Long, long ago, in an Austin that doesn’t really exist anymore, two hippies lived in a ramshackle house. Other than proximity to the University of Texas campus, the house didn’t have much to recommend it, but it did have a big kitchen where the couple could cook together.
Most of the recipes they cooked came from the same source. When it was published in 1972, “The Vegetarian Epicure” signaled a new and different approach to cooking, and not just for its insistence on meatless meals. Author Anna Thomas wrote the recipes in a conversational style, and illustrated the book not with photos of the finished food but with whimsical line drawings of people, animals and vegetables. Thomas’ message was that, as long as the ingredients were carefully selected, the precise outcome didn’t matter.
Though neither vegetarians nor epicures, the young cooks managed to make almost every recipe in “The Vegetarian Epicure.” Some became part of a regular rotation, while some were too complicated and a few were just too ... vegetarian. It’s hard to get beef-raised Texans to rally behind Thomas’ edict that “Buckwheat groats are phenomenal,” but vegetables, for the most part really are.
What, you may wonder, happened to those young cooks? Now back in our hometown of Galveston, Dan Bond and I are still cooking together, and still neither vegetarians nor epicures. We still don’t like buckwheat groats. We’re still fans of Anna Thomas, though, and still make some of the recipes from her 1972 cookbook and two subsequent ones. One of our enduring favorites is Mushrooms Berkeley, a wine-sauced mushroom stew. Any kind of fresh mushrooms can be used, but crimini mushrooms, often marketed as “baby portobellos” have a richer flavor than the white button mushrooms and are just as readily available.
Mushrooms Berkeley calls for bell peppers, and again, there’s no right or wrong way to go, but red bell peppers will produce a sweeter sauce than green ones. While the recipe specifies “mellow” red wine, any kind from Chianti to Cabernet will make an aromatic, deep-flavored sauce.
There’s an odd symmetry in cooking the same dishes for all these years. We started cooking to a backdrop of will-he-or-won’t-he news stories about the beleaguered Nixon administration, and now we fix dinner while listening to news reports that sound remarkably similar. Now cooking our way through our ninth President, “The Vegetarian Epicure” has been one of the few constants in the kitchen.
For Anna Thomas, that first book was less of a constant. In a 1996 sequel, she seemed somewhat abashed about its impact. “I wrote the original “Vegetarian Epicure” when I was barely out of my teens, in a rush of enthusiasm,” she noted. “It was a guilt-free era, when butter and cream were used without a care and cheese ruled. Today, of course, our attitudes are different, and I say thank goodness they are.”
Fast-forward to 2018, and the pendulum has swung back, and butter and cheese are once again OK, though perhaps in more moderation than in 1972. No doubt another cycle will come around in another decade or two, and no doubt it will find Dan and me still cooking Mushrooms Berkeley.