Loyal Order of Moose
Looking back at the birth of a veggie phenomenon
Hotel school professor Mary Tabacchi came to Ithaca in 1972, and she's been a Moosewood fan ever since the restaurant opened the following year. "To start a vegetarian restaurant in the Seventies was a smart thing to do," says Tabacchi, who teaches a course on healthy cuisines. "When I came to Cornell a lot of my students were going vegan or vegetarian, and the food really was bad; I think they thought that the worse it tasted, the better it was for you. So when Moosewood came along and made great vegetarian food, it started a movement. They were pioneers in that sense—the Alice Waters of the East Coast."
Moosewood is still Tabacchi's favorite Ithaca eatery, the place she goes when she doesn't feel like cooking but wants something nutritious. "They put together the most savory flavors in town," she says. "It's a cross between health food and comfort food." Nowadays, many of the ideas that Moose-wood pioneered—eschewing meat in favor of vegetables and whole grains, seeking locally sourced ingredients, changing menus according to what's in season, creating complex flavors through the innovative use of herbs and spices—have gone mainstream. But back in the day, what we'd now call the natural food movement was downright avant garde. "It was fringy—it was definitely fringy," says Moosewood Collective member Joan Adler '72. "Vegetarians were seen as eccentric."
Here's a little-known fact: although Moosewood is often called one of the world's most famous vegetarian restaurants, it didn't start out vegetarian. (And technically, it isn't vegetarian today, either; its menu includes fish.) "We didn't think we could make it if we were vegetarian," recalls Mollie Katzen '72, one of the restaurant's original seven founders and author of the Moosewood Cookbook. "We thought it would be too narrow. And yet none of us really knew how to cook meat."
Katzen vividly recalls the restaurant's first meal; Moosewood opened for dinner a couple of days after New Year's 1973. That time of year is notoriously dead in the restaurant industry, but the founders had invited their friends, and the place was packed when it opened at 6 p.m. Unfortunately, the main dish wasn't ready. "We had two moussakas, huge pans of them, one meat and one vegetarian," she remembers, "and it was eight o'clock before they came out of the oven." They'd planned the moussaka to be the main course, with stir-fry and brown rice as an alternative, but since the casseroles weren't cooked she and two other chefs found themselves madly frying vegetables to order. That kind of seat-of-the-pants improvisation was standard operating procedure in Moosewood's early days, says Katzen's brother, fellow founder Josh Katzen '70. "The day the restaurant was opening, we were still trying to figure out how to run the steam table," he says with a laugh. "We really didn't know what we were doing."
As Mollie Katzen remembers it, that first dinner also included a vegetable salad with vinaigrette dressing and stacks of complimentary bread from a popular whole-grain bakery down the hall; for dessert there were brownies, yogurt-cream cheese pie, and maybe apple crisp. She also recalls that the restaurant's coffeemaker may well have been cadged from a dumpster, and that no one had thought to get change for the cash register, the kind of ancient model you'd find in an old-time barbershop. "It was either the first night or very shortly thereafter that we realized we were open to the public and not just to our friends," she says, "and that was a big shock."
Moosewood soon became a popular spot, not only among members of Ithaca's burgeoning counterculture but—with lunch priced at $1—with downtown workers looking for a hearty, affordable meal. Those early customers included Adler, a Human Ecology grad who was working at the public library for "what I thought was a gap year, which turned into my life." She ate there so often she became friends with the staff. "That was my introduction to international foods," she recalls. "I grew up in a family where the food was plentiful, and it was very good, but it was meat, vegetables, and potatoes. Suddenly I was having mulligatawny and tabouli, things that are standard now, but at the time there were all of these flavorings and seasonings that I'd never come across."
By 1974 Adler was waiting tables—and since the jobs were shared, she also got to work in the kitchen. "That is where I learned to cook, where most of us learned to cook," she says. "We taught ourselves and we taught each other and we learned from books. Our bible in the beginning was Anna Thomas's The Vegetarian Epicure, because she was the first person who brought to the national consciousness that there was a way of cooking vegetarian food that could draw on all these ethnic traditions and be savory and wonderful and adventurous. We used Indian spices like fenu-greek and cumin and coriander. We'd never heard of tamarind paste before—or Asian ingredients like hoisin sauce, fermented black beans, and fresh ginger. We began to understand how different combinations created different flavors. It was really eye-opening and stimulating."
Of the original seven founders, only Mollie Katzen had formal restaurant experience. After two years on the Hill, she'd transferred to the San Francisco Art Institute and then gone to work at Shandygaff, a cutting-edge vegetarian eatery in the city. ("We knew it was a cool restaurant," her brother notes, "because Crosby, Stills, and Nash ate there.") When Moosewood was getting ready to open, Katzen returned to Ithaca to join the group. "We had no recipes, which is why I wrote the book—it was originally a looseleaf notebook that we kept in the kitchen," she says. "We had these talented cooks who could make something delicious and we'd deconstruct it later, so we could make it again and so we could give the recipes to customers."
The first incarnation of the Moosewood Cookbook was about seventy pages long, spiral bound, photocopied, and collated by hand—as Katzen puts it, "like you would a flier for the PTA." Priced at $4, it was sold at a local bookstore, where the initial 800 copies flew out the door in two weeks. "It was a local phenomenon," she says. "It was amazing." Another 2,000 copies were printed; those sold out in six months. She printed another 2,000, fielding mail orders from Ithaca-esque cities like Berkeley, Santa Cruz, Seattle, and Madison. Just as she was about to sign a contract with Doubleday—which wanted to print a more buttoned-down version, without her distinctive hand-lettering and drawings—she got a call during the lunch rush, on the pay-phone that doubled as the restaurant's business line. It was the owner of Berkeley's Ten Speed Press, who wanted to publish the cookbook, complete with its quirky look and chatty, accessible voice. "He said, 'I'll FedEx something to you,' " she recalls, "and I said, 'What's FedEx?' "
The Moosewood Cookbook came out in 1977; by then Katzen had left the restaurant. (A dispute over the book's ownership led to years of legal wrangling; in the end, Katzen got the copyright but the collective retained the rights to the Moosewood name.) In the late Seventies, the original seven owners sold their interests in the restaurant to the newly created collective, and none of the founders remain involved—though several members of the current group have been affiliated with Moosewood since its first year or two of operation.
Over the years, the restaurant's business model has become more conventional. "We used to meet once a month and decide everything from the color of the carpet to which waste disposal company we'd work with," Adler says, but now such decisions are made by subcommittees. Rather than having everyone share every job, collective members specialize in areas like menu planning, publicity, and finance. The collective employs staff to run many of the day-to-day operations, and some members—like Adler, a pregnancy options counselor at Planned Parenthood—have outside careers. "We didn't have a long-term vision at all," Adler says, reflecting on the early days. "That is so antithetical to today, when everyone is so much more business savvy from such an early age. But we were taking it a day at a time, doing what we enjoyed and learning the business as we went along. We didn't set out to be restaurateurs, but that's what happened."