From the author of “Drink Lightly,” a low-alcohol cocktail with fresh strawberry.
A writer journeys to the pioneering vegetarian restaurant on its 50th anniversary.
I FIRST ENCOUNTERED the Moosewood Collective’s recipes as a curious, culinarily inclined teen. I was raised by two serially entertaining parents and their group of artist friends. On many nights, my home was filled with actors, writers, and painters: my “aunties and uncles.” They would gather around the kitchen island, over what I would later learn was Moosewood’s Tunisian Vegetable Stew. I would fall asleep breathing in its spices, to the sounds of them laughing and singing.
After I became vegetarian in my late teens (I’ve been entirely vegan since 2009), one of those “aunties” gifted me a copy of Mollie Katzen’s “Moosewood Cookbook.” I was taken by its conversational style, flexibility, and illustrations. It didn’t take itself seriously, the recipes didn’t require fancy equipment, and the ingredients were easy to find and affordable on my meager student budget. The cookbook inspired me to gather my friends at my tiny thrifted dining-room table over bowls of spicy tomato soup, leafy green salads, and stuffed eggplant. I learned how to cook, host, and, like my parents, create a collective of my own. I was embracing the true spirit of Moosewood: gathering over a meal, talking, laughing, and leaving satiated.
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In the decade and a half since, I’ve cooked my way through the book. Yet, I’d never been to the restaurant that started it all. So, on the eve of Moosewood’s 50th anniversary, I packed my car and drove to Ithaca, New York.
The restaurant still stands on North Cayuga Street in downtown, just as it has since 1973, albeit a little differently. It has now over doubled in size and is no longer collectively owned (in 1978, its original owners sold the restaurant to the staff, who became known as the Moosewood Collective). During the pandemic closure, the remaining 19 collective members — most of whom had moved from Ithaca and were of retirement age — decided that the collectively owned model was no longer viable. It was also no secret that the quality of the food had diminished and getting back to the original vision would require a lot of work.
Danica Wilcox, the daughter of early Moosewood member Kathleen “Kip” Wilcox had attempted to find a buyer, but after a prospect fell through, she realized that no one but she would steward the institution. And Moosewood was a special place to her: One of her first jobs was in its dish pit, and, for a time, her family rented an apartment above the collective. Her husband, Nicholas Woods, and she bought the restaurant and moved with their young son from the Spanish island of Mallorca to run it. After taking some time to renovate and reimagine a menu that would be modern, but still true Moosewood, they reopened in March of 2022.
From the moment I walked under the iconic green awning, I felt as if I were coming home. The interior, like the restaurant’s culinary style, is refreshingly understated with cream-colored walls and simple wood tables adorned with pillar candles. A chalkboard menu hangs near the kitchen. I sat down and perused the locally inclined wine and cocktail list to the soundtrack of Alice Coltrane. Ultimately, I decided on a filthy martini made with New York-distilled vodka. Then came the food: vibrant beet hummus, wintery kale and quinoa salads, fragrant chickpea stew, hearty coconut curry, and sides of tahini-drizzled vegetables. For the first time, those global comfort classics that I had made for myself so many times were prepared for me. They were familiar, but different — a bit uncanny, really. The vegetables were cut smaller, the ratio of chickpeas in the stew was higher, and the salad dressing leaned sweeter, but everything was exactly what it needed to be: good, simple, nourishing food made with care. It was the Moosewood that I was raised on.
Fifty years in, a lot has changed in the world of vegetarian food. The concept of not eating meat has shifted from a fringe countercultural act to a mainstream phenomenon. The term “plant-based” dots fast-food menus, pints of ice cream, and beauty products. Where does this leave Moosewood and its cohort of hippie, more nutritional yeast than Impossible Burger-leaning vegetarian spots? Wilcox has ideas. Moosewood plans to introduce a line of packaged grocery goods and perhaps open a second restaurant in another more cosmopolitan-leaning location. Her ideal destinations are Tokyo or New York City.
There is also a new generation of chefs who are bringing the Moosewood lineage forward, with a focus on food that comes from a farm not too far away, that’s accessible to all. In New York City, you can see the change at Dimes and Superiority Burger, in LA at Elf, and in Austin at Bouldin Creek Cafe. Burger patties are housemade, there aren’t tomatoes in the dead of winter, and nothing is grown in a lab. The food is real, simple, and humble. It will taste a little better than anything off an assembly line. Moosewood always understood that, and now I can confirm, it still does.
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Kyle Beechey is a New York–based writer. She’s either writing a screenplay, on a far-off adventure, or baking a cake.
Landon grew up in the prairies of Western Canada but is currently based in Brooklyn and the Hudson Valley. When not taking photos, he likes to be near water, stay hydrated, and admire flora.
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