Deborah Madison–Vegetable Literacy

Staci Strauss

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deborah madison

Editor’s Note: Every time we converse with Deborah Madison we learn something new. Her latest book is full of vegetable literacy.

Did you know birds can’t feel the heat from chili peppers? That one reason to scrub, not peel, carrots is that you’ll rob them of some flavor, not to mention nutrition. She has vegetable literacy, alright.

Your latest book, Vegetable Literacy: Cooking and Gardening with Twelve Families From the Edible Plant Kingdom was recently recognized by IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals. How did that feel? Tell us about it.

Deborah Madison: Well, it’s mixed. On the one hand it’s an honor that you’re happy about, but the other books in your category might also be very good, or written by friends, and you want them to win, too.

From where did the idea for this book sprout?

DM: I had the idea for this book on my desktop for about 10 years before it started to take shape. I’d just add thoughts, articles, pictures–whatever— to this folder called Plant Families. But the more I was able to change my life to stay home and garden, the more the book came into view. Somehow there was a shift from cooking food to growing food and finally to doing both. Naturally.

Vegetable Literacy won (at IACP) in the category of ‘Health and Special Diet’. What do you think the book offers that placed it in this category?

DM: Personally I do not relate to this category. It’s the publisher who places a book in a particular category and I’ve always been stuck in the health and special diet and vegetarian categories since writing “The Greens Cookbook“, because it happened to be vegetarian. I don’t feel this is about health or being vegetarian or having a special diet in the least. It’s just basic stuff about the foods we eat. I eat plant foods with meats and assume my readers can and will as well if they wish to. (I also eat plenty of vegetarian meals, but that’s not because of health concerns. I just like the food and meat is more of ‘sometimes’ food, not a daily one.)

But I’ve always loved vegetables in the kitchen—their forms, beauty, colors and flavors.

Should we infer from your book’s title that there is ‘vegetable illiteracy’ out there?

DM: Yes! Despite which we still manage to shop for groceries and eat dinner. But most people have no idea of what plants are related to what and the qualities you might infer from those relationships—and this includes farmers, too. Not all, of course, but certainly more than a few. It’s fun to have this knowledge! It helps us open our eyes to the world, make sense of it, enter its mysteries, and cook with more confidence within families. No spinach? Beet greens and chard (close relatives) will easily take its place– also wild spinach (qualities) and Good King Henry and other goosefoots.

Tell us about the relationships between vegetables, edible flowers, and herbs within the same botanical families that you celebrate in the book. This is new ground you’re covering, isn’t it?

DM: The form of the flowers lead us to identify family members, like the cross-shaped flowers of the cruciferous family (the word is right there, really)–cabbages, arugula, kale, turnips, radishes etc. They all have similar flowers—simple blooms, four petals, different colors like white, pink, yellow, cream. The vegetables in the umbillifer family (carrots, fennel, parsnips, celery, celeriac etc.) all make umbels for flowers (think umbrellas) and generally go well with the herbs in that family —cumin, coriander, parsley, chervil, cilantro, dill, lovage and more. That’s a rather exceptional family in that there are so many herbs AND vegetables. But every family seems to have an herb—harsh epazote among the gentle goosefoots (chenopodiaceae); tarragon in the sunflower (asteraceae) family. The mint family—all herbs—it’s not limited to mint—it also includes such familiar herbs as rosemary, sage, thyme, marjoram, oregano, lavender, basil—also chia seeds (from a kind of sage) are found here. These are robust herbs that are generally very different form one another, but surprisingly, you might detect the scent of mint in sage blossoms, or in basil. Elements are woven through these members, just as elements of bitterness and difficulty arise among the sunflower family (asteraceae)–the bitter milky liquid that oozes from lettuce and chicory roots, bitterness in chicories, bolted lettuce, prickles and thorns among the artichokes and cardoons, a tendency to oxidize when salsify and burdock are peeled…

Talk about how the knowledge you’ve gained in your own garden that added to the allure of Vegetable Literacy.

DM: If you garden, you can’t help but begin to notice things, like those pretty blossoms in the cabbage family, or how similar the shapes of leaves are from one plant to another that happen to be related. You see your chard bolting skyward and pick it to compost, then maybe wonder if you can’t still eat the leaves, even though they are very small and far apart on the plant and nothing like the leaves earlier in the season (yes you can). Nor can you ignore that all the amaranths you planted cast hundred of seeds onto the ground which mostly seemed to germinate the following spring–these are really prolific plants! Or that cardoons are scratchy, big, awkward to handle, and handsome–so maybe better as an ornamental? There’s just so much to notice and see. I find it very exciting.

Tell us the story of that ‘second-year carrot gone to seed’ that started this whole vegetable literacy business!

DM: Carrots bloom  their second year and when quite a few carrots I had ignored made their flowers, I was not only enchanted by their beautify, but realized that they were similar to my lovage and parsley and cilantro in bloom. Then I started planting herbs in that family, like cumin and anise–same thing. Just the scale and the details were smaller. And I noticed Queen Anne’s Lace in the midwest, and an ornamental in the same family that a farmer was selling at the market. I also noticed that the carrot blooms from red carrots were faintly pink at first. I guess that’s when the world of relationships among plants started to really come into view for me.

Here’s a quote from a review in the Christian Science Monitor by Kendra Nordin: “With Madison’s long career in restaurants, farmers’ markets, and the slow food movement, following her through Vegetable Literacy is a bit like trailing her through the vegetable patch.” What’s your reaction?

DM: I don’t know what to say about that quote. It’s true, I’ve approached vegetables from these different angles because I’m more of a plant person than anything else and of course they’re going to show up in all these different ways. But that doesn’t mean that ignore issues around animals and meat production and all of that.

It’s obvious you have a deep love of and appreciation for vegetables in all their guises. From where do you think this admiration comes?

DM: I’m not sure. My father was a botanist and we always had a garden and he was amazing with plants. My brother is a botanist and a farmer and I visit him often. But I was pretty indifferent and never considered planting anything until I was 35 and was faced with an ugly, bare patch of ground. The minute I planted that first sage plant, though, I was hooked. That’s all I wanted to do–plant a garden, design a garden, get to know my California natives, etc. I do remember that during the 7 years of writing Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, I was constantly frustrated that each summer I’d have to put off really getting into the garden. Finally I just had to change my life to do that. If you want to grow plants, you have to pretty much stay home. But I’ve always loved vegetables in the kitchen—their forms, beauty, colors and flavors. They are very enchanting and you don’t need to grow them to realize that.

Literally as I was composing these questions, the news of your book being named a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award came over the transom. It looks like you have a hit on your hands. What do you think? How does it feel?

DM: If people really liked this book enough to think it has some merit, I’m thrilled! 

Thank you, Deborah, for your time today.

DM: Thank you. I enjoyed it.

Photo credit: Patrick McFarlin