A look at Deborah Madison’s memoir,
An Onion in My Pocket: My life with Vegetables
By Pam Walker
Deborah Madison has published fourteen cookbooks in a span of thirty years, beginning in 1987 with The Greens Cook Book and, most recently, in 2017, In My Kitchen. She is probably best known for Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, first published in 1997 and revised and expanded in 2014. Her work has earned many highly prized awards, including her 2016 induction into the James Beard Foundation Cookbook Hall of Fame. Now comes her memoir, An Onion in My Pocket: My Life with Vegetables. It recounts her changing relationship to food as eater, chef, author, and activist from childhood to the present.
This book brings to fruition numerous attempts over many years to write a memoir, Madison told me on a hot August afternoon over chilled turmeric, lemon, and ginger tea at her Galisteo home. “The first try was in the distant past,” she said, “at Hedgebrook, a Washington State writers retreat.” Much later, as she started writing what would become An Onion in My Pocket, she had articulated a guiding question for herself: “What is it about food that interests me, that really matters to me?”
She discovered, not before she began the memoir but in the course of writing it, that nourishment, deep nourishment, is what matters most to her about food. What is deep nourishment? Where does it come from? Reflecting on her own life and speculating about others’ lives, she writes in the last and longest chapter, called “Nourishment,” that deep nourishment comes from “encounters with food that lodged in our memories because they had the power to change how we saw the world and how we walked in it.” And deep nourishment isn’t primarily about food. It is really about “food that nourished with kindness, thoughtfulness, care, simplicity, and generosity. And it had nothing to do with the food itself, whether it was vegetarian or not.” To illustrate this sense of deep nourishment and emphasize its importance, Madison devotes the book’s final thirty pages to a series of vignettes of meals in various places and times that nourished her deeply.
Some vignettes portray meals that accord with Madison’s fidelity to “eating food in its place and its season,” but many do not. One of these takes place in Flagstaff, where she lived a few years after leaving San Francisco and before moving to Santa Fe in the early 1980s. A Flagstaff friend invites her to lunch, and it turns out to be steak fried in salad oil and zucchini cooked in a whole stick of margarine. To her surprise, she finds it delicious, and she leaves with what proves to be a lasting memory of her friend at his stove, tending the steak and zucchini in separate cast-iron skillets, and of him at the table, smiling big as she praises the food.
In this last chapter and elsewhere throughout the book, Madison portrays deep nourishment as the result of embracing hospitality by being flexible instead of rigid in eating practices. Although she is generally pegged as a vegetarian because of the success and influence of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone and because all of her books exclude meat or fish recipes except Local Flavors, she doesn’t identify herself as a vegetarian. To her, this label is “about pushing food away,” something she doesn’t do. She finds it rude to tell a host what you don’t eat, as is commonly done these days.
She thinks of herself as an omnivore who prefers vegetables to meat. But she does occasionally cook meat, and when she does, she buys not feedlot products but meat from animals raised rotationally on pastures by local ranchers and farmers. Pasture-based meat, poultry, dairy, and egg producers typically subdivide pastures into paddocks, often with portable fencing. Based on rainfall and vegetation conditions and related factors at any given time, they rotate the animals among the paddocks. These timely, carefully calibrated rotations make it possible for animals to simultaneously eat directly from the land and fertilize it as they defecate, urinate, and work the excrement into the soil with their hooves or feet or claws.
Madison acknowledges the greater cost of eating pasture-based meat compared with that from confined animals but sees this as an incentive for eating meat infrequently and eating it in small amounts and valuing its quality and ecological appropriateness. As an advocate of this type of regenerative animal agriculture, Madison in recent years has twice served on the board of the Southwest Grassfed Livestock Alliance (SWGLA), a Santa Fe-based nonprofit organization of ranchers, farmers, conservationists, researchers, chefs, and consumers working to advance regenerative animal agriculture. “I don’t believe that not eating meat (or eating Impossible Burgers) will solve our big problems, such as climate change,” she writes in her memoir, “but changing the nature of modern meat would help us be healthier.”
To help inform herself and others about regenerative animal agriculture, Madison has hosted tastings for SWGLA events. “Last year, we had a great tasting of dishes from different breeds of cattle,” she told me, “and it was very interesting.”
Madison became a chef not through formal culinary schooling but through personal experience, first as head cook at the San Francisco Zen Center, where, after college, she lived and practiced Buddhism for twenty years. Following that, she was a pastry chef at Chez Panisse for a brief while and then was tapped by the Zen Center to establish its vegetarian Greens Restaurant. She worked there for three years, and the recipes and menus she created became the basis of her first book.
Becoming a chef, however, wasn’t anything that, in her early twenties and fresh from college, she had in mind to do. Nothing in her upbringing disposed her to be a chef or even to be much interested in cooking. Her father was a botanist who taught at the University of California, Davis, and her mother was a professional artist and writer. Her mother was the main cook but not especially interested in food or cooking. She purchased food frugally and bought meat infrequently, allocating the savings for her four children’s music, dance, and art lessons.
Madison’s father was less parsimonious and enjoyed cooking but did so only when his wife spent a week each August in Connecticut with her family. “Instead of shredded wheat for breakfast,” Madison writes, “we had bacon and fried eggs.” For dinner, they might have “chicken and dumplings, pot roasts, and short ribs, followed by pies and cobblers for dessert.”
The Zen Center led Madison into cooking only by chance. She didn’t go there anticipating any such thing. She had long been interested in Japanese culture from her acquaintances with a number of Japanese people in Davis through her father’s teaching. After she graduated with a degree in sociology from the University of California, Santa Cruz, she worked in San Francisco, took classes in Japanese and meditation, and traveled for part of the summer of 1969 with her brother to Japan. Returning from the trip and wondering how to go about Buddhism, she happened to receive a postcard announcing an intensive, week-long sesshin, an uninterrupted period of focused, silent meditation that would take place in San Francisco. She had doubts about her stamina for the rigorous program but decided to go.
The strenuous course of meditations and the simple yet savory meals affected her profoundly and served to initiate her into the practice of Zen, including eventually becoming an ordained priest. Reflecting on that week, Madison writes. . .
it has turned out that my way through the thick and thin patches in life, the worldly and spiritual places of life, has been a sensual one, one that needs hands, soil, smells, and food for fodder, for direction. Looking back, I’m not so surprised that a bowl of rice, a few sesame seeds, the sour, and salty tastes on the tongue, were what opened the world of Zen practice for me.
She moved into the center, and soon after, the head cook announced he’d be leaving. In a group discussion about who would replace him, Madison writes that “her hand shot up.” Only in that moment did she realize she wanted to do this.
Cooking outlasted Zen. Madison left the Zen Center when she was in her late thirties. The center was changing greatly by then. Under an abbot she describes as “a near-miss for a CEO,” the meditation practices and the culture of the center itself were diverging from what she had experienced for most of her time there and had found meaningful. She hasn’t been part of a Zen community since, though she occasionally sits in meditation on her own.
“I tend to consider myself a recovering Buddhist,” she writes and explains that she hasn’t much discussed the years of practice because they took place a long time ago and because she sometimes regrets not doing some of the things that many others typically do in the formative years of young adulthood — going to graduate school, establishing careers, earning salaries instead of meager stipends, starting families.
“Those years are hard to talk about because they were bizarre in a way,” she told me in our conversation, “a little not with the world.” I asked whether her feelings toward those years are, on the whole, ambivalent, or, on the whole, regretful. “I would say they are ambivalent,” she replied and noted that much of that time was wonderful.
Indeed, a fundamental facet of her work as a chef, cookbook author, and food activist is rooted in the earliest days of those Zen years. Madison traces her abiding interest in how and where food is grown to the moment in 1971 that she first heard the first line of a meal chant at the Zen Center’s monastery, Tassajara: “Seventy-two labors brought us this rice, we should know how it comes to us.” This exhortation stayed with her and prompted her to begin her lifelong cultivation of knowledge about food and growing food, including “the conditions of the farmworkers, the provenance of seeds, the life of the soil, as well as the lives of the growers, farmers, ranchers, and their animals.”
During Madison’s thirty years of living and working in the Santa Fe area, she has in various ways fostered knowledge of how food comes to us. She touches on some of these projects in her memoir.
The first year she lived in Santa Fe, she managed the farmers’ market, and for eleven years afterward served on the board of a friends-of-the-market organization. Also soon after moving to Santa Fe, she opened Café Escalera in partnership with chef David Tanis, operating it from 1991 to 1997 and tapping into her connections with local farmers to feature locally grown food. Following that, she and a friend founded Slow Food Santa Fe in 2000. They organized meals and discussions with the forty or so members of the group. In addition to hosting meals, Slow Food Santa Fe sponsored several people to travel to Turin for Slow Food International’s Terra Madre Salone del Gusto, which annually brings together farmers, food artisans, and activists from all over the world. Madison has also taken a hand in school gardens, creating one at Monte del Sol, a charter high school, in 2014.
Madison’s current community projects revolve around two organizations, the Santa Fe Extension Master Gardeners and the Rio Grande Grain Team. Madison completed master gardener training in 2017 and ever since has been involved in some of its service programs. She helps maintain the organization’s demonstration vegetable garden at the Santa Fe Fairground and also helps create and maintain gardens of native plants in the Santa Fe area.
The Rio Grande Grain Team is a group of eight or so Santa Fe area gardeners and farmers who cultivate a wide variety of heritage grains — grains grown prior to chemical agriculture — on a small farm in Alcalde. The group formed when its participants became acquainted with each other in 2018 at the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance (RMSA) grain school at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs. The purpose of the RMSA’s grain schools and grain-growing projects is to discover, through growing trials, which varieties of heritage grains can thrive in particular places. On the basis of these discoveries, RMSA and trial teams work to get more growers to grow the grains, diversify local grain production, and market the grains locally.
Madison is enthusiastic about heritage grains — from planting, harvesting, and threshing with the group, to milling and cooking at home. “It’s a fascinating world that is unfolding for me right now,” she writes in the memoir.
What else does Madison have in the works? Another potential book project is underway, and it isn’t a cookbook. She briefly mentions this in her memoir and doesn’t say what sort of book it might be, so I asked about it in our conversation. She replied that the project is a study of botany and botanical illustration, and she’s not at the point of doing a book.
“Except,” she wrote in a follow-up email, “that I’d love to do one on dicotyledons or monocotyledons. (The first ‘leaves’ that appear.)”
The official publication date of An Onion in My Pocket: My Life with Vegetables is November 10, 2020.