Madison says everyone can enjoy vegetarian cooking

November 16, 1997
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

Deborah Madison, who majored in city planning, says she is as surprised as anyone by her success. For Madison has never worked as a city planner. Instead, she has achieved considerable success as a menu planner, cook and cookbook author.

Madison grew up in Davis and went to school at UC Davis and UC Santa Cruz.

"Are my friends surprised at the direction my life took? I suppose so, because I certainly am," she said in a recent phone interview from her home in Santa Fe, N.M.

Madison's first publication, "The Greens Cookbook" (1986), has become a kitchen standard. That was followed by "The Savory Way," which won the Cookbook of the Year Award in 1990.

Her most recent book, released just last month, is "Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone" (Broadway Books, $35, 1997).

She comes back to Northern California fairly regularly to visit friends and relatives and sometimes to give a cooking class or two.

She will be back in Davis on Saturday, Dec. 6, when she will give a cooking demonstration in the morning at the Farmers' Market in Central Park at Fourth and C streets and will sign copies of her book at 3 p.m. at The Next Chapter bookstore at 225 G St.

"You don't have to be a vegetarian to enjoy this cookbook," she said. "I'm not a vegetarian. The 1,400 recipes in the book are those that I like to cook. If you're a committed vegetarian, you can prepare every recipe in the book. If you are a vegan, you can prepare most of them.

"If you don't attach a title to your eating style, you can cook everything in this book and serve it with meat, fish or fowl," she said.

Madison said her favorite foods, the ones she turns to most often when she is at home with her husband, Patrick McFarlin, are little vegetable stews or sautes or a big vegetable salad or a warm broccoli salad.

Madison graduated from Davis High School in 1963 and attended UC Davis for two years. She then transferred to UC Santa Cruz. In those days, it didn't look like Madison was going to be a professional cook. She took a year off to work as a research assistant at the psychology department at Harvard. And her major, when she graduated from UCSC, was city planning.

But when she graduated from Santa Cruz in 1968, it made much more sense to join the Zen Center in San Francisco than to go to work for a city government. At the Zen Center, she worked in the kitchen.

In 1979 when the Zen Center opened a restaurant, Madison became the founding chef at Greens in Fort Mason. She also cooked at Berkeley's Chez Panisse before opening Greens.

She left Greens in 1984 when she got the opportunity to live in Rome for a year and her first cookbook followed two years later.

Madison's mother, Winifred Madison, still lives in Davis. Winifred admits, ruefully, that she had very little to do with her daughter's interest in cooking.

"Deborah once told me she can't remember anything I cooked," she said. "I was more interested in writing."

"But in defense of my mother, I have to say that we never had snack food at home when I was growing up," said Deborah. "We didn't have Coke or chips around, which I resented terribly at the time. But now I'm very grateful that I never developed the habit of snacking on sweet or salty foods.

"It dulls the palette for the kinds of foods we should eat," she said. "It's hard for veggies to compete with sugar and salt."

Today, Madison works closely with the farmers' market in Santa Fe, writes articles, teaches cooking classes, travels, and writes cookbooks. She loves to eat fresh vegetables, but does not exclude occasional animal foods.

"Simply put, I enjoy good food and good cooking of all persuasions, and think that, at its best, eating is an inclusive experience that draws people together," she said. "When it comes to forming a philosophy or a political position about what to eat, I leave that to each one of you to work out."

Alice Waters, the owner of Chez Panisse, contributed a blurb to Madison's new book, which bears repeating.

"It's not just an authoritative and reliable vegetarian cookbook," Waters said, "it's a humanitarian one, too, because she communicates so well the beauty of a sustainable way of cooking and eating."

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