An artist by training, a cookbook author by happenstance, Nava Atlas has become one of the more unlikely successes in vegetarian cooking. Because of her initial training as an artist, Nava has released some of the more unique vegetarian cookbooks on the market, including Vegetariana, her labor of love that features not only healthy and hearty recipes, but also a nice dose of history and quotes related to vegetarianism as well as a bookful of original illustrations done by the author herself.
Nava’s cookbooks aren’t all for the eye, though. Her focuses range from regional American cooking (Great American Vegetarian) to holiday cooking (Vegetarian Celebrations) to simple, quick dishes (the new Vegetarian 5-Ingredient Gourmet and Vegetarian Express) to soup-by-the-season (Vegetarian Soups for All Seasons). She’s received positive reviews from Shape magazine, the Burlington Free Press, and the New York Daily News, and rightfully so: her recipes provide great taste and texture in a healthy fashion that’s accessible to the amateur home cook.
When did you become vegetarian and for what reasons? Why type of vegetarian are you now (and did it come in stages?)?
I’ve been a vegetarian for nearly 30 years, though for about 5 or 6 of those, I occasionally ate fish, so my sons don’t think those “count.” I became a vegetarian primarily because meat just viscerally made me uncomfortable. All the other reasons came later. My two sons, ages 12 and 10, are already lifelong vegetarians. I can officially call myself a lacto vegetarian now. I gave up eggs not long ago. But I only use organic dairy products.
What are the differences and similarities in the vegetarian movement when you stopped eating meat versus today?
I became a vegetarian 30 years ago or so. It was still considered quite an oddity and novelty. It provoked a lot more questions, and though many people are still confused about what vegetarians eat, for the most part, people accept it as an alternative. Today there are more vegans, and there is greater availability of vegetarian proteins such as tofu, tempeh, and the various soy-based meat alternatives. Vegetarian cookbooks in the 60s (the few that there were) were the “sprouts and brown rice” variety, as were vegetarian restaurant menus.
In the early 70s, people like Mollie Katzen (Moosewood Cookbook) and Anna Thomas (The Vegetarian Epicure) made vegetarian meals very luscious and rich; perhaps more so than we do today, but it put across the point that vegetarian cuisine could be delicious and not look like a plateful of brown glop. From there, things gradually evolved to where they are today.
Today, I think the strongest movements are veganism, due to ethical concerns, and far more kids and teens are also deciding to become vegetarians on their own, again, mainly for ethical reasons, and from the e-mail I get from them (or their concerned parents), they don’t really know much about how to make the transition; the desire to do so is greater than the means to implement it.
What are the main obstacles for vegetarians today?
I honestly don’t think there are any! There are so many resources, books, web sites, and foods, that it’s more a matter of holding to one’s convictions than anything else.
What kind of issues have your children faced as life-long vegetarians? Have they ever come home and shown any doubt in their vegetarian lifestyle?
Luckily their path has been easy. They go to a progressive school whose lunch program is primarily vegetarian (though they still want Mom to pack their lunch every day). If anything, they are getting ever more militant, at ages 10 and 12. They curse fast-food commercials, and are even concerned that most of their food is organic. We’ve become more aware of the issues surrounding agribusiness, so as a family we have become more strict about limiting non-organic produce, etc. The boys still like milk and eggs but we always use organic versions.
Wow — concerns about organic foods at ages 10 and 12. That’s impressive. Have other parents in your community been supportive of your decision to raise your children vegetarian, or do you still encounter the stereotypical, “Are they getting enough protein?”-type response?
The Hudson Valley is a rural/progressive region and there is a lot of sophistication about food. So luckily, no, I don’t get that tired old protein question. What I get more of is people I know calling and telling me that their child wants to be a vegetarian, and asking how to create a more balanced diet for them.
What prompted you to write your first book?
I never intended to become known as a cookbook author! My background is in illustration, fine art, and graphic design. From the time I started to cook for myself, though, I always enjoyed it. Soon after I married, my husband, who gave up meat as soon as we became an item, urged me to write down the recipes for the meals I made for us. As a non-cook himself, he was amazed at my improvisations as well as my attempts to re-create the dishes we had in NYC’s ethnic restaurants.
After a couple of years, I found myself with a slew of recipes and thought it would be fun to try to combine them somehow with my illustration and design skills. The result was my first book, Vegetariana: A Rich harvest of Wit, Lore, and Recipes. It’s really an offbeat cookbook and still my favorite. It was published in 1984 (revised in 1993) and is still available.
With The 5-Ingredient Vegetarian Gourmet, was your target audience recent vegetarian converts or long-time vegetarians looking for a good collection of easier-to-prepare meals?
I actually think this book’s audience might be primarily non-vegetarians or those looking to add more vegetarian meals to their repertoire. A lot of people who I hear from who have bought this book are not necessarily vegetarians. Though one of my former editors said he thought it was wonderful for his lazy/busy vegetarian family. Experienced vegetarians may enjoy the simple approach, though there may be no great revelations for them. Maybe the core audience for this book would be busy people for who healthy meals would otherwise be daunting. I also think it’s good for families with kids, as I have observed that kids are more likely to eat things that are simply prepared.
What do you feel separates your books from, say, Moosewood books or VRG books?
Moosewood’s books, VRG’s books, Mollie Katzen’s books, etc. etc, are all excellent. It’s amazing and delightful that there are so many choices. My earlier books distinguished themselves through my use of my own illustrations and food-related quotations and anecdotes. I think that’s how I made my reputation. In V5IG my illustrations are very simple (like the recipes) and the design, which was done by the publisher, is appropriately minimalist.
After this, I’m working on some new books that are not cookbooks, and which go back to using my original, lush style of illustration, which I stopped doing for some years after my little vegetarians were born.
What types of books will these be?
These will be a fairly wide range of books, once I get the momentum. Most will be women’s interest-type books?gently humorous and inspirational?I hope! A few years ago, I wrote a parody of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” called “Expect the Unexpected When You’re Expecting!” It was published by HarperCollins, though under a pseudonym based on the original authors’ names. It was a fun experience, though I must admit the book didn’t take hold like my cookbooks seem to.
What do you see in vegetarianism’s future?
Quite honestly, I am surprised that there is not a stronger movement toward full-fledged vegetarianism. The numbers have been pretty flat for many years. It surprises me since there is so much more known now about the evils of fast food, the horrendous practices of the meat industry, the proliferation of food-borne illness such as e coli and salmonella, etc. It’s quite an uphill battle, as I see it.
I think it’s only a matter of time before there is a documented case of Mad Cow disease in this country. Unfortunately, and I hate to say it, but it may take such a calamity to make the mainstream rethink their eating habits.
There is certainly more acceptance of vegetarianism, and vegetarian meals are definitely seen as more appealing than ever before. Maybe the future of vegetarianism lies with the current generation of kids and teens who tie their eating habits with ethical and environmental beliefs.
Media events like World Vegetarian Day (Oct. 1) and Great American Meatout (First day of each spring) will continue to create awareness. And I hear a rumor that Oct. 1 to Oct. 7 is now Say No to Fast Food Week. How cool!
In a Vegetarian Kitchen
Nava Atlas’ site, which features a nice selection of recipes and general vegetarian info.
Nava Atlas’ books
Amazon’s listing of Nava Atlas’ books.
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