Revisiting the `Vegetarian Epicure'

WHEN she first wrote "The Vegetarian Epicure" in 1972, vegetarian cooking in America was, generally speaking, bland. Not that there weren't plenty of terrific vegetable dishes (known then as "side" dishes) in all the best cookbooks, but somehow the term "vegetarian" had the ring of asceticism for most people.

Anna Thomas may well have changed the meaning of the word.

She wrote the first volume while in graduate school, and it paid her way through the film program at UCLA, including her first film, "The Haunting of M."

Without ever taking a moralistic point of view, or even a health-nut perspective, the young Ms. Thomas reveled in the delights of fruits and vegetables, cream and eggs, nuts and grains. She made them appealing to meat-eaters and vegetarians alike, because she genuinely preferred them.

"This wasn't a thing that I decided I would do - never eat meat again - I just found I wasn't eating much meat, she recalled in a telephone interview. "I was cooking for myself a lot because I didn't like meat."

"There really weren't any good vegetarian cookbooks then. So I was just making things up in 1968 and '69, and somebody said, `Gee, Anna, you're such a good cook, you should write a cookbook.' And when you are 19 or 20 you say, `Yeah, OK, I think I will,' and then you do."

A friend sent the manuscript to an agent, who sent it immediately. The agent sent it out to two or three publishers, and one of them snapped it up. Thomas jokes that she doesn't know what to tell people when they ask about the book business, since she "slid through in some miraculous way."

"The Vegetarian Epicure" had "legs," as they say in the movie business. Both it and its sequel, "The Vegetarian Epicure II," still sell extremely well. They have been reprinted many times and have been translated into Japanese, Spanish, British English (different measurements, different names of vegetables), German, and Dutch.

The ready success of her cookbooks strikes her as being in sharp contrast to her struggles in the film business. She and her husband, Greg Nava, made "El Norte," a touching drama about Guatemalan refugees who enter the United States illegally. Their second commercially released feature was "A Time of Destiny," another affecting drama about culture clash. Thomas and Nava now write screenplays to support their two young sons and their beautiful ranch in Ojai, Cali.

Meanwhile, Thomas has started on another cookbook, reflecting how her cooking style has evolved over the 20 years since the "Vegetarian Epicure."

"I go back and read that first book and think I must have been living in a butter-and-cream factory," she says. "I cook with a lot of enthusiasm and intuitive feeling and enjoyment. Over the years the fat content has gone way down, the fresh produce has become incredibly more varied. I cook with a lot more ethnic influences."

Thomas leads a busy life on her avocado ranch, so another change in cooking style has included creative ways to fix fresh meals quickly, with a minimum of fuss.

"I do a lot more very simple kinds of cooking. There are a lot of times when I want a fresh tasty dish at home and don't have a lot of time," she says. "I fix very simply prepared roasted vegetables with some kind of a grain pilaf - any vegetable you can steam, you can cut up, toss with olive oil and the appropriate herbs, toss in the oven, and forget."

The new cookbook will include a lot of simple foods that can be handled in a work-a-day schedule. It will also include much more elaborately prepared meals. The cookbook will also be built around menus. Thomas is something of a whiz at finding unusual combinations that many people would never think of, but which work together very well.

Asked for tips about holding down the food budget in these recessionary times, Thomas points out that it helps not to eat prepackaged food and to eat at home as often as possible.

"Anything that's grain-based in general is very inexpensive," she says. "Legumes in general are very cheap. Considering their nutritional value, they are practically free. And pay attention to the vegetables and fruits in season in your geographical area and get out of this idea that everything should be in season all the time, but go back to a time when the type of food we ate followed the seasons more; that, in general, is the best thing [you can do].

"You can make a great black bean chili and serve it with corn bread and a salad or fruit, [and] you have a wonderful, interesting sort of inexpensive meal - if you have plentiful chilies and tomatoes locally," she says.

The tone of Thomas's books, the tone of her voice, the tone of her new recipes says vegetarian cooking should be wonderful and delicious and fun.

"It is not any form of deprivation," she says.

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