Multiple-award winning author Deborah Madison is calling it quits on cookbooks, after 30 years, but she’s not done with writing. To the contrary, she’s working on a memoir.
She wrote 14 cookbooks during those three decades, which comes down to an average of just over one book every two years. It’s a grueling schedule, but she seems to have thrived on it, and she’s ready for a new kind of writing.
I met with Deborah recently at the Santa Fe farmer’s market, where she was once the manager. We strolled the booths while Deborah introduced my husband and me to farmers and purveyors. Deb and I met in 1995, at a now-deceased Syposium for Professional Food Writers, and we’ve stayed in touch. While she still loves to cook, and she still devours new cookbooks and new kinds of cooking, now she has time to reflect on her books, her job as a vegetable ambassador, and more.
She also has time to teach. At the end of this post, you’ll find a link to her class on cookbook success.
Here’s what Deborah Madison has learned from 30 years of writing cookbooks:
Q. Your last cookbook (In My Kitchen) came out in 2017 and your first one (The Greens Cookbook) came out in 1987. How have your cookbooks changed over the years?
A. I’ve written cookbooks that cover a lot of different subjects and styles. For the first cookbook, my staff at Greens needed help: they didn’t know how how to hold a knife or peel a vegetable. They were from the San Francisco Zen Center and didn’t necessarily want to be in my kitchen. So I wrote for people like them.
Vegetable Literacy is almost all narrative. My editor said she thought it needed recipes. They’re often very simple but they do illustrate the vegetables I’m talking about. But my latest cookbook is very narrative.
Q. And how has your style of cooking changed ?
A. In a lot of ways it’s probably simpler because I’m not as obsessed as I used to be and I’m not cooking in a restaurant. It’s not New Mexican, although I love the food and flavors. I’m basically a Californian, but I’ll cook anything.
I’m in a different place now because my husband Patrick needs warm food, with sauces, because of his tonsil cancer. He doesn’t quite have his sense of taste back. I’m cooking for someone with those conditions, and it’s influencing what I make.
I’m actually cooking from my own books, and it’s fun to get to know them again.
Q. What about how vegetarian cooking has changed?
A. When Greens started we were introducing colorful, bright, sophisticated and fun foods. It hadn’t been that. It had been dour, brown and heavy. I was cooking for lots of people who were not vegetarian – women dragging their husbands in on the weekends. I’m writing about all this in my memoir now. Now I think it’s not so necessary to make such complicated food.
Also I was there in the ’80s. It was such a time of rich everything: cream and cheese and butter.
When I was the founding chef at Café Escalera in Santa Fe, we were interested in authentic foods and why they were the way they were. Now that doesn’t seem to matter. I guess I’m old fashioned. You can’t make hummus with lentil puree. I’ve seen tacos with root vegetables in them but it’s not what I would call a taco.
Q. Have you had to adapt to vegan ingredients like coconut milk and cashew cream?
A. I’m happy to use coconut oil and coconut milk. Cashew cream can go in a lot of different directions. Fake cheeses and bacons are more troubling to me, but I try to keep an open mind about it. Somebody might make them really well, and then we’d have a whole new food.
A lot of my recipes happen to be vegan. Romesco sauce is one of the best things in the world but it didn’t get created to be vegan.
Q. Did you mind being boxed in as a vegetarian cookbook writer?
A. Yeah, sure. It’s really limiting. I have lots of interests in the food world that I’m not viewing in a vegetarian light. I was always slotted into the ‘beans and greens’ chapter. It gets very tiresome.
Q. Did you ever propose a cookbook with meat?
A. There was a time when I was really irritated and I said I was going to write the All Beef and Pork cookbook. But it’s not something I love. If you want to serve my food alongside meat, that’s fine with me.
I have always put in suggestions about serving things with meat, even in The Greens Cookbook. I’ve never been secretive about it. Local Flavors has 11 recipes for meat, because meat is sold at farmer’s markets. I never had any negative feedback.
Q. Why did you decide it was time to stop writing cookbooks?
A. I don’t want to have to keep up and change what I do. It’s time for other people to do that and I’m happy for them to.
Q. What did you learn from over 30 years of cookbook writing?
A. In terms of writing recipes, I learned it’s really hard to write a recipe that takes everything into account. Is the water hard or soft? Are your beans really old? Have you checked your oven recently?
All these things are part of cooking and they make a difference. If you just try to explain that in every recipe you’ll go nuts. You’ll be really bossy. We always have to be intuitive. That’s part of cooking. It’s not just about a recipe.
It shocks me when I say that, because 30 years is a long time to be writing recipes!
Q. Which of your books was your favorite and why?
Q. Which has sold the most copies?
Q. Do you feel that any of your books misunderstood, or were you disappointed by their reception?
A. I loved my dessert book. I was a pastry chef twice, and this book was fun to write because I got in touch with a lot of people. It never got the attention I thought it should have.
I thought Vegetarian Suppers was a book people would love, because it was a collection of dinners with wine parings. I thought it would be really useful for people who like to entertain or families who have diverse eaters, but I don’t think it’s ever earned out and I really worked hard on it. It’s hard to come up with a vegetarian entrée. I struggle with that a lot.
Q. What do you think about the current love for vegetables in cookbooks?
A. I think it’s great that vegetables are interesting. They weren’t particularly interesting in 1979. We didn’t have arugula and golden beets and fingerling potatoes. And now we have so many vegetables of all hue and stripe —and flavor!
Q. Which cookbooks, besides your own, do you cook from regularly?
A. I love Paula Wolfert’s Mediteranean Grains and Greens. I do like Ottolenghi’s books and The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, Nancy Singleton Hashisu’s latest book on Japan, All Under Heaven, and Chinese Soul Food.
I like Diana Henry‘s books a lot. I went to grain school in January so now I’m looking again at books on baking by Carol Field and a host of writers on grains. And I’m baking. Nancy Silverton’s Mozza cookbook. Marcus Samuelsson’s The Red Rooster Cookbook.
Dirt Candy is a fine book. It’s smart. Amanda Cohen and I share the same frustration. We want vegetarian food to be more inclusive, to be about cooking.
Q. How has writing cookbooks prepared you for writing memoir?
A. The discipline is the same. I was frustrated writing cookbooks because you get a little tiny paragraph. Now I’m learning about writing in a really different way. My latest cookbook, also with recipes, has a larger narrative component as well.
Q. Do you think you have more than one memoir in you?
A. I think so. Most of us probably do.
Q. Are you still teaching?
A. I have private clients who come and do cooking lessons in my kitchen. I will happily arrange my schedule if someone wants to come. I’m not doing classes in cooking schools anymore.
But I’m still teaching writing. My latest cookbook writing class is coming up. It’s at the Santa Fe Photographic Workshop in September. It’s four days, September 17-20. There are big lunches and people can stay there or not, and it’s in a beautiful part of Santa Fe, in an old Carmelite nunnery.
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(Top photo by Erin Scott.)
(Disclosure: This post contains afiliate links.)