If there is one book that will encourage you to stay home
and cook this winter, it is "Passionate Vegetarian" by Crescent Dragonwagon.
Partly, that is because it is stuffed with more than 1,000 recipes, most of
them enticing to vegetarians and carnivores alike.
Partly, that is because the book is a Herculean 1,120 pages, and it is too
heavy to carry around for reading on the train.
Partly, it is because "Passionate Vegetarian" (Workman Publishing Co.,
$24.95) is so beautifully written. It seems like a direct and logical result of
a life lived richly and fully. (Crescent Dragonwagon, who changed her name
from Ellen Zolotow in the '70s, which, of course, was really "the '60s," was
living that way long before Citibank put up billboards urging us to do so.) It
is a cookbook seasoned by a story. The story is of shared food memories, love
and loss, joy and renewal.
Dragonwagon, also the author of 40 children's books, is a New York native
who, with her husband, Ned Shank, owned Dairy Hollow House, an acclaimed
country inn in Eureka Springs, Ark., that is now the nonprofit Writers' Colony
at Dairy Hollow. Most of the book was written while Shank was still alive, and
after he died it became a kind of scrapbook of the couple's life together, as
well as a recipe book. Dragonwagon ("a children's book name," she has said,
"like Dr. Seuss") decided to go ahead and dedicate the book to him anyway, as
she had planned.
"What a feast we had," Dragonwagon writes. She means that on several levels.
Shank and Dragonwagon met over an apple crisp at a potluck dinner in Little
Rock in 1977. As she set her warm dessert on the table, she writes, she looked
"straight into the large blue eyes of Ned Shank, with whom I would share the
next 23 years." It was "Some Enchanted Evening," she writes, except that over
the aromas of buttery oatmeal and brown sugar, "it was earthier."
For his contribution to the supper, Shank, who threw pottery, had brought
salad in a handmade blue and gray bowl that Dragonwagon still sets great store
by. "Ridged rings, still visible and tactile, climbed its side," she writes,
"left by his long, confident fingers, which had coaxed the once-pliable clay up
and out as his long legs kicked and turned the pottery wheel."
A man of many "side talents," as Dragonwagon describes it, Shank was a
music preservationist and played banjo, fiddle and harmonica. He was a champion
packer; he once packed an antique tea set of paper-thin bone china in such a
way that it journeyed from Portland, Ore., to Eureka Springs, Ark., and arrived
without a single broken teacup. He could "fix almost anything out of
anything," and "once made a very elegant light fixture for my mother out of a
tuna can spray-painted black." He was a handy man to have around a kitchen.
Shank sketched, too, and in the last year of his life made 500 drawings. His
only children's book, "The Sanyasin's First Day," was published that year.
India, and at home.
Sometimes, Dragonwagon writes, they shared "the overall experience: not
just the first bite of the apple pie made from the first Arkansas apples of the
season, but having driven to the farmer's market in Berryville on the first
fall morning cold enough to wear sweaters," and later, "Ned sitting on the
kitchen step-stool reading aloud to me as I peeled and sliced the fruit, then
mixed and rolled the crust he would later scrape remnants of from the bread
board as he brought the kitchen back to order again."
One November day in 2000, Shank rode his bicycle not to the Conoco station
he called "Canoe-Co," because folks rented canoes there, but "into eternity."
For a while after that, grieving, Dragonwagon barely ate. When she began to
say yes to food again, she writes, she also was saying "yes to life on its own
inherently high-risk terms, which offer no guarantees.
"What we eat is part of the way we are rooted to our very temporary home in
the world," she continues in the introduction. "Eating well honors life. For
me it means honoring Ned and the feast we had together, too."
Over the years, the bowl held strawberries, green salads, bean stews, corn
bread. It is still here.
"That bowl seems to me radiant," writes Dragonwagon. "It ... contains not
just food and personal history, but the nonnegotiable fact that one lover
outlasts another, that objects outlast those who make and use them, and love
itself goes on, despite its fragility and our knowledge of this."
To any of us who think about how we could survive without our life's
companion, or about how he or she would go on without us, these are words of
wisdom and comfort.
Who has not thought of such matters?
"Have you talked to Crescent Dragonwagon?" my editor asked.
"I don't think I need to," I replied. "She's said it all."
The book's subtitle, "More Than 1,000 Robust Recipes With Notes on Cooking,
Eating, Loving, and Living Fearlessly," is, it turns out, true and right. You
get more than recipes here.
Cook from it and make memories of golden summer corn soup decorated with
edible maroon-red nasturtiums; beans baked with coffee, brown sugar, chili
powder and chipotle peppers; Thai- Malaysian curry-ginger marinade for tofu;
soy-scalloped potatoes with pesto; spaghetti "pancake" of eggs, pasta, cheese,
Of the recipe below, Dragonwagon writes, "No matter how many of these you
make, you'll wish there'd been more." (A lot of life is like that, isn't it?)
If you increase the quantity, don't double the oil.
This one's for Ned.
Ned's Fiery Oven French-Bakes
Cooking spray (optional)
3 to 4 medium-large red- or white-skinned boiling potatoes, washed, eyes
removed, peel left on, sliced into 1/4-inch-wide French fry strips
4 to 5 cloves garlic, pressed (or smashed)
2 teaspoons olive oil
2 tablespoons tamari or shoyu soy sauce, or to taste
1 to 3 teaspoons Tabasco sauce, or to taste
2 tablespoons rice wine or other unseasoned vinegar
6 to 8 grinds black pepper
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place rack on highest position in oven.
2. Spray a baking sheet with cooking spray. Set aside.
3. Place potatoes in a bowl. Add garlic and oil, tossing to coat potatoes
well with oil. Sprinkle with tamari, Tabasco and vinegar and toss again.
4. Transfer potatoes to prepared baking sheet, spreading them out so they
are in a single layer. Grind on the pepper.
5. Bake, removing from oven to shake and turn potatoes about every 10
minutes, for 25 to 30 minutes. Test for doneness and continue baking until
browned, cooked through and starting to crisp up on the skinny ends. Serve hot.
Makes 2 servings.