A Brief Personal History Of Hospitality
VEGAN, VEGETARIAN, OMNIVORE—EVERYONE’S WELCOME AT THIS TABLE
The way we eat is changing—that’s not news anymore. I remember when, as a budding vegetarian, I couldn’t eat out in Los Angeles—in Los Angeles!—except at a handful of hippie cafés. I became an upstart in the food scene by writing The Vegetarian Epicure while I was still a film student at UCLA. I think it was self-defense. Since that time I’ve cooked a lot, eaten constantly, entertained often, and written four more books. And now—good grief—I’m the O.G. [old guard].
Yes, I believe that what I put on the table is important. But there is one thing more important: Who is at the table?
Gathering my friends around the table has been one of the joys of my life, and I don’t invite people over just because they eat the same way I do. I’m willing to bet you don’t either. We invite folks because we love them, or want to know them better, or they tell the best jokes! Or maybe simply because we’re related.
Can we all sit down and have dinner together?
Over the last few years, I began to hear more and more laments from people who were afraid to entertain because this one would only eat that, and the other one wouldn’t eat this. The way we eat is changing, but we’re different, and we’re in very different places on that larger curve. We need to find a way with food, I thought, that allows us to relax and be flexible, and to just have a good time.
Well, here’s the thing: In our traditional food culture we have a default setting: meat in the middle, grains and vegetables on the side. Those familiar meals could be adapted, of course, but we’d immediately be taking something away, substituting—compromising. Of course, we could prepare two separate meals, but what a hassle! And let’s face it, then there would be an A meal and a B meal, and who wants to be on the B list?
We’re doing this backwards, I thought. Why not start with the food everyone eats?
Everyone eats the watermelon at the picnic. It’s not the vegan watermelon, it’s just the watermelon. Everyone eats the minestrone and the focaccia. Everyone eats the roasted potato wedges with mojo verde that I serve with cocktails, and my wild mushroom risotto.
It seemed so simple. Start with the foods everyone eats, create a dish or a meal that works, then add and elaborate . . . expand with eggs, cheese, fish or meat . . . make it flexible. Make one meal, but one that can be enjoyed in variations. It became my holy grail: to design meals at which we could sit down together, toast each other and eat happily in my peaceable kingdom. From that thought my new book, Vegan Vegetarian Omnivore, was born.
I made a savory chile verde with fat white beans, and added chicken to half of it. I made Lebanese-style stuffed peppers filled with aromatic rice and lentils, but added spiced lamb to half the stuffing. My easy fish soup became a dinner party favorite. It begins as a robust vegetable soup and the fish and shellfish are added at the last minute, so I can serve it in two versions.
And one spring weekend I made a delicate lemon-perfumed risotto with sautéed fresh fava beans. I offered shavings of Parmigiano, and passed a platter of sautéed shrimp to be added as a garnish for those who wanted it.
And all year round I made meals built around hearty, center-of-the-plate pilafs: farro with black rice or green lentils, surrounded by roasted vegetables—and a slice of roast chicken or a grilled sausage or slices of pork for the omnivores. In the summer, I served one of those satisfying pilafs with a smoky, seductive ratatouille made on the charcoal grill.
My Perfect Summer Supper
Farmers' Market Tomato Salad
Ratatouille from the Charcoal Grill
Farro with Lentils and Lavende
Peach and Basil Sorbet
Here is that ratatouille and pilaf pairing in a menu that feels like the essence of summer. Tomatoes appear twice in this meal, because it’s summer and I just can’t help myself. I start with the most beautiful heirloom tomatoes from the farm stand, sliced in a simple salad. Add cheese or pâté to this course if it’s a dinner party, or keep it simple. And after the ratatouille, finish with a perfect peach, or a perfect peach and basil sorbet, the kind of dessert that can only be enjoyed at this beautiful time of year.
And invite everyone you like, call them to the table without fear. We long for that social table, it is a place of sharing, of stories and jokes, old friendships and new ones, a place where we can become our best selves. Let’s not give it up just because we don’t all eat the same way!
Anna Thomas wrote the iconic cookbook The Vegetarian Epicure when she was still a film student at UCLA, followed by its two sequels and Love Soup. Her newest book isVegan Vegetarian Omnivore: Dinner for Everyone at the Table (W. W. Norton & Co., 2016).
Recipes and images from Vegan Vegetarian Omnivore by Anna Thomas. Copyright © 2016 by Anna Thomas. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.