Deborah Madison: Cycling Through Ages and Stages
Former head monk, monastery cook, and restaurant pioneer, the world-renowned cookbook author talks about what’s next.
By Stephanie Woodard
During the decade that monks at Colorado’s Crestone Zen Mountain prepared recipes from Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, they subjected their copy to drips, splashes, and food-smeared fingers. They made notations in the margins, mistakenly ripped pages, and tore the cover. The book was finally so encrusted with reminders of delicious meals shared over the years, Madison made the monastic community’s members an offer they were happy to accept: if they’d autograph the tattered volume, she’d trade it for a new copy of her classic.
The first copy was itself a gift from Madison, who occasionally travels from her home in Santa Fe to cook and sit at Crestone. “I know many people there,” she says, “including [Richard] Baker-roshi, who was my teacher at San Francisco Zen Center, where I began studying in the 1960s.”
Now entering her sixth decade, Madison is searching for a way to bring a practice of Buddhism back into a life that once revolved around it. “I learn cyclically,” she comments. Just what this turn of the spiral means is not yet clear though. “When you’re twenty, you can say to yourself, ‘Now I’ll do this for awhile,’” Madison explains. But when you’re older and your life is full of relationships and activities—including congenial ones, such as a spouse and creative projects—any change is complicated.
Madison’s Monastic Practice
Back when Madison was in her 20s and 30s, she delighted in the rigorous existence at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, a monastic branch of the San Francisco center. She served as inaugural chef of the community’s restaurant, Greens, and eventually did a stint as head monk, something she says is expected of those who’ve been ordained.
“Tassajara was intense,” Madison recalls. “Each year, we had two one-hundred-day practice periods, during which there was a lot of sitting. You didn’t leave; you were focused. When you became head monk, in addition to working on your own practice in a new way, you were available for people to speak to, and aware of what was happening throughout the community on a practice level.”
Going Back into the World
By the mid-80s, however, Madison wanted to be in the world. “I had curiosity and some anxiety about making a life outside the monastic community,” she says. “Other people my age had started careers after college, and I felt I had catching up to do.” Her food expertise helped her move outward. In addition to cooking at the American Academy in Rome and Alice Waters’ renowned San Francisco restaurant Chez Panisse, Madison gathered recipes from Greens into a cookbook of the same name. The book Greens put her, Greens Restaurant, and vegetarian cooking on the map. Eventually, she married and moved to Santa Fe, which has been a fruitful base for more cooking, writing, and traveling.
From Greens to Greenmarkets
Nine cookbooks, numerous contributions to other writers’ books, and countless magazine articles later, Madison hasn’t simply been in the world, she’s toiled on its behalf. She helped manage and develop Santa Fe’s now famous farmers’ market and, eight years ago, started the city’s Slow Food Convivium, one of many such groups worldwide that celebrate biodiversity by preparing and consuming local foods. She has twice attended Terra Madre, a Slow Food event in Italy that brings together traditional and indigenous people from around the world in order to help them preserve their heritage foods. And Broadway Books has just issued the paperback edition of Local Flavors, her 2002 book on greenmarkets in the United States and Canada.
After this whirlwind of activity, Madison feels an inward turning: “There are ages and stages, and things don’t fit like they used to. I may have had a pattern, but do I still want it?” She’s comfortable with uncertainty, though—willing to observe herself changing and learn from the transformations. “It’s like watching a stitch being sewn back on itself,” she says. “I’m picking up threads that have changed and returned in a different way. And that feels good, even though the process is not easy.”
And of Course…the Next Book
Madison’s current book project, What We Eat When We Eat Alone (forthcoming 2009), may provide her with clues to this new, introspective stage. Though some of the initial interviews by Madison and her husband and co-writer, the painter Patrick McFarlin, have been humorous (a woman whose solo meals were nothing but oatmeal, and men who scarfed down cheeseburgers), other conversations have plumbed serious issues, such as how we care for ourselves.
To concentrate on her writing, Madison often leaves her home office, with its Internet connection and e-mail interruptions, and takes a laptop into her adobe house’s 105-square-foot kitchen. It’s a bright, simple space with soft-brown walls, floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the garden, green-stained wood counters, and yellow-stained drawer fronts. Few pots or cooking tools are visible. “I like clear counters,” says Madison. “I’m a knife-and-cutting-board kind of cook, so I don’t have a lot of kitchen equipment around. I’d rather spend my money on folk-art pottery, which I display on open shelves.”
Her kitchen may be stripped down, but her garden is becoming ever larger and more complex. She had an herb garden and a small apple orchard, but last year she dug up the lawn and put in a dozen vegetable beds, some of which are about 14 feet long. “I’m exploring the possibility of growing more of what I eat,” she says.
Asked what anchors her, Madison says without hesitation, “Sitting. Zazen.” She pauses and adds, “And my garden. It’s literally grounding. When you grow your own food, it’s clear what’s for dinner.”
Stephanie Woodard, who writes on food, traditional agriculture, and human rights, also is a senior articles editor at Ladies’ Home Journal.