she does not wish to cut herself off from experiencing any possibilities in food, or to denigrate anyone’s labor, even the labor that results in slaughter.
While Madison says that she cooks “meatless” at home most often, there are meats in her freezer from local rancher friends. She’s worked with the Slow Food movement, which promotes eating locally and preserving traditional foodways, and believes in regenerative agriculture. There’s a need for openness in her, one that the tenets of strict vegetarianism shut down from the start. Hence the whole chapter titled “My Vegetarian Problem,” in which Madison writes of how most people react to meeting a vegetarian with the question of where they get their protein. While she is appropriately dismissive of this response—“What does interest me is not the slippery protein question”—there are questions about vegetarianism she does take seriously, like those concerning “the gastronomic value of food. Does a dish or a meal give pleasure? Does its appearance delight the eye?”
These are the kinds of questions that “a meat cook, who happened to serve a lot of vegetables, could talk about.” But it isn’t just a matter of position. There’s also a special pressure on the writer or cook who has been deeply associated with what is mainly considered a diet of restriction rather than of abundance—despite the fact that everyone who eats meat also needs to eat vegetables and grains.
It’s long been a cliché to say that meat and dairy have better lobbyists than carrots and asparagus, but that disparity has never been clearer than during the coronavirus pandemic. Back in April, President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to keep meatpacking plants, where workers were becoming sick and dying at disproportionate rates, open and producing—something his administration was reluctant to do to remedy the national shortage of ventilators and personal protective equipment for frontline healthcare workers. Nor was adequate aid provided to farmers, who have dumped massive quantities of crops like potatoes and onions that they were set up to sell to restaurants. Vegetables are being buried in the ground rather than redistributed to the nation’s increasing number of food-insecure citizens.
Meat has been allowed no such interruption. Through this, Trump has proven the inflexible centrality of meat to the American diet, as well as its intense power as a symbol of the country’s strength and virility. It seems he believes it’s more important that a steak be served than there be any mashed potatoes to accompany it. The question, then, is whose diet is more inflexible?
Vegetables are being buried in the ground rather than redistributed to the nation’s increasing number of food-insecure citizens.
While Madison could not have known that her book would be published into a world changed by a pandemic, reading it in this context makes the frustration ever more urgent: If the person who has most famously advocated for a vegetarian diet can’t wholeheartedly endorse it, then what hope is there for significant change to the American obsession with meat? Because what Madison resents most of all is not our ecologically unsustainable focus and dependence upon meat, but the vaunted perception of professed omnivores, who can “have vegetable-driven menus at their restaurants, but claim that they are most definitely not vegetarians, and they can speak about and cook all the vegetable dishes they wish to free from the taint of vegetarianism.”
But why does it have that taint, and why does it seem that food without meat can only be worthwhile so long as it satisfies those who might otherwise be eating it? Madison doesn’t address that. In An Onion in My Pocket, along with all of her cookbooks, she provides a clear, thorough, and loving model for how to center vegetables on the plate and the ways in which that cooking practice allows us to be mindful, to appreciate those seventy-two labors, and to remember that it is the soil that gives us our food. That is why it’s so disheartening that she can’t argue against the taint of vegetarianism—that she would rather accept it, despite all the work she’s done showing us that it doesn’t have to be this way. What would an American food landscape in which vegetarianism is not considered a punishing alternative look like? Despite her work lighting the path from a bland idea of meatless cuisine to the plant-based bounty of today, it won’t be Madison who shows us.