NOAH ADAMS, host:
It's DAY TO DAY. I'm Noah Adams.
And it's fall for many of us. That means comfort food, homemade dinners drawn from the stained and dog-eared pages of our favorite cookbooks. A new offering is "Moosewood Restaurant Simple Suppers." It's the latest in a cookbook series from the Moosewood Restaurant, a landmark vegetarian eatery in upstate New York. For more than 30 years, Moosewood has helped broaden American appetites for vegetarian cuisine. Our colleague, Madeleine Brand, traveled to the restaurant in Ithaca and returned with this report.
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MADELEINE BRAND reporting:
Well, it doesn't really look like much of an empire. There's no sign proclaiming millions served, although that's technically true if you count how many people have used the cookbooks. No, the Moosewood Restaurant is a little dowdy. In the window sits a big stuffed moose in a Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses, but come lunchtime the place is buzzing. During the tourist season, Moosewood is one of Ithaca's top attractions. Customers come from all over. There's even a couple here from England, Jillian and Eric Bruce(ph).
Mrs. JILLIAN BRUCE (English Tourist): It was a fantastic meal, and its flavors were brilliant. You could taste so many different flavors on the salad. I had a ginger dressing on mine, which really enhanced the vegetables. Tasted fantastic.
Mr. ERIC BRUCE (English Tourist): What I did notice was that there was catfish on the menu, which, well, tickled me. I always thought vegetarians were anything without a face.
BRAND: That loose interpretation of vegetarian orthodoxy in part of Moosewood's appeal, says David Hirsch, one of the owners, or members of the collective, as they prefer to be called.
Mr. DAVID HIRSCH (Moosewood Restaurant): We've never gotten on a high horse about what we're doing. We've never said, `Oh, you have to eat this way,' you know. If you eat any other way you're like a terrible person or something.
BRAND: The first Moosewood cookbook was published in 1977 and has attracted almost a cult following. Now there are 11 cookbooks, millions of copies have been sold and all the books are still in print. There are salad dressings, frozen soups and dinners that sell in stores like Whole Foods. But at the beginning, there was just the restaurant, and tiny hippie enclave in upstate New York.
Ms. SARA ROBBINS (Moosewood Restaurant): I was living on a farm in the area and we had a little natural whole grains bakery on the farm. A friend told me they're opening a new restaurant, and they need a baker.
BRAND: Sara Robbins has been part of the Moosewood Collective for 28 years.
Ms. ROBBINS: So I brought a loaf of bread as my application, and the owner at the time, one of the owners at the time, took a bite and said, `You're hired.'
BRAND: The original seven who created Moosewood are no longer there, and that includes the most famous name, Mollie Katzen, who wrote that first iconic cookbook. She left to create her own vegetarian cooking business in California. But according to David Hirsch, who's been at Moosewood nearly 30 years, not much is different. Sure, the restaurant's bigger but the kitchen is still tiny.
Mr. HIRSCH: This is a very intimate kitchen, and it also reflects that we all get along very well, because we're constantly bumping into each other.
BRAND: And, David Hirsch says, they're still cranking out the old favorites.
Mr. HIRSCH: We have Navajo stew; it's a nice Southwestern vegetable stew. We have pecan-crusted catfish with mashed sweet potatoes and collard greens. We have a Monterey tofu burger.
BRAND: Tofu burgers are so ordinary these days you can find them in most supermarkets along with other formerly exotic ingredients like hummus, miso soup and yogurt. Barbara Fairchild, the editor in chief of Bon Appetit magazine, credits Moosewood for that, and for that reason, at the turn of the millennium, the magazine named Moosewood one of the 13 most influential restaurants in America.
Ms. BARBARA FAIRCHILD (Bon Appetit): They're still reinterpreting their basic principles, to bring more people into their knowledge circle.
BRAND: Which, she says, they're doing with their latest cookbook, "Simple Suppers." It's for people who want to make healthy food in a hurry.
Ms. FAIRCHILD: I look at this cookbook and I see basics like how to roast a sweet potato or how to make a perfect grain salad. You can stand in the bookstore and thumb through it and think, `Oh, yeah, I can to that.'
BRAND: But for some foodies, Moosewood is so unthreatening it's downright boring. Enough with the tahini salad dressing, says Jeff Morgan, cookbook author and vintner. He appreciates Moosewood's commitment to healthy eating, but craves more.
Mr. JEFF MORGAN (Cookbook Author): I don't think they aspire to be better than they are. I know I'm sounding like a snob, but I think that the people who do a cookbook like this can pay a little more attention to the finesse of fine dining and the subtlety of fine herbs, and I don't see it here.
BRAND: Jeff Morgan does see it in other restaurants like Chez Panisse in Berkeley and Greens in San Francisco. Those too have their cult followings, but they're not for the masses. The Moosewood Restaurant makes more than a million dollars a year. The books bring in steady royalties and there's the money from the frozen foods, the T-shirts and coffee mugs. Still, they're not getting rich. After all, Moosewood is still a collective and so the proceeds must be split 18 ways.
And then there's the matter of the future. The youngest member of the Moosewood Collective is 42, says Nancy Lazarus. I ask her what's going to happen when they retire.
Ms. NANCY LAZARUS (Moosewood Restaurant): We do think we need to make a plan for how Moosewood will continue, and we talk about it a lot at our meetings but we haven't yet come up with a solution.
BRAND: They didn't really figure out the whole Moosewood empire thing, either. It just sort of happened. But a curious thing transpired along the way: They became canny businesspeople who understand the power of branding. Hard to believe, but that scruffy stuffed moose in the restaurant window symbolizes a brand that's worth a lot of money now, as what was once considered fringy is now solidly mainstream.
Madeleine Brand, NPR News.